Today is an important milestone date for aviation enthusiasts everywhere. The world’s first jumbo jet, the Boeing 747, entered commercial service exactly 45 years ago today, when a Pan Am 747 took off from New York’s JFK Airport to London Heathrow at 1:52 A.M. EST on January 22, 1970. Now, many of you may be thinking I’m crazy, and that I’m in fact a day late with my birthday wishes to the Queen of the Skies, since many history books say that the airliner’s first flight was on January 21. Technically speaking, though, while the flight was scheduled for the 21st, it didn’t actually take off until the wee hours of the 22nd due to a 6-hour mechanical delay. An inauspicious start for sure, but the plane survived that hiccup and became one of the most recognizable and admired symbols of the aviation industry.
As much as the 747 is regarded as an iconic symbol of the modern aviation age today, the 747 actually faced significant hurdles early on. Boeing agreed to an extraordinarily aggressive delivery schedule with Pan Am, giving itself just 28 months to design, build, and deliver the aircraft. That they actually more or less met that target, delivering the first plane in January, 1970 compared to the originally scheduled late 1969 delivery, is truly astounding when you consider that delivery delays on planes like the 787 and Airbus’ A350 are now measured in years, not months. The plane also encountered significant design and engineering issues along the way, particularly with regards to meeting FAA evacuation standards, overheating issues with its engines, and the fact that Boeing had to build a brand new factory that was large enough to even put the thing together. As a result, Boeing accumulated nearly $2 billion in debt by the end of the 747 project – an astonishing figure for 1970 that would equate to more than $12 billion today. To make matters worse, some pilots were initially reluctant to fly the huge bird, and critics insisted the mammoth plane would never get off the ground. If the 747 had failed, Boeing would have very likely gone bankrupt. Fortunately, the plane exceeded expectations; although the original financial models assumed that the plane would become obsolete after 400 deliveries, Boeing has delivered a total of 1,501 of the jumbo jets to date, with another 36 on order. Instead of the predicted flop, the 747 became one of the most successful commercial airlines of all time, going on to serve as Air Force One and even as a transport for the space shuttle.
Due to the age of most planes flying today, though, the 747 today is no longer known for its groundbreaking cabin layouts and interiors. When it was introduced, the 747, with its twin aisles and five section cabin, was designed to usher in a new level of comfort for long-haul passengers. But today, UPGRD is littered with reviews such as this one from James noting the 747’s substandard premium cabin layout if flying long-haul. And now, slowly but surely, the 747 is being retired from service altogether, which Delta having recently announced the parking of its fleet by 2017, per Mike’s earlier post. Unfortunately, time passes even the most forward-looking designs by at some point, and now, the 747 has been overshadowed by newer designs like Boeing’s own 787 Dreamliner or the new super jumbo, the Airbus A380.
So what does a post about an airplane have to do with me, or with the Road More Traveled? There actually is a connection to both. My first flight, in May, 1986, at the age of 9, was on a Northwest Orient B-747 from DFW to SFO (technically, my first flight occurred in the summer of 1979 on a trip to India, but I don’t count that since I was too young to remember anything about it). My best friend at the time was a big-time plane geek, and was insanely jealous that 1) I’d flown on a 747, and 2) I’d flown on Northwest Orient. Bragging rights are sweet when you’re 9, but more importantly, both the 747 and Northwest would carry a special place in my heart for providing my first real flight. Which brings me to the connection to road trips – my dad and I were flying to San Francisco to pick my oldest sister up from college so that he could help her drive back home to East Texas, an insanely long trip in the days of double nickel speed limits. Yes, even at the age of 9, I’d already developed a taste for crazy cross-country road trips. What I remember most about that trip was my dad almost running us out of gas on IH-10 somewhere near El Paso, because he refused to pay 85 cents a gallon for gas in New Mexico and insisted on making it back to Texas to save a nickel. That’s probably why I’m so paranoid about gas when I road trip…
Anyway, I’ll leave you with this shot of the Queen of the Skies in action, a BA 747 on final approach to LAX, from the courtyard at the Proud Bird Restaurant.