Podcast: The Incredible, Iconic Boeing 747

Aviation Week editors talk about being at the delivery ceremony of the last Boeing 747 and why it is such an important aircraft.

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Rush Transcript

Karen Walker:

Hello, everyone. And thank you for joining us for Window Seat, our Aviation Week air transport podcast. I'm Air Transport World and Aviation Week Network Air Transport Editor-in-Chief, Karen Walker. Welcome on board.

Well, it's been a milestone in aviation history this week, as the last Boeing 747 to be built was handed over to cargo operator Atlas Air. The ceremony, at Boeing's Everett production facility in Seattle, marked the end of a 56-year long production program for the veritable 747, affectionately known as the Jumbo Jet or the Queen of the Skies.

Since entering service with Pan American in January, 1970, the global 747 fleet has logged more than 118 million flight hours, and nearly 23 million flight cycles. The Atlas freighter was 747 number 1,574 to be produced. 747 is an aircraft that had transformed long-haul international travel, making it more affordable, more comfortable, and more safe than ever before.

So while there will still be 747s in the skies and at airports for years to come, this week's final handover marks a poignant moment. And I'm sure those at the ceremony appreciated the significance of the event. Which is why I'm so happy to be talking today to two of my colleagues who are, as we speak, in Seattle, and who were at the ceremony. I know they had a great time there. So welcome, great to see you, Aviation Week Technology Editor, Guy Norris, and ATW Senior Correspondent, Chris Sloan. Hi, guys.

So, Guy, let's start with you. Just give us a feel, would you, for what it was like to be there, who was there, and some of the key things they were saying.

Guy Norris:

Karen, you got the introduction dead on actually. I mean, it was... The thing about the ceremony, to me, was that Boeing actually was sympathetic to that, to the legend itself. They really gave it a fitting send off. There was generations there of people that have worked on the aircraft, there was executives who had gone all the way back to those who'd been mentored by Joe Sutter, the sort of father of the program, and there was relatives of Joe Sutter, his grandchildren were there. They were even in the same hotel that I was staying in.

So there was this vast assembly of people who had personal connections with the 747. Airline executives were there, of course John Dietrich, the President of Atlas was there. But there was others like Carsten Spohr of Lufthansa, who turned out to be the greatest advocate of the 747 and a classic av geek. He even remembered the flight number of the Lufthansa flight he'd taken when he was an exchange student coming over to the US for the first time. So it was just every sort of aspect you can imagine.

But, for me, I think the moment was really when they made a few of the incredible stand up, the original employees. And when you looked around you, you realized you were in that building 40-21, the very first part of the giant Everett facility, which is still by volume internally the world's largest building. That building they'd started making in 1966, and those people were building the first part of the 747 inside it while the building itself was still being created.

So they managed somehow to get all of that together. They even had John Travolta who came in and, surprisingly, made a sort of guest appearance. So I think they did a very good job. And, Chris, you thought the moment that struck you was when all of the flags were bought in.

Chris Sloan:

Yeah. I mean, that was really a really unexpected, beautiful nod to the nearly 54 years history of all these customers. So there was 100 customers, a little over 100 customers, flags in the original logos. And this beautiful flag procession that looked like the United Nations. The flags were placed on stage. And then the ultimate moment is when you had Charles Trippe, the grandson of Pan Am's legendary founder, Juan Trippe, and then the chief 747 pilot from Atlas capturing that bookend moment, waving their flags, of the Pan Am flag and the Atlas flag, on stage together. And I think that was really a moving, beautiful scene, I have to say it. Some real unexpected surprises, and a real nod to history.

Karen Walker:

It sounds amazing. I'm sure you just were thrilled to be part of all of that. John Travolta, he was a 747 pilot, am I correct? I know he pilots, but I think he does have a license for the 747, am I right?

Guy Norris:

In his role as an ambassador for Qantas, Qantas had helped put him through flight training. And he's become type qualified on a lot of types, including of course the 707, which he actually personally owned one. But yeah, he was an outstanding advocate for the aircraft, and made some poignant comments too, as they all did.

I mean, I think, for me, Carsten Spohr was the one that really... the old made the hairs rise on the back of your neck kind of moment. Just because, like everybody who's flown or been involved in the 747, they've all got a story. A lot of people, their first ever flight was on a 747, they all remember it because it's such a distinctive shape, with the hump on the front. And it is the most recognizable aircraft ever made from commercial aviation. I think it's up there with the Concorde, for sure.

So nobody forgets the 747. And that's what came across, I think, Chris, in the ceremony everybody had a little anecdote.

Chris Sloan:

Yeah. I mean, for sure. I mean, Carsten's line I thought was great, when he said he came over as an exchange student, he says, "Back then I was sitting in the back of the bus, but I was in a combi so I didn't realize I was actually in the middle of the bus, because there was a bunch of freight in the back. But this time I flew in first class in style, because..." That great he said is, "We just can't help ourselves when it comes to ordering a sexy Boeing airplane." He definitely had the hot helmet though.

I mean, it was great seeing Phil Condit come back, and I thought he gave such a rousing speech in really describing the first moment he actually laid eyes on the aircraft at the factory. And he was like, "I remember we walked in and it looked so small. And we kept walking, and it seemed like an endless walk. And as we got closer we understood, oh my god, the massive-ness of this thing. And that's when it really sunk in." So it was really, really special.

Karen Walker:

It sounds wonderful. I know that Carsten at Lufthansa has always been passionate about... He's a big fan of Boeing. And, I mean, I know they buy both aircraft, but he's sort of always sentimental about Boeing aircraft, and especially the 747. He was really one of the key people that enabled, for the latest variant, the 747-8, to come about.

And, of course, it was a 747-8, the freighter version, that was handed over this week to Atlas. That was their fourth and final -8 going to Atlas. Chris, we tend to think of the 747, of course, for the passenger side, but let's just quickly talk about the freighter side. What made it such a special cargo plane?

Chris Sloan:

Well, I mean, I think, as a lot of folks pointed out actually during the ceremony the thing we all know, is that actually was originally developed in many ways as a cargo hauler. And so it was sort of retrofitted. And that really contributed to its longevity. And, as John Dietrich said, "We'll be able to fly this in the 2040s and the 2050s, because nothing else can do this mission."

So it tends to be overlooked, that I think they did over 300 new build freighters over the course of the aircraft, and the first being delivered to Lufthansa all the way back in, I think, around 1972. So it's been freight and cargo has been part of the mission from the very, very beginning. And I think the significance of it is you look at the 747, these 1,574 planes changed the world. And they created markets where markets didn't exist, tulips from Amsterdam could be in the next day in the US.

During the 747-400s, those halcyon years, it contributed to the economic miracle of Asia and Japan, and just in time manufacturing, and transporting parts, and electronics. So in many ways I think there's always the great stories, that they shipped two whales from Japan to the Atlanta Aquarium. But the idea of the contributions it did to international trade and globalization is, I believe, as big a legacy as its passenger capacity.

Karen Walker:

I think you're right. And, of course, with the last few years of the pandemic, the world has really understood the importance of air cargo. A critical part of getting vaccines around the world, but a critical part of keeping so many things supplied around the world. So it's sort of fitting, I think, that such an iconic plane, that the last one to be delivered actually is a freighter.

So let's just talk about the passenger side too. Because again, of course, it's an iconic aircraft in that respect. People, even if they've never flown, would often say, even if they didn't know much about aircraft, "If I can get to fly somewhere, I want to go on a Jumbo Jet." And, of course, they mean the 747. What difference did it make, both for airlines and on the passenger side?

Guy Norris:

Well, you're right, Karen, it was sort of a seminal moment really in the history of air transport when the 747 did emerge. And I often spoke to Joe Sutter in the early days, I first met him in the mid-'90s. And he was saying that in the '60s, when this was created, there was absolutely no clue of Boeing that everybody would... the airlines themselves, Pan Am particularly, would want to go to that huge leap, twice, more than double the size of anything that they were building, the 707 at the time, two and a half times.

So when they conducted this survey and the airlines came back and said, "Yeah, 350 to 400 to 500 seats," they were astonished. So they knew that they had to do something special from a passenger perspective. He would say that his wife would often get asked in the supermarkets, "Do you realize how big this thing is? Are you crazy? Will it even fly?" So he said that even when he would get home from work, his wife would be part of the design team. In terms of saying, "This has to be the safest aircraft ever. It's got to be the most comfortable aircraft ever." And all of these kind of factors were bought in.

So that's why Joe always said, "Safety was the number one thing." If you're going to have a successful passenger aircraft with that many people, it's the key thing. And, of course, it did work, brilliantly. And they had quadruple hydraulics systems, had split... Every flight control flying control system was split, so there was always a backup version available. And it was always you could get that airplane home, you could even bring it back on one engine if you were given enough odds to, when it all went horribly wrong.

So I think from a safety and systems perspective, it obviously rewrote the rule book. Also for simulation and training, because it was such a sophisticated, big airplane, they had to completely rewrite the rule book on how to do that. The birth of six axis flight simulators was driven by this airplane. And all sorts of technical innovations, like the navigation system. At the time the best INS system was being developed for the Apollo program and the Polaris missile... Or the US submarines anyway, nuclear subs. That was ported over and put into the 747, a first for any commercial aircraft.

So you could just... Where do you start? It really did change the world in that respect.

Karen Walker:

Yeah. And I think it was also, to be honest, I think it was the first airliner that was fun. As people go, "Oh, this one's got a staircase." And then obviously, yes, it's mass transit, the first really major mass transit plane, so lots of people getting on it. But for those that could go in a first or a business class thing and see a lounge and a bar... So people, even if they didn't have access to that, sort of liked the idea that they were flying on this plane with these additional things. What do you think, Chris?

Chris Sloan:

I mean, I totally agree. I mean, I think as we talk about the fact that anybody can recognize that beautiful silhouette in the sky. Is that if you Google the number of 747 music, there's like 300 songs where it's in the lyrics, and countless movies where it was the star, and the Pan Am experience. And so that glamour and that allure is just so very true.

But there are things that this aircraft did that, besides the weight and the size, as Guy, you talked about safety, is that I believe that the mass in the cabin actually created the feeling of safety and of reliability. And there were so many innovations from a passenger experience, the first overhead bins, everything was hat racks before then. Those practical needs, when they weren't backfiring and causing people to return to the gate, were exceedingly quiet.

The real estate of that airplane allowed the innovations like the first true business class, the first commercial airliner with in flight entertainment designed not to be retrofitted. TWA even had separate cabins with different movies, based on some were a little more adult than others. And the bars, that Karen you talked about, the lounges, the Continental Airlines [inaudible 00:13:06], I mean, there was all that. But so many innovations that we take for granted today really, really, began on this plane. And I think that is a huge legacy.

And as well it's truly the airplane that created ultra long-haul flying. And, I mean, opened up cities, states like Hong Kong to London and to Los Angeles, that didn't happen before. And New York to Tokyo. So airlines used this and deployed this in ways they never ever could have imagined. I guess, in conclusion about this, it's like it still boggles the mind that this took to the skies January 22nd 1970, only 12 years after the first 707 crossed and did the same thing. It's mind boggling.

Karen Walker:

And you made a good point there, about those non-stop long-haul flight. Because again, that made a huge difference in terms of people being able to visit far distant friends and relatives for the first time, because they could afford it. But also, particularly with the -400. I mean, the -400 was just incredible when it came along. Because that really opened up 14, 15 hour non-stops.

I mean, I remember having to fly, when I was based in the UK, in London, and to get to Asia, if you went to the Singapore Airshow you always had that stop in the Middle East somewhere. And then the -400 comes along and you've got this non-stop to Singapore, just very different. So that was a difference for the business side especially, then business travel transformed. So this really was your sort of first hub and spoke aircraft too.

Guy, you've mentioned Joe Sutter a few times. You said some of his family was there. I believe you met Joe, correct?

Guy Norris:

Yeah, you're right, I did. I mean, I think he was very interesting actually, because I met him in his later years obviously, he still had an office in Boeing. Because, to us outside, he was a sort of grandfatherly, cherubic figure with a twinkle in his eye, and always full of amazing stories. But if you talk to the Boeing folks who were mentored by him, and worshiped him really in terms of his ability to drive these programs, he could be quite a feisty character. And he certainly really didn't mess...

One of the veterans there was telling me how even in the '90s, when they were trying to develop the stretched version, of course it was the -500X, -600X. Never happened, but of course it parlayed into the -8 ultimately. He was sort of angrily going around the Boeing sales people, saying, "What's wrong with you guys? You're not selling this in Asia, that's where we need to be." And he was in his 80s then, I believe, or at least late 70s.

So he was this central character. It's no wonder they slapped the picture of him on the side of the Atlas Air as a tribute. If ever there was a single character throughout the theme of this program, it was Joe.

Karen Walker:

What you've seen this week is the last delivery. Like I say, we're still going to see them operating for a while. But what changed the path of the 747? Of course, the new wide bodies that are out there, of course, are twin engines not four, so that was a big thing. But, Chris, what are your thoughts about where this iconic plane started to... Even when they brought out the 747-8, at the end of the day that did not sell well. So what was the change there?

Chris Sloan:

Well, I mean, it's really interesting when you look back at the orders and deliveries in the years where it had its real... The pinnacle of its orders and deliveries really was right around 1990, so right before the 777 and the twins. And I think the four letters, ETOPS, pretty much says it all. And the plane really achieved its peak around 2000. And then, as you all discuss all the time, the idea of point to point, and fragmentation, and much more efficient platform, that really turned the tide away from these kind of VLA aircraft. And so I think that was just a huge sea change.

And even you look back at the early days, I mean, the aircraft was purchased, it was... It kind of taught the airlines a lesson, they bought almost too much capacity even back then. And so a lot of them were actually inadvertently taught lessons about having aircraft that were too updated for markets. And so the smaller twins, I think, they took precedent over time.

Karen Walker:


Guy Norris:

Well, I was just going to add to what Chris was saying. It's, to me, the driving force that changed everything was the high bypass turbofan, the engine which the original 747 was enabled by. If you look at the trajectory of that as an evolution of technology, it is literally that concept which has allowed the growth of the big twins, but it was born because of the 747. Kind of it's ironic really that its own demise is eventually being caused by that innovation. So, to me, I just trace that whole story through the development of these massive engines.

I remember once, and I'll refer to this again maybe later but very briefly. I was on a 747 delivery flight, Cathay Pacific Boeing from Seattle to Hong Kong. And I was sitting by the Cathay Chief Engineer, legendary Stewart John, who maybe listeners might know. And he was showing me Boeing's proposal, much to the dismay of the Boeing PR people aboard, he was showing me Boeing's plans for this new idea of stretching the brand-new then 777 to the -300 model. And he said, "This thing can be as big as a 747, and it's only got two engines. Isn't that amazing?"

And, to me, it was terrifying. I thought, "How could we have a 747 with only two engines effectively?" But, of course, that's the way it's gone. 777X is going to be the ultimate definition of that growth concept. And in this days od sustainability, that is what you need, just two engines. Nobody's going to look at four again. I mean, look what's happened to the 340 family and the 380. Fantastic niche fillers, but at the end of the day they've gone the same way as the 747 passengers. So it's evolution and it's technology.

And engines, I just love engines. Sorry, I had to say that.

Karen Walker:

We all know you're the engine person, Guy, on our team. Chris, any more thoughts on that?

Chris Sloan:

Well, with the engine... Guy, you just had me thinking. I was talking to Nico Buchholz the other day and asked him to defend the four engine strategy. And he said, "Well, I worked for Airbus, so I was selling A346's, and that's going to dog me forever." But he said, "The engines, because compared to the 380 that you have, that I believe the GEnx, you have that next generation engine that actually bought the seat mile cost of the smaller 748 to actually be less or equivalent to right there on par with the A380."

So he said, "That actually is what really sets the aircraft up for a long future, because of the efficiency of that engine, that the A380 benefited from a less efficient more dated propulsion than the 748. And so people deride it and say it's a four engine freighter, but because of that efficiency it actually is going to contribute to its much longer lifespan beyond the era of the A380."

Guy Norris:

Right. And that's the irony, isn't it? Because that engine was developed for the 787, for the twin which was developed in turn as a successor to the 76, of course they were in parallel. Which, of course, was enabled by an engine developed for the 747. So I love that kind of synchronicity.

Karen Walker:

You know, Window Seat Podcast is about the commercial air transport industry. I think we just have to quickly mention one non-commercial very, very famous non-commercial use of the 747. And I'm talking, of course, about Air Force One. It's actually two planes, it's officially Air Force One when it's carrying the President. And, of course, that plane is a 747.

Guy, just talk a little bit about Air Force One. Because again, that's something else, it's iconic.

Guy Norris:

Yeah, absolutely. And, of course, part of the illusion, or sort of the history of the 747, has got to be to do with the fact that the President of the United States, carried with his entire entourage, around the world. It's a flag bearer really, not just for the United States but obviously for Boeing.

So they're going from the current VC-25, which is based on the 747-200, to the 747-8. And that program's underway now. It's a massively complex program, much more so than it would look from the outside. It's thoroughly integrated with defensive systems, communications... It puts most BBJ, Business Jet versions, in the shade when it comes to the complexity of what's going on inside. There's even a surgery, emergency medical unit, everything you'd think of.

The only thing that's different, as far as I understand, with this current aircraft versus the original Air Force One is there is not going to be air to air refueling. Which kind of makes the significance of the 747-8 range capability much more important.

And that's the other reason, as you mentioned, Karen, at the beginning, why you're going to see a 747 in the sky for years to come. I think that the longevity of that aircraft, I mean, the ones that we're seeing now were built in the '70s, I think, delivered in the early '80s. So they're already knocking on. But I think you're going to say the same thing with the current generation, you're going to see them through to the 2040s, 2050s even.

Karen Walker:

So that very famous silhouette, with a very famous livery, will continue to be in the skies. I mean, we could talk forever. Obviously this particular group, I think especially you two, could talk forever. I would like to end by just hearing from each of you, if I may, a favorite flight that you've had on a 747?

I mean, I'll just kick off by saying I remember... And this was a long while ago. But I flew from London to Tokyo on a Virgin Atlantic 747. On the return flight, I was up on that upper deck. I just loved being on that upper deck of the 747. And it just turned into a huge party, very informal, simply because somebody had bought... And in those days it was a novel thing, somebody had bought one of those portable karaoke machines. And they'd bought one in Tokyo. And most people had never seen them at that point. And so as soon as he got on the plane, as soon as we took off, he unwrapped the box. And it just turned into... I'd never done karaoke, and we found ourselves doing karaoke on this plane for hours.

So I think that was just something that, again, only a 747 could have delivered in those days. Chris, do you have a favorite light?

Chris Sloan:

Well, I'm surprised Virgin didn't make karaoke... turn that into a regular thing. That's pretty brilliant. That's really true? That's great.

My favorite flight? Isn't every flight on a 747 your favorite? But I guess my favorite was the first time doing an ultra long-haul flight. And it was a Cathay Pacific. I still remember the registration was like HOT. And it was a flight to... 1996, from LA to Hong Kong. And I managed to talk my way into the cockpit, and jumped seat seat for a few hours. And that was just epic.

And of course the landing, being at Kai Tak, 747s spiritual home, absolutely gave me chills. And it's true, you could actually look out the window and see somebody in their shower. And I was like, "Wow, that really happens." And then when you land there and you see just those sea of those tails, the romance of that and that approach into Victoria Harbor, it was just... It's still... I'm getting wistful thinking about it.

Karen Walker:

Touching the washing lines in central Hong Kong from a 747 is always quite a fun thing to see. Guy, what's your favorite story?

Guy Norris:

I mean, in my job I've been so lucky, because I've been able to fly on the SOFIA 747SP space telescope, several flying test beds, and 747 flights. So sort of very unusual. And including, as I've mentioned earlier, delivery flights.

So one of my favorite 747 memories is that Cathay Pacific 747 flight I mentioned earlier. They, because of the range, or the lack of it at that stage, they had to fly virtually empty in the back. There was only business class seats in the front, and that was it, and a couple of first upstairs, or thereabouts. So it was empty going all the way back from that very first section.

So after take off, and we got into the cruise and everybody sort of relaxed, and you could walk around this giant space. And to my amazement, the Cathay delivery crew were already busy setting up a cricket pitch in the back. And they had a large keg of... Well, they loved northwest craft ale, so somebody had bought this giant big box of Seattle beer and put it up there against the bulkhead. They produced a cricket bat and a rubber ball, and began playing. So we played cricket for at least 2,000 nautical miles. It was the weirdest thing.

Karen Walker:

Nothing like cricket at 30,000 feet. I think what we've firmly established here is the 747 was the first party plane, outside of Business Jets, probably. But, look, it's been great seeing you both, great talking to you both. And hearing what it was like to be at that event, but also hearing your views, and hearing some of these stories. So long live the 747.

So thank you both, to Guy and Chris. And also thank you very much to our producer, Andrea Copley Smith. And, of course, thank you to our listeners. Make sure you don't miss us each week by subscribing to the Window Seat Podcast on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And until next week, this is Karen Walker disembarking from Window Seat.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.

Chris Sloan

Chris Sloan is Air Transport World & Routes Senior Editor covering the Americas.