Boeing 747: Marking 50 years of the 'Queen of the Skies'

The iconic jumbo jet took its first flight above the US on February 9, 1969

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It may be slowly fading from airport runways around the world, but the Boeing 747 will arguably forever be a legendary symbol of aviation.

The "Queen of the Skies" is being replaced by sleeker, more nimble aircraft, yet the original jumbo jet continues to evoke admiration and a sense of accomplishment from those involved in creating it.

February 9 marked 50 years to the day that the first Boeing 747 went airborne over the United States - the result of the work of 50,000 employees.

It was the largest civilian aircraft in the world and required the world's largest building (by volume) at the time, for its assembly plant in Everett, Washington.

Led by chief executive William Allen and head of the design team Joe Sutter, Boeing was seen as taking a risk on the mechanics and finances involved in getting the 747 off the ground.

With the Boeing 707, the US's first commercial jetliner, already in service and demand for air travel growing, an agreement was reached in 1966 with Pan American Airways to purchase a bigger model if it was to be built.

By September 1968, the first assembled 747 rolled out of the plant with its distinctive hump, and with a number of aviation firsts including its twin-aisle wide body design.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk across the tarmac after stepping off Air Force One as they arrive at London's Stansted Airport, Thursday, July 12, 2018. Walking directly behind them is Woody Johnson, center, United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk across the tarmac after stepping off Air Force One as they arrive at London's Stansted Airport on July 12, 2018. AP Photo

"It did not take long for the 747 to have a giant impact on air travel," says Boeing senior corporate historian Michael Lombardi.

"It was the must-have flagship for the world’s airlines and attracted passengers with its luxury and passenger appeal. But it was the super jet’s size, world-spanning range, capacity and economy that had the greatest impact, making it possible for all of humanity to fly, and with that the 747 will forever mark the point in history when any person on planet earth could fly anywhere on the globe."

It took fewer than two years from the 747's first test flight for one million passengers to have flown on the model after it entered service in January 1970.

And it wasn't just the passengers that were benefitting. Its final design was offered in three configurations - all passenger, all cargo and a convertible passenger/freighter model.

The cargo containers were loaded through the nose, while there was room for 3,400 pieces of baggage.

New versions of the aircraft continued to be created - the 747-200 model in 1971, the 747-300 in 1980 and the 747-400 in 1988.

In 1990, two 747-200Bs were modified to serve as Air Force One and replaced the VC-137s (707s) that served as the presidential aircraft for nearly 30 years.

The US Government still uses the 747 for Air Force One and it announced that it will continue the tradition by ordering the 747-8 to replace the two 747-200s in the current fleet. These are not expected to come into service until 2024.

Trump confirmed the new planes will be painted "red, white and blue, which I think is appropriate”.

The special capabilities of his current ride include a longer travel range and aerial refuelling, while the customisation on board has given it offices and a conference and dining room.

It hasn't just been America's leadership utilising the 747, however.

Ramon Penas / The National
Ramon Penas / The National

The UAE Presidential Flight had delivered a 747-SP in December 1989, followed by a 747-400 in November 1999. The 747 was connected to the UAE well before then, after two were ordered by what Boeing's records show as "National Airlines" in February 1967, the first of which was delivered in September 1970.

The 747 went on to become the first wide-body plane to reach 1,500 deliveries when Lufthansa took delivery in June 2014.

But today, it is the 777 and Airbus A380 that rule the skies in these parts, together with the increasing number of 787 Dreamliners (Etihad has 29) - aircraft flying longer ranges with ever-improving fuel economy.

Emirates has 164 Boeing 777s in its fleet with a further 150 pending delivery as it moves towards the new 777X model which is due for delivery in 2020.

epa07355824 A fully stripped Boeing 747 of the airline Corendon is transported over the A9 highway, Badhoevedorp. the Netherlands, 09 February 2019. The jumbo jet is transported on a trailer from the airport to a hotel where it will become a hotel attraction.  EPA/LEX VAN LIESHOUT
A fully stripped Boeing 747 of the airline Corendon is transported over the A9 highway, Badhoevedorp. the Netherlands with it set to become a hotel attraction. EPA

The 747, meanwhile, is far from obsolete, although production is now mainly focused on the freighter version of the 747-8, and it has been overtaken in the rankings for deliveries by the 777.

While Boeing didn't respond to a request on how many 747s are currently in service, figures from the Capa Centre for Avation last year showed 505 active, of which 212 were passenger jets, and it still flies passengers for Lufthansa, Korean Air and Air China.

As Lombardi at Boeing sums up: "Over the last 50 years, the 747 has become legendary, and today it is a bridge to a romantic era of flight, an era that we should continue to aspire to resurrect.

"But more than that the 747 is a reminder of the power of the human spirit and what we can accomplish with our hearts, minds and hard work..."