Happy 50th Birthday To The Queen Of The Skies!

Filed Under: Aviation

Today marks 50 years from when the first 747 aircraft rolled off the line at the Boeing factory in Everett. That first aircraft is now an exhibit at the Museum of Flight, and Boeing spent a few minutes talking about the plane and its history earlier this weekend, which is sorta fun.

While the airframe was completed 50 years ago today, the first flight wasn’t until February of the following year. Commercial service began with a Pan Am flight between New York and London in January 1970.

The 747 was more than double the size of anything else operating commercially, so in addition to being an impressive feat of engineering, the capacity of the aircraft would change passenger aviation.

A larger plane meant more space for profitable cargo, and the ability to transport more passengers would lower the cost of air travel, starting the trend of making it accessible to the general population.

While historical photos often show a spacious economy cabin (and I am sure the pitch was more generous than we see today), even this prototype photo had 9-across seating in economy, and early on Pan Am adapted a 10-across configuration in economy. Just like British Airways, the largest current operator of the 747, has today.

It’s the premium cabin that has changed more dramatically. Look at this ad for first class on the 747:

A recliner-style seat with no storage or privacy. Ben would have a field day reviewing that flight compared to what even business class products look like today.

Much less what British Airways offers now on the 747:

Not to mention the fabulous seat+bed combo that Lufthansa used to operate on the upper deck of their 747s:

Of course, just like we see with modern aircraft, the roll-out wasn’t perfectly smooth.

If you enjoy aviation history, and haven’t read the memoirs of Ronald Marasco, the head of Pan Am maintenance during the first years of the 747, it’s worth a quick read.

I grew up flying back and forth on 747s, and so it makes me a bit sad to see them being phased out. There’s something about the shape and lines of the plane that I just love, and even today there’s something about the aircraft that invokes feelings of nostalgia and adventure.

If you want to see more photos of the 747 over the years, The Guardian has put together a nice gallery.

Do you have a favorite 747 story?

(Tip of the hat to The Nice Paul, historical images courtesy the Pan Am Historical Foundation)

  1. Anyone else was about to comment that the prototype photo was 10-abreast before realising there were only two seats on the right side?

  2. @Alvin Same here. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.

    Way too few airlines have chosen to adopt the 3-4-2 or 2-4-3 configuration, which I personally am a big fan of, because it allows parties of different sizes to sit together. The only airlines that have adopted this configuration I can think of on top of my head are JAL and ANA.

    9 Abreast on the 747 must be just as comfortable as eight abreast 787, much superior in terms of comfort compared to regular economy but still one seat more than Premium Economy

  3. Also, the Queen of the Skies is also where Premium Economy first appeared and revolutionized long-haul travel forever.

  4. I flew TWA and PanAm 747s back in the ‘80’s from BOS and JFK to Italy while on active duty in the US Army. I recall a 3-5-3 configuration in Economy not the one in your photo. One memorable 747 TWA flight upon final approach into FCO was diverted to a small airport somewhere outside of Rome due to sudden bad weather at FCO. We landed on a short runway and weren’t allowed to deplane. We waited a few hours for fuel and then the pilot announced that we would be maintaining a minimum altitude after takeoff (but not to worry because the 747 does not need a lot of runway) and that we would be among a very elite group of people to ever fly over the city of Rome in a 747 at 600 feet and that we had immediate clearance upon takeoff to land at FCO. It was a very short trip and unfortunately I had no film in my camera to record the event.

  5. Fast work, Tiffany – well done!

    I’m guessing the PanAm stretched-out cowboy is a cultural nod to JR Ewing.

    But it’s also good to be reminded of just how far Premium cabins have developed in a relatively short time.

    And I don’t think I’m being partisan, but isn’t that BOAC livery oh-so-stylish?!

  6. To avoid confusion … the BOAC livery is in the Guardian photo gallery, linked from the article. I’m jet-lagged in Lima. At least, that’s my excuse.

  7. I flew the last 747 Domestic flight on Delta (unintentionally) when it was put on my flight last minute from Orlando during the hurricane last year.

  8. I flew on the last 747 United international flight from Seoul to SFO. I also flew the last “domestic” Qantas 747 from JFK to LAX last August. I’m going to grab every opportunity to be on 747 before we never see them in the sky again. Thanks 747 for many wonderful memories! ✈️

  9. Nice post, Tiffany! I do miss the 747s but luckily enjoyed one last flight on the epic Qantas Sydney-Johannesburg route earlier this year and chose the exit row window seat for nostalgia’s sake 😀

    It was literally a party outside the galley for hours — seems every time I fly to Jo’burg it’s a party in the skies.

  10. Long live the Queen!

    Most beautiful and sexiest aircraft ever. And symbol for travel bug and still the prettiest eye catch at every airport.

    Thanks to LH, CA and KE for ordering the -8….Some years more.

  11. My first 747 flights was DTW-NRT on the Northwest Orient 747. We were seated in Business Class, which was the entire upper level. This had to be in the late 80’s. 1988 or 1989.

    It was, at that time, the longest flight I had ever had. The upper deck was non smoking. I remember going down the stairs mid flight to a haze of cigarette smoke as so many people were smoking in economy. I was a smoker at the time, but quickly made my way back upstairs without joining in the puffing crowd.

    The crew was fantastic. The FA serving us upstairs was so handsome and we flirted the entire time. It made it fun. Lots of chatting with others as there was no Electronic Entertainment. Lots of fellow automotive industry types upstairs, so lots of shop talk.

    On the return flight, I was so exhausted from my whirlwind week in Japan that I had a Bailey’s and crashed in those angled recliner seats for almost the entire flight.

    I was hooked and have been lucky enough to fly the Queen two more times. One a KLM Combi, and the other a Thai 747. Both in J. Upstairs on Thai (SIN-BKK). In the nose downstairs on KLM (IAH-AMS). What great memories.

  12. Revolutionary in 2 major ways: dramatic reduction in the cost of international flights; reduced/eliminated to need for intermediate stops, eg it meant Sydney-Europe was one stop rather than two , cutting Karachi/Dubai/Rome, etc.
    The ‘race’ to introduce wide-bodies was great for consumers: the 747, DC10 and the Lockheed Tristar all came on within a couple of years and ticket prices plunged , relatively( although the best fares were to be had on those airlines still using 707s, DC8s, Caravelles, etc…they had to reduce fares to remain competitive).
    Wonderful plane.

  13. Back in the 90s myself and 3 other passengers were lucky to be offered seats on a positioning flight from CDG to LHR on Air France. Short flight. Lots of space.

  14. We flew the Pan Am’s SP’s in 3-5-3 configuration in coach back and forth to JFK from DHA(no longer commercial). Thankfully I was a teenager as those were tight quarters back in the day. Beautiful aircraft.

  15. I flew on United Boeing 747SP from Hong Kong to Seattle, Wash, 6465 miles in August 1987. 747SP had four Pratt and Whitney engines. That plane was original PanAm. I sit near the window aisle for nice view on the Pacific Ocean for 13 hours. About 45 747SP planes were built. B747SP planes can fly about 7500 miles. Qantas flew B747SP nonstop from Sydney to Los Angeles in 1981, with four RB211 Rolls Royce engines. Iran Air B747SP was last commercial plane to retire.

  16. From a current San Diegan to a former San Diegan…love the approach picture. I’ve been fortunate (or un-fortunate depending on your point-of-view) to take that BA flight both to/from San Diego. So fun….

    Also have taken JAL/NRT to/from San Diego and the new LH to San Diego from FRA. Gotta love avoiding LAX!!!!

  17. Flying on a 747 been my childhood dream in the 80’s and I finally got a chance to do it a few years ago and end up flying on a 747 five more time since my first time. Its sad that United stop using their 747 to HKG from SFO.

  18. My first flight on the Queen was in 1971 on a red eye from San Francisco to New York. We had a mechanical problem they discovered once we all boarded that would take maybe an hour to correct. Of course no one complained because I’m sure there were other passengers most likely flying the Queen for the first time also so people walked around the spacious cabin and looking at the upper deck lounge. Those days are gone now but not the memories of flying the most wonderful aircraft of our time The 747

  19. My story is recent, when I first flew on the UD with BA last year, after years of fascination about the A380. I’ve booked 4 more since, including 3 upgrades to F, so I’ll be flying in the nose. Now to get 1A in one of those, since I’m only Silver…

  20. I’ve flown BA first twice on a 747. The best experience was being the first row…right in the nose. It was so enjoyable, I chose not to sleep on that flight from Seattle to London.

    Later this month, I’m flying business on their upper deck…..first time I will be on the second level of a 747.

  21. @Tiffany —> not a story so much, as an observation or two.

    Regrettably, at least to me, I’ve only flown on 747s TTBOMK seven times: 4x on VS, twice on UA, and once on AF from 1997-2012, and never on the upper deck. 🙁

    That said, what struck me most in the Guardian article (well, in the pictures accompanying the article) was the the BOAC 747 only had THREE windows on the upper deck, while the newest two (BA and KLM) show 20 windows *and* an exit door!

  22. @ Jason

    It was a mid-life re-design: the hump on the upper deck was extended much further back on the plane, giving a huge increase in capacity at the expense of unbalancing the aesthetics a little.

    Years ago an LH 747 disembarked at a remote stand; I remember my shock at the sheer sense of bulk as we walked underneath it. It really seemed like a miracle that something that enormous could actually fly.

  23. First flight – 1984 on Air India’s 747-200 between Rome and Delhi in First Class.

    A delight for a 4 year old 🙂

  24. “Years ago an LH 747 disembarked at a remote stand; I remember my shock at the sheer sense of bulk as we walked underneath it. It really seemed like a miracle that something that enormous could actually fly,”

    some years ago I, too,had to board at remote stand at LAX on a World Airways DC10. I was stunned when I saw that the door was two stories above me! You don’t sense that aircraft size in a jet way. I can only imagine what it was like for you standing beneath on the 747.

  25. Favorite memory of 747 – flying FRA-JFK-FRA last November on LH’s 747-8 and discovering that the plane is half empty, so I got a whole row for these two flights! Best flight ever, never experienced that on TK’s 737, KC’s 767, or LH’s A330 that usually fly to my hometown Almaty

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