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The last 747: One of the biggest passenger planes in history returns home

The long glide to retirement launches a wave of nostalgia for the “Queen of the Skies.”

Boeing 747 air intake

A stewardess stands in the cowling of a 747 engine. (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

It happened this winter. A Boeing 747 touched down in the rain at Paine Field in Everett. It’s a common sight around Seattle, so why was this landing memorialized by a knot of paparazzi, Boeing big-wigs and dozens of fans of the plane, including the folks who built this Delta jumbo jet?

“Let’s go kiss her goodbye and take a picture,” one of those Boeing bosses suggested over the PA, and workers rushed out to the huge plane to sign its shiny skin before the old girl flew to an airplane boneyard in the desert.

Boeing workers sign the underside of the last Delta Airlines passenger 747.

Boeing workers sign the underside of the last Delta Airlines passenger 747.

It was the last passenger 747 flown by a U.S. carrier. The plane, once called the “Queen of the Skies,” is becoming a white elephant as airlines opt for more fuel-efficient two-engine models and jets with fewer seats, like the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787.

The long, slow glide path into retirement has launched a wave of nostalgia for this iconic jumbo jet, the one with the unmistakable hump that, by the sheer number of seats on board, made foreign travel affordable for regular people. And there was something particularly poignant about this stop on the Delta Airlines farewell tour: this is where the 747 was born.

The 747 has a history as a workhorse of commercial aviation, but what many people don’t realize is how big a bet Boeing made on this jet — a bet that almost went bust a half century ago.

The Greatest Generation in their prime

The story is best told by the aviation pioneers who lived through the high-pressure months in the mid-1960s when Pan Am asked Boeing to build the biggest passenger plane in history. Many of those pioneers still live right here in Boeingland. At Seattle’s Museum of Flight, where the first 747 rests, two pilots, an early flight attendant and Boeing’s corporate historian told me about the beginning of what is arguably the most recognizable plane in the sky.

“There was a great deal at stake,” said 93-year-old Brien Wygle, one of two test pilots during the 747’s first flight in 1969. “Boeing had basically bet the company on this project. If it failed they would face bankruptcy.”

Wygle was one of some 50,000 Boeing workers nicknamed “The Incredibles” who designed, engineered, constructed, tested and delivered the 747 in a mere 16 months. “This was the Greatest Generation in their prime,” said Boeing historian Mike Lombardi. “Twenty-year-olds who fought in World War II, and now they are in their 40s, creating a plane like no other.”

The Incredibles started by constructing the massive assembly plant in Everett, the world’s largest building by volume. In September 1968, Boeing rolled out the first 747 for the world's press and about two dozen airlines that were all in the market for a jumbo jet. The initial response was positive, but then a shocking rumor gained traction.

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Boeing rolls out the first 747 in September, 1968. Photo courtesy of Boeing.

Boeing rolls out the first 747 in September, 1968. Photo courtesy of Boeing.

“There were people who believed an airplane that big couldn’t fly, just physically,” Lombardi said. “The wife of Joe Sutter, father of the 747, was in the grocery store and someone told her, ‘your husband is working on a plane that won’t fly.’”

Brien Wygle always believed the jumbo jet could fly. And on February 9, 1969, he was one of two test pilots at the controls who proved it. On that flight, the plane handled well and the Incredibles cheered and shed a few tears as the pilots got out of the cockpit and headed down the stairs.

“I think it was a huge relief to everybody, including our CEO and the executive, that we had accomplished our first flight with no major difficulties,” Wygle said.

The 747’s first landing. Photo courtesy of Boeing.
The 747’s first landing. Photo courtesy of Boeing.

A bumpy start

Those difficulties came soon enough. The biggest problem was that the engines sometimes surged. “The temperatures would rise — dangerously so,” Wygle said. “You had to shut the engine down.”

“I can remember one of the vice presidents screaming ‘Do something! Redesign these engines!” said Pat DeRoberts, a flight engineer who helped design part of the cockpit. He was a member of the three-man crew that was ordered to fly the second prototype 747 across an ocean for the first time, to the Paris Air Show. The plane had only 10 flight hours on it. The range of the 747 was untested. Most worrisome: the engine defect hadn’t yet been solved. But Boeing was so overextended financially it needed to sell some planes fast. 

Flight engineer Pat DeRoberts at the 747 controls. Photo courtesy of Pat DeRoberts.
Flight engineer Pat DeRoberts at the 747 controls. Photo courtesy of Pat DeRoberts.

“As soon as we took off for Paris, all four engines went into overheat,” said DeRoberts. Rather than turning back, the crew decided they would get some speed going and hopefully that would cool the engines down.

“One by one the overheat lights went out,” DeRoberts said with a big smile. “And phew! We are on our way!”

The gargantuan plane was a hit at the Paris Air Show and orders followed. Then engineers worked frantically to get to the bottom of the surge problem.

“During the flight test program...we had 55 engine changes,” says DeRoberts. “I’m talking about engine failures. Remove and replace.”

Long story short, Boeing solved the engine surge defect in time for Pan Am’s first scheduled flight of the plane with paying passengers in January 1970. The plane was an instant sensation, in part because of its distinctive hump and the spiral staircase that led to the bar that Pan Am put inside that hump. Before long, lots of airlines had to have their own 747s with that bar behind the cockpit, kicking off the glory days of drinking at 30,000 feet.

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The upper-level bar in full mod motif on United Airlines 747. Photo courtesy of United Airlines.

The upper-level bar in full mod motif on United Airlines 747. Photo courtesy of United Airlines.

“Actually there were three lounges on the airplane,” Cheryl Grimm said, looking around the mod “Mad Men” bar inside the hump of the prototype 747 at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. “There was this one, which was for first class, and there were two in coach: one at the front of coach and one at the back of coach.”

Grimm was a stewardess — yes, that’s what they were called — flying to Hawaii on the first 747s purchased by United Airlines. She describes a scene unrecognizable in these days of no food, no bar, no free luggage, no free drinks, and no leg room: In the early 1970s, free-range passengers roamed to the various lounges drinking tropical cocktails while live ukulele players in native dress serenaded them.

“It was a huge, new airplane and everybody was excited to be either a passenger or a crew member,” she said, adding that it wasn’t a free-for-all. “It was the era of wearing hats and gloves, so people acted that way.”

A new lease on life

Those days are over. But there’s no need to bring out the hankies just yet. The endangered jumbo just got an unexpected second lease on life.

In February, United Parcel Service ordered 14 freighter iterations of the plane. That will keep Boeing’s 747 line humming along awhile. And there is a glimmer of hope from President Trump that, despite his earlier complaints that Air Force One is too expensive, the federal government will most likely green-light the conversion of two existing 747s into the next generation of Air Force One.

A few overseas airlines like British Airways are still flying passenger routes with this venerable plane, too, but those days are numbered. With each passing month, more passenger 747s, including the Delta plane we began this story with, are rusting away in airplane graveyards in the desert.

“All things fall into obsolescence,” test pilot Wygle said without obvious emotion.

Grimm had a harder time hiding her feelings as she walks around the bar of the first 747. “It’s like saying goodbye to a good friend,” she said, lightly touching the surface of the tables and skirting past the groovy sofas. “Good old days,” she murmured, before descending the spiral staircase.

A Pan Am 747 flies into sunset. Photo courtesy of Boeing.
A Pan Am 747 flies into sunset. Photo courtesy of Boeing.

For people came of age along with this plane, the 747 will never be a white elephant. They prefer to remember the days when the jumbo jet stopped traffic — a time when we were ferried around the world like royalty-on board the Queen of the Skies.

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The last 747: One of the biggest passenger planes in history returns home