Seattle (AP) — Boeing bids farewell to an icon on Tuesday: It delivers its final 747 jumbo jet.
Since its maiden flight in 1969, the giant and majestic 747 has served as a cargo plane, a commercial airliner capable of carrying nearly 500 passengers, a transport for NASA’s space shuttles, and an airplane for Air Force One. It has revolutionized travel, connecting international cities that previously had no direct routes and helping to democratize passenger travel.
But over the past 15 years, Boeing and European rival Airbus have offered more profitable and fuel-efficient widebody aircraft, with only two engines to maintain instead of the 747’s four. The latest aircraft is the 1574th Boeing built in Puget Sound, Washington state.
A large crowd of current and former Boeing workers is expected to pay their final farewell. The last aircraft is being handed over to shipping company Atlas Air.
“If you loved this job, you dreaded this moment,” said longtime aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia. “Nobody wants a four-engine plane anymore, but that doesn’t erase the enormous contribution the plane has made to the development of the industry or its remarkable legacy.”
Boeing set out to build the 747 after losing a huge military transport contract, the C-5A. The idea was to take advantage of new engines that had been developed for transportation—high-bypass turbofans, which burn less fuel by passing air around the engine core, allowing for greater flight range—and use them for a newly imagined civilian aircraft.
It took more than 50,000 Boeing workers less than 16 months to produce the first 747—a herculean effort that earned them the nickname “The Incredibles.” The production of the jumbo jet required the construction of a huge factory in Everett, north of Seattle – the largest building in the world by volume.
Among those in attendance Tuesday was Desi Evans, 92, who joined Boeing at its Renton, south Seattle, plant in 1957 and went on to work 38 years at the company before retiring. One day in 1967, his boss told him he was going to join the 747 program at Everett – the next morning.
“They told me, ‘Put on rubber boots, a hard hat, wear warm clothes, because it’s a sea of mud,'” Evans recalls. “And it was — they were getting ready to construct the plant.”
Hired as a supervisor to help figure out how to fit the passenger cabin interior, he later supervised crews on sealing and painting the aircraft.
“When the first 747 launched, it was an amazing time,” he said, standing just before the last plane parked outside the factory. “It just felt so exhilarating — like you’re making history. You’re part of something big, and it’s still big, even if it’s the last.”
Its fuselage was 225 feet (68.5 m) long and its tail was as long as a six-story building. The aircraft’s design included a second deck that extended from the cockpit aft over the first third of the aircraft, giving it a distinctive hump and inspiring its nickname, the Whale. Sentimentally, the 747 became known as the Queen of the Sky.
Some airlines have converted the second floor into a first class cocktail lounge, while the lower deck sometimes features lounges or even a piano bar. A single 747, originally built for Singapore Airlines in 1976, has been decommissioned and converted into a 33-room hotel near Stockholm Airport.
said Guillaume de Sion, a professor of history at Albright College in Pennsylvania who specializes in aviation and mobility. “It has become the essence of mass air travel: You can’t fill it with people paying full price, so you need to lower prices to get people on board. It contributed to what happened in the late 1970s with the deregulation of air travel.”
Aboulafia said the first 747 entered service in 1970 on the Pan Am route between New York and London, and its timing was very bad. It first appeared shortly before the 1973 oil crisis, amid a recession that saw Boeing’s employment drop from 100,800 in 1967 to a low of 38,690 in April 1971. “Boeing’s bankruptcy” was badly marked by a billboard near of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport that read, “Will the Last Person Leave Seattle – Turn Off the Lights.”
The updated model — the 747-400 series — arrived in the late 1980s and was much better timed, Aboulafia said, coinciding with the Asian economic boom of the early 1990s. He recalled taking a Cathay Pacific 747 from Los Angeles to Hong Kong as a hitchhiker in his twenties in 1991.
“Even people like me can go see Asia,” said Abulafia. “Before, you had to stop for gas in Alaska or Hawaii and it cost a lot. This was a straightforward shot — and affordable.”
Delta was the last US carrier to use the 747 for passenger flights, which ended in 2017, though some other international airlines continue to operate it, including German airline Lufthansa.
Atlas Airlines ordered four 747-8 freighters early last year, and the last one left the factory on Tuesday.
Boeing has its roots in the Seattle area, with assembly plants in Washington state and South Carolina. The company announced in May that it would move its headquarters from Chicago to Arlington, Virginia, bringing its executives closer to key federal government officials and the FAA, which certifies Boeing’s passenger and cargo planes.
Boeing’s relationship with the FAA has been strained since the fatal crashes of its best-selling plane, the 737 Max, in 2018 and 2019. It took the FAA nearly two years — much longer than Boeing had expected — to approve the design changes and allow the plane to return. air.
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