Pontifications: 49 years ago, the first 747 rolled out

By Scott Hamilton

Sept. 30, 2017, © Leeham Co.: Today is the 49th anniversary of the roll-out of the Boeing 747-100.

On Nov. 7, United Airlines operates its last 747 flight. Delta Air Lines ends it 747 service this year. Afterward, there won’t be a single US operator of the passenger model.

The 747 remains in service with US cargo carriers Atlas Air, Kalitta Air, UPS and a few others. Globally, British Airways, Lufthansa and Korean Air Lines are among those flying the passenger model.

Ted Reed, one of the writers of TheStreet.com, asked me earlier this month to give some thoughts about the 747. Below is what I gave him; he excerpted some for his column in Forbes. The focus was on US operators.

Original operators

United was one of the launch customers for the 747-100 and for the 747-400. A loyal Boeing customer (until Steve Wolf became CEO), UA flew every 7-Series airplane (in addition to the Douglas DC-8) Boeing designed. It often served on the design committee.

Boeing 747-100 prototype, now on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle at Boeing Field. Click to enlarge for a crisp view. Photo and additions by Scott Hamilton.


Delta was an original customer for the 747, but only as an interim airplane until the preferred Lockheed L-1011 could be delivered. The 747 was ill-suited for Delta’s route system in the 1970s, but widebody airplanes were the rage then. The L-1011 was far better for the route system.

The 747-400s Delta operated in recent years were inherited from its acquisition of Northwest Airlines. Northwest, like United, was a launch customer for the 747-100 and it was the first operator of the 747-400. With its route system to the Orient (remember, NW was then known as Northwest Orient Airlines), the 747 was a valuable addition to the airline.


Not to be left behind, American also ordered the 747-100 to compete against United and TWA on trans-con routes. During the late 1970s, American became financially challenged in the Jimmy Carter era with the Arab oil embargo. The 747s were sold off, with one going to NASA to serve as the Space Shuttle airplane. American 747s also appeared in the mediocre movie Airport 1975 and the even worse Airport 1977.

After disposing of the 747-100s, American later won a route between Dallas and Tokyo. No airplane at that point, other than the 747SP, could do the trip non-stop. American acquired two and used them until the McDonnell Douglas MD-11s were delivered.

Later, when the US opened up competition to US airlines for routes from six US cities to several in Japan, American contracted with Canadian Pacific Airlines to purchase two of their undelivered 747-400s for use on Chicago-Tokyo if awarded the route. United won and American canceled the purchase.


The Boeing 747 is, was and always will be an iconic aircraft. It ushered in the widebody era, it became prestigious to operate it, it was prestigious to fly in it and state-owned airlines that often had no business buying it did so anyway for the prestige. No other airplane—not even the Airbus A380—carries this legacy.

But this monopoly was short-lived. The 747-100 entered service in January 1970. Two years later, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, a smaller, more economical airplane, entered service. It was followed shortly by the Lockheed L-1011. Then twin-engine, long-haul airplanes were designed and entered service in the 1980s. Once the Boeing 777 and later the Airbus A330 entered service, the 747 began its long decline.

Boeing 787s and Airbus A350s followed and this was the death knell. It took a long time to die. Hail and farewell to a long time, good and old friend.

Pan Am

Ted didn’t ask me to comment on Pan Am, but of course, no article on the 747’s launch can be complete without Pan Am.

Juan Trippe, the CEO of the storied airline at the time, persuaded Boeing’s CEO Bill Allen to build the 747. Pan Am ordered 25, a massive order for the time and one which in retrospect started the long decline of Pan Am due to the financial strain. (There were many other reasons for Pan Am’s eventual collapse; the 747 was hardly the cause.)

Trippe retired from Pan Am a few years later, with many suspecting he got out while the getting was good because he saw what the over commitment of the 747 would do.

Pan Am’s inaugural flight from New York to London on Jan. 21, 1970, got off to an inauspicious start. The giant engines, the largest ever built, were temperamental. They overheated on the taxiway. The plane turned around and another 747 was brought out for the flight.

As Pan Am’s fortunes declined, it was indeed saddled with too many 747s, all of which were aging and becoming inefficient.

The passing of the 747 era is a sad but inevitable event, just as the beautiful Lockheed Constellation and the high efficient Douglas DC-6 era had to pass, too.

But this is the price of progress, invention and innovation.

44 Comments on “Pontifications: 49 years ago, the first 747 rolled out

  1. You say Pan Am’s inaugural flight from New York to London on Jan. 21, 1970, ‘got off to an inauspicious start…’. Its earlier proving flight also was troubled, according to the writer of an “Airliner World” account earlier this year:
    ‘The Pratt & Whitney JT9D high-bypass engines to power Britain’s first Boeing 747 demonstration flight in January 1970 were started in the sequence: “Three, four, two, and…” Alas, Number One declined to ignite, owing to a lack of fuel pressure at light-up rotation speed; several further attempts produced “only a hot starter motor”, reported a passenger.
    ‘Problems were eventually sorted, the Pan American World Airways [Pan Am] aircraft – Clipper Constitution – taking off almost two hours later, but planned visits to five European airports following its proving-flight arrival from New York to London earlier that day were cancelled (less than two weeks before first commercial services were scheduled). Next day, the 747-121 headed back to the USA.
    ‘Unfortunately, it was not the carrier’s first experience in this department. An engine change had delayed the 747’s departure to London and its JT9Ds did not yet embody modifications already being introduced on the new engine’s pylon mounting. Such is the challenge for all new-aircraft launch customers, especially when both the airframe and the engine are novel designs: Pan Am found itself “faced with more 747 maintenance problems sooner, and to a larger degree, than most other carriers”, according to a contemporary report.’

  2. As a kid I flew on the first 747 (CP) to fly to Havana (in the late 1970’s). I still remember everyone at the Havana airport gawking at the massive plane.

    • And its still massive.

      In hind sight, only as time goes on you realize what a massive achievement it was.

        • Technically you correct with C5 flying a couple of months before the 747-100.

          It is a big plane but is contribution to aviation restricted to the US Air Force, the 747’s contribution massive to the flying community.

          The AN124’s contribution for carrying bulk materials world wide should not be underestimated, like Puerto Rico at the moment.

          I am only aware of the AN225 which is in a class of its own.

          • Come come: the A380 doesn’t share its status with many other airplanes…
            When it turned up at Le Bourget in 2005 and was parked alongside a short-top, one-and-one-half-decker 747 it did really look as if someone couldn’t hack it. As Boeing has always acknowledged, the world’s not (yet) big enough for two double-deckers – although its a moot point how things might have gone without a global financial crisis a year or two after eis.

          • I have to disagree and full on with Scott.

            The 747 was a hail mary and has evolved dramatically over the years (including a much better fuel system than the nightmare one the original 100 had!)

            It truly is iconic, Queen of the skies and a lovely aircraft.

            The A380 had no question would fly, engines would work, hydraulic would operate.

            Its very utilitarian, its not got the cachet or the looks of the 747.

            Kind of like a US Mini Van. If you have a load of kids to haul, it does that great. You just don’t want to be seen in one.

  3. This aircraft served many well, a short story on a particular flight.

    Flying on an aging 747-300 (SUD). Due to weather pilot announced that he wants to climb beyond the aircraft’s air frames certified limit, “passengers must indicate to cabin crew if they hear hissing sounds for those sitting at doors and windows or other feel any uncomfort”.

    I am still here.

  4. I saw my first DL one at night, pulled up to DL’s old 1940 era hanger at ATL. It totally dwarfed the Skylarks DC-7 parked right behind it.

    My first flight on one was on the IAD-ATL portion of the old DL/PA interchange. The aircraft was nearly full for the short flight and one got the idea that it was quite to novelty to be on board, and, indeed it was. With such a light fuel load we lept off of the ground at take-off!

    Many subsequent flights with DL and NW. My last 747 flight was onboard LY from TLV to JFK. The 747 never ceased to amaze me. Whether a short flight or a long-haul the experience was always fun.

  5. I flew on British airways from DFW to LHR round trip this summer and i still preferred it to the twins 787,A330,A350 and the 777.

  6. Amazingly impressive aircraft, especially when we consider/remember it was designed by engineers using their tool of the times, the lowly slide rules…

  7. Speaking of the South African Airways 747SP:

    While a teenager and working at a travel agency I flew from Athens, Greece to Johannesburg in 1st class. Because it was 1981 and Aparthied had yet to end (it would take another ten years until 1991 for that insanity to end), SAA flights were banned from overflying the entire continent of Africa except Namibia, which was then known as Southwest Africa.

    With a stop in Lisbon, Portugal the flight took 18.5 hours. There were just three of us in 1st class: myself, a friend from Australia whose family was stationed in South Africa at the time, and a businessman who commutted between Athens and Johannesburg that knew the crew well, and was treated like a VIP.

    This VIP, whom neither of us knew before boarding that flight, decided to throw a party to make time fly for those 18.5 hours …and we were the lucky ones who just happened to be onboard that day!!!

    Nonstop booze…more (very good, old school) 1st class food than anyone could possibly eat…followed by breakfast made to order the next morning before landing.

    Best. Flight. Ever.

    The first flight on that incredible trip was to London, also in 1st class, also on a 747, but on British Airways while it was still state-owned, so the service was not nearly as spectacular or memorable as the SAA flight, or the two Swissair flights for the return legs to JFK (one of which was also on a 747).

    But…what the BA flight lacked in terms of service in the bad old days with mediocre food (that Willie Walsh and Alex Cruz are doing their very best to bring back much to Lady Thatcher, Lord King, & Sir Colin Marshall’s horror, and whom are likely spinning in their graves) when most people said BA stood for “Bloody Awful” (which now has resonance again at BA), and despite that -100 already showing signs of becoming threadbare, several hours after taking off and long after finishing the so-so dinner, I had a chance to visit the flight deck — at sunrise.

    Talk about wow…seeing the sun rise over the Atlantic from the flight deck of a 747!!!

    Sure, the cabin of the plane was worn and tattered…and the food, as noted, pretty bad since it was still before BA became known for the legendary service it had until Alex Cruz began his “Vuelification” of the airline in recent years…but that, too, for other reasons, is yet another, incredible memory aboard the one and only “Queen of the Skies”.

    I was fortunate to fly the 747 in ALL classes of service. Short flights (Northwest’s ORD-JFK was a favorite while at Northwestern University for trips home), transcons (American’s flights JFK-LAX were awesome, especially in seat 1A), for trans-Atlantic flights and of course, the incredible one to South Africa from Athens.

    I did not have the pleasure of flying the Concorde. But I worked hard at the travel agency (and in later years in other industry related occupations) and was blessed with the opportunity to travel far and wide.

    No other plane is as memorable as the 747.


    Every time I’m stuck in a 30” pitch row of a hated 737 I close my eyes and remind myself that once upon a time flying used to be great — even in those many, many times when I was in the back sections of an L1011 or a DC10 and NOT in the nose of a 74…

  8. I got to fly in the 747 about 4 times as I recall.

    An SP fro0m Anchorage to Taiwan (Chang Kai Check (sp) International where I got to visit (illegally) the Taiwan Straights fighter museum, 50 miles from Taipei to keep those unruly foreigners away form the capacital)

    Hawaii and back .

    Narita to Seattle, business class, mostly to myself, 3 seats to sprawl across and sleep, real change from the SP chock full and in cattle class.

    Lets not forget it serves on in Cargo with Quatar, Singapore, Cathay Pacific etc. which are some big ones.

  9. Er, Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, I do believe… And it rather sounds as if Howard has not sampled the A380 (or even, perhaps, the A320)?

    • >90% I wear an Airbus cap, but there is nothing more boring than an A380. AB generally builds “boring” aircraft, the 332 and 319’s slight steps upwards.

      Only flew on 359’s three times, its growing on me fast, maybe because you know its capabilities.

  10. And I remember the day when a spare engine was carried on through Anchorage to a AOG out in Asia someplace.

    • @TransWorld:
      “I remember the day when a spare engine was carried on through Anchorage to a AOG out in Asia someplace.”
      U were so lucky and I hv never seen that in person. I hv only seen old photos showing that 747 config with 5 engines(1 of them non-op and just free-spinning of course).

      Until the 1st 74F and its nose door came along in 1972, there was no commercial freighter with a main deck cargo door+hold that could fit a JT9D/CF6/RB211. Such a brilliant idea(inspiration no doubt came fm military types) by Boeing to design a built-in structural attachment points @ the inboard port-side wing capable to attach & ferry a spare engine to anywhere across the oceans…..no doubt a real necessity during those early days of JT9D unreliability.

  11. I made my very first flight in 1968 in a good old Trident and landing at LHR I was thrilled to see a 747 there, having read all about it in my engineering magazines.

    This year, as I sat in a BA 747 flying from PHX to LHR I looked around and thought to myself that nothing has changed in flying from that time to this. At least if you are sitting in coach, nothing has changed.

    If you had told me almost 50 years ago that nothing would change in aviation for the next 50 years, I would have thought you were mad. 50 years before that was just the end of WW1, and the aircraft then were light years different from those in 1968. I find that very sad.

    • @Robert Wilkinson:
      “If you had told me almost 50 years ago that nothing would change in aviation for the next 50 years, I would have thought you were mad. 50 years before that …and the aircraft then were light years different from those in 1968. I find that very sad.”
      IMHO, not a completely fair assessment. While visually not much change in the Y cabin @ a glance, heaps of changes occurred under the skin.

      I recall a chief/senior 747 program engineer(probably J.Sutter himself but I can’t remember exactly) once casually commented about tech progression fm 707 to 747-100. He said that aside fm those revolutionary high by-pass turbofans e.g. JT9D, the 747 airframe design/construction method was basically just a 707 on steroid…..not a huge leap in tech complexity as many folks believe. I think his comment is largely valid because fm program launch to EIS by PanAm in Jan 1970, it took Boeing less than 4yrs to develop+cert the jumbo.

      In terms of software+computing power, the total available for all avionics/nav systems onboard a 1970 747 was probably less than a typical AVOD+interactive IFE system unit installed @ just 1 typical longhaul Y seat today. By the same token, I strongly suspect 1 single 350/787 likely generates more total computing power(i.e. for the cockpit, engines, control surfaces, real time data link, cabin environmental system, etc. all the way down to the cafe latte machine in the galley) than the entire Apollo moon program ever managed to muster. Those advances do impact our lives. e.g. I don’t think a Y pax crossing the Pacific on a 747 in 1970 could ever imagined that 50yrs later, his modern counterpart on a 787/350 would no longer need to book a new/unknown hotel on the other side before boarding but can actually not only to search for+book a new hotel while @ cruise altitude but also to hv thorough knowledge of that new/unknown hotel before touch down.

      And we hv not even started on purely tech progress topics such as widespread application of exotic materials like advanced alloys, CFRP and ceramic matrix in development or already in use for commercial flights….back in 1970, titanium was already the best material an engineer can imagine.

      So the changes in commercial aviation in the last 50yrs were just as dramatic as the 1st 50yrs. It’s just that they are not as visually obvious as before to a common pax…..or more likely, folks just take these advances for granted.

      • You are certainly right about the changes in computing. There is at least one change in aircraft. They have deleted the window in the cockpit where they used to look at the stars 😉

        • as the son of a Pan Am maintenance sup. I can tell ya about the 707. Every single one had an Astrolabe attached in a bolt down mount in the top of the cockpit by that little nav window. The 747 introduced INS(the same system that took Apollo to the Moon.) I was lucky enough as a kid to run around JFK and play around on all the 707s at Hangar 17(when they were getting retired) and Hangar 19 where the 747 Heavy checks where done.. Miss those days!

    • Sighting a 747 at LHR in 1968 was truly prescient, but I still marvel that although the design first flew (in February 1969) just three weeks before Concorde did it nevertheless entered service exactly six years before the great white bird’s first Heathrow service on January 21, 1976.

      • Thanks for the correction !! It must have been one or two years later. I know I skied in Aviemore for two years (skated on ice) before my first trip to Austria, so maybe it was even 1970.

  12. “Germany’s Lufthansa plans to operate Boeing 747-400s between Frankfurt and Berlin Tegel, citing high demand on the domestic route.” (from ATW). This will last 2 weeks , I read from another internet site , but is interesting . Is there a need for a VLA on short domestic routes. I guess that on rush hours it might make a sense .

    • Not quite a domestic VLA, but I remember an early-morning hop of 45 minutes(?) or so from DXB to Oman on an EK A330 during which a hot breakfast was served! No doubt that can easily be topped by other readers…

      • There is a potential use if the aircraft is getting sunburn on the tarmac between flights.

        Been on a number of those, with full service <90min tight on an A330. With 340-600/747 size aircraft <2 hours flights a bit of a scramble sometimes.

        Boarding delays often an issue. Used as special flights with 50% price cut for example, off peak, can be popular for non-business travellers.

        • Yes, ’twas certainly lightly loaded and I always assumed it was a utilisation consideration.

  13. The reference to Swissair (original) is incorrect. There was only one Swissair. The new national airline of Switzerland is Swiss International Airlines or SWISS and carries the IATA code LX rather than SR.

  14. Have been on many 747 flights with many airlines. Always preferred the 747 to the 707’s and DC8’s. Between 1983 and 2002 I “collected” a total of approximately 4.8 Mill. FF miles. It was mainly on CP, AC, KLM and LH on the European, Orient and South pacific routes. Whenever possible it was FC. During those times Airlines pampered you with limo pick ups and Helicopter flights to downton (YYZ and NYK). There was no serious security checks back then and nothing serious happened.
    One time, sitting in the Maple leaf lounge at LHR waiting for my flight, I had a visitor in the lounge. It was the Capt. on the AC flight to YYZ. It was operated by a 747. He said he saw my name on the Pax List and would like to invite me to a special treat by experiencing take off from LHR in the cockpit. Told him thank you but I had many visits to the flight deck before. He insisted, so I agreed. Wow was that ever a lucky day. Our flight was # 3 for take off and BA Speedbird- Concord
    was # 1 for take off. Apparently Concorde always became # 1 for take off at LHR once it left the gate. (Noise abetment rules)
    What an experience watching it taxi by us and position itself for take off. What a fire power out of the back with pilots on the brakes. Everything was shaking, firing out the exhaust and then release…I still hear it today. Captain was right. It was the thrill of a lifetime o see and feel it from the cockpit of a 747.
    3 weeks later I booked that same Concord flight by using points for an UG from 1st on BA.

  15. Coinspy – “Apparently Concorde always became # 1 for take off at LHR once it left the gate. (Noise abetment rules).” I’m not clear about noise abatement issues, unless the effective departure time was approaching a curfew (suggesting marginal scheduling*)…
    Perhaps it was to reduce fuel burn waiting in line? Or part of the great white bird’s PR: no point in getting there more quickly if you can’t pull rank on the taxiway – those pax didn’t pay to stand in line. Just a thought…
    *Scheduling was never a primary concern, since I suspect that NY flights from London were not timed to arrive at the end of the JFK night curfew. Any claims about arriving in Manhattan at the start of business need(ed) additional sodium chloride, I fear.

    • As a kid I caught a bus ride to “Jan Smuts”, Johannesburg international airport (~60Km) to watch the Concorde 001 during its hot and high trials. Open spectator area, it was bloody noisy but brilliant for an 10 year old to take in. (Can recall, lunch was a meat pie and a glass of milk).

      With a few smoking 727-100’s and the occasional 707 and DC8 taking off the air was just filled with the smell of paraffin.

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