Boeing 747 at 50: Everything you need to know about the Jumbo jet

Fifty years ago the Boeing 747 took to the skies for the first time, with the promise of transforming aviation. The Jumbo jet offered greater luxury than ever before for first-class passengers, and more seats than ever before in economy class. And while younger planes have come and gone, the 747 flies on.

How transformational was the 747?

The Jumbo jet is no longer the biggest passenger plane, but half a century ago it startled the world by its sheer size: two-and-a-half times bigger in terms of capacity than previous aircraft.

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Joe Sutter and his team of 4,500 designed and built the 747 to be a freighter as well as a passenger plane. That, he said, was responsible for the wide-bodied cabin and the upper deck which gave the plane its distinctive hump.

The “bubble” also allowed airlines to create the feel of a private club for premium passengers.

The main effect on the airline industry, though, was that it more than doubled the number of available seats. Air travel was democratised: from 1970, when the 747 entered service, fares started falling and horizons were broadened.

Isn’t it a bit long in the tooth?

This is an aircraft that was designed in the 1960s. All of those flown by British Airways were assembled in the 1990s; Virgin Atlantic’s fleet is very slightly younger, with the newest delivered in 2001.

Yet the 747 is rather like a reliable old car: the purchase price was paid off years ago, it’s popular with passengers (especially BA’s premium customers) and so long as the price of fuel doesn’t rise too high it’s an efficient way for Virgin Atlantic to get 455 people to and from Florida and the Caribbean.

The carbon footprint is much heavier per passengers than more modern aircraft: the Airbus A380 “SuperJumbo” is bigger, quieter and more fuel efficient. But the 747 has outsold it by six to one. The first double-decker Airbuses are now being broken up for parts, making the A380 look more like an endangered species these days.

How big is it?

Length: 232 feet (71 metres). Wingspan: 211 feet (64 metres). Height 69 feet (19.4 metres).

If you prefer your measures in Routemaster double-deckers, that’s eight buses long, seven buses wide and four-and-a-half buses tall.

How is the 747 powered?

Four engines (sometimes, if a spare is being flown under one of the wings, five). British Airways’ fleet is fitted with Rolls Royce RB211-524H engines.

How fast?

The maximum airspeed is 614mph (988km/h). Over the ground, the speed can be significantly higher with a tailwind. But the typical cruising speed is 565mph (910km/h). A 747-400 typically takes off at 180mph (290km/h) and lands at 160mph (260km/h).

How far?

The stated range of BA’s Jumbo fleet is 8,357 miles (13,450km), which is more than enough for the longest British Airways route, from London to Santiago in Chile.

The longest regularly scheduled route was from Sydney to Dallas-Fort Worth, with Qantas. The distance is 8,578 miles (13,802km) – although the inbound flight, typically hampered by headwinds, had to land in Brisbane to refuel, as that was half-an-hour shorter.

When did UK airlines start flying the plane?

Jumbo jets were first flown by BOAC (long-haul predecessor to British Airways) on 14 April 1971, a year after the first planes were delivered; an industrial dispute between the airline and its pilots meant that the 747s sat on the ground.  

Virgin Atlantic started operations in June 1984 using a secondhand 747 to fly between Gatwick and New York Newark.

How many passengers?

That depends on the airline’s chosen configuration. The high-density 747s deployed on Japanese domestic routes carried up to 550. Virgin Atlantic has 455 seats on its Jumbo jets. But British Airways has no more than 345 seats on its 747s, and on some of the planes only 275; these are known as “Super High-J”, code because of the large number of Club World seats.

During its lifetime, the world’s 747 fleet has flown 3.5 billion people – the equivalent of half of the world’s population.

How do I get to fly on one?

Heathrow is the heartland of the 747, with far more of them serving the airport than any other. It’s the base for British Airways, which has 34 of them and intends to still be flying the Jumbo in five years’ time. By February 2024, the youngest will be a quarter of a century old.

All BA’s 747s are based at Heathrow, and fly to the US destinations of Boston, Las Vegas, Mexico City, Miami, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco, as well as Cape Town, Dubai and Lagos. 

Virgin Atlantic uses the 747 mainly for flying to Orlando in Florida, from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow. Registrations for its fleet include G-VAST and G-VBIG.

To fly on the latest version of the Jumbo, the 747-8, Frankfurt is a good place to start; Lufthansa is one of the few airlines to operate the jet.

It’s three weeks to the 50th anniversary of the first Concorde flight. Why has the Jumbo endured so much longer?

It represents a very good business proposition for connecting the world – yes, at less than half as fast as Concorde, but far more efficiently. While the British and the French went for speed and style, the Americans were focused on something much more functional.

In the words of Juan Trippe, the boss of Pan Am – the first airline to fly the Jumbo, from New York to London, jet travel allowed travellers to “roam the four corners of the world, meeting in friendship and understanding the people of other nations and races”. 

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What about the accident record?

The 747 has been involved in many tragedies. The world’s worst aviation accident, on 27 March 1977, took place at Tenerife North Airport when a KLM Jumbo began to take off in fog and struck a Pan Am 747, with the loss of 583 lives.

The worst single-aircraft accident in history also involved a 747, on a domestic flight in Japan. On 12 August 1985, 520 passengers and crew lost their lives when a badly repaired rear bulkhead failed and caused an explosive decompression.

A Soviet fighter jet shot down a Korean Air 747 on 1 September 1983 when it strayed into USSR air space on a flight from Anchorage to Seoul. All 269 passengers and crew aboard were killed

On 21 December 1988, Pan Am 103 was destroyed on the Heathrow-JFK route; 259 passengers and crew died when the Jumbo was blown up by a terrorist bomb, while another 11 perished on the ground in the Scottish town of Lockerbie. 

Best use of an old 747?

The Jumbo Stay hostel at Arlanda airport in Stockholm. A night in a dorm bed costs SEK450 (£38).

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