Happy birthday to the Boeing 747

By: Dave Gunner

February 8, 2019

Fifty years ago Joe Sutter stood on the edge of the runway at the Boeing factory Paine Field near Seattle and watched the aircraft he had designed take to the skies for the very first time. The aircraft was the Boeing 747 and it was to go on and change the course of history.

Joe Sutter (third from right) Photo copyright Boeing

From start to finish it took just 28 months to design and build the first 747. Fifty thousand people worked on the project, including 4,500 engineers (they became known as the incredibles) and they even had to build the world’s largest factory in Everett, Washington, which still holds the record for being the biggest building by volume in the world.

The result is the aircraft we all know and love today. Although the aircraft’s aesthetics were not the main priority, the ‘Jumbo Jet’ turned out to be a cultural icon and design classic. At the time the Boeing team didn’t see much of a future for the 747, thinking it would plug a short-term gap in their line up while they developed a supersonic aircraft.  No one could have predicted that the 747 would still be flying 50 years later as one of the most successful aircraft ever built. It has gone on to transform the way we live our lives. It’s carried over 3.5 billion people, connected the world and become the mainstay of the airfreight industry. It was the first truly long-haul aircraft, the first with two decks and the first with two aisles. Customers love it, pilots love it, and engineers love it. Our first ever aircraft was a 747 and even today, ask anyone at the airline, and they’ll tell you how much they like to see our 747s resplendent in red.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the first flight, we spoke to two of our people who’ve spent their careers working on the 747 to discover more about these icons of the sky and find out if the legends are true

Karl Wort – pilot

What is your role on the 747?
I’m presently the senior training captain on the B747, a post I took up last year. I’m responsible for the implementation and quality of training on the fleet.

How long have you worked on the type?
I’ve been lucky and have been on the B747-400 from my very first day in the company. My conversion course began in June 2004 and I actually got to fulfil my childhood dream and fly the Jumbo for the first time on 3 August 2004. That first trip was to Orlando Florida on G-VGAL (Jersey Girl) with Captain John Shepard. So, this is my fifteenth year flying the B747 with Virgin Atlantic, with four as captain and to be honest I don’t want it to come to an end in 2021.  

What’s so special about the aircraft?
It’s a classic aeroplane. If you ever stopped and asked some random people in the street to name three aeroplanes, I would wager most would say something like Concorde, Spitfire and Jumbo jet. Over the last 50 years, she has managed to carve out an iconic status in aviation history; she truly is the Queen of the Sky. Her heritage comes from the time of the Apollo missions, Concorde and Star Trek, a time of optimism and a “we can do this” attitude. Obviously, they had no idea how to build an aeroplane like this, and she is completely over-engineered compared to other aircraft that followed. There are multiple backup systems and redundancy built into every system. When you do the walk-around there are girders in the undercarriage bay that you would expect to see in the Empire State Building! And of course, four engines for long haul. The engines are much more powerful on the 400 series compared to the early 747s which gives amazing take-off and climb performance.

What is your favourite part or feature of the aircraft?
The little boy inside me really enjoys taxiing the 747 around the airport. This is where you really get to appreciate her size. However, my favourite feature is the handling – the 747 is a total pleasure to hand fly. There are no computers involved in the flight control system of the Jumbo, just good old-fashioned hydraulics and control cables. Somehow Boeing has managed to build a 400-tonne aeroplane that flies like a little Piper Cherokee, and on a nice day, there is nothing better than hand flying her. However, when the chips are down, there is a solid autopilot system capable of operating in most environments that you can always rely on. It is a fantastic pilots’ aeroplane.

What is it like to work on?
Ask any 747 pilot what’s it like to work on them, and they will probably say “Pardon?”. They are noisy most of the time, and very noisy at high speed! The shape of the hump accelerates the airflow over the top of the flight deck making quite a racket in the process. Compared to the single deck wide-body aircraft the flight deck is narrow, but it is still the best seat in the house.

Do you have any particularly happy memories from your time working with the aircraft?
My favourite memories of operating the 747 were the Caribbean shuttles. In the days when the 747 did all the Caribbean flights we did not have the capability to do the RNAV approaches available to aircraft today. So, your choices were a very time (fuel) consuming procedural approach or to fly a visual circuit. So, we used to fly this gigantic aeroplane between the Caribbean islands. Once we got to our destination, we would fly a visual circuit at 1500 feet just like a small training aircraft. After landing you would have to do a 180-degree turn on the runway, as the small islands had no taxiways, and you would then park up on the ramp outside a terminal building dwarfed by the aeroplane you just arrived in. Then as you disembarked and walked across the ramp on your way to a nice cold beer, you couldn’t help but look back at this beautiful aeroplane and smile.

The engineer’s story –  Greg Anderson

Greg Anderson is a technical operations engineer in our operation centre. His day job is monitoring our aircraft all over the world and advising our pilots and ground teams on any aircraft issues that arise. It’s a critical role and one that requires a lot of skill and experience. For Greg, a lot of that experience came from a career spent in aircraft maintenance and much of it working with the 747. Having served his apprenticeship with British Caledonian in the ‘80s, Greg’s career has spanned three decades and he has a lot of tales to tell about the 747. His favourite stories are being on the first ever 747 to land on the notoriously tricky runway at Funchal, Madeira (on an Air Atlanta aircraft), spending weeks digging a parked 747 out of storage in Mojave after flooding had caused the aircraft to sink and being part of the Iraq hostage rescue team with Richard.

Waddell’s Wagon was created to train pilots to taxi in the 747.Photo copyright Boeing.

Greg shared these interesting facts about the aircraft:

A 747-400 has six million parts and 275km of wiring.

The cockpit windows on the 747 don’t open. To evacuate, the pilots have an escape hatch in the roof and ropes that they can use to reach the ground safely. They’re known affectionately as Geronimo Handles.

An early concept for the aircraft had two Boeing 707 single-aisle cabins, one on top of the other with a double deck all the way along.

It’s not just the nosewheel that steers the aircraft when it is taxiing. The two body (innermost) main wheel sets also steer.

The 747 is fast for a subsonic aircraft with has a cruise speed of Mach 0.85 or 570mph.

The Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, could have been flown inside the 45-metre economy section of a 747-400

The test pilots on the very first 747 had no experience taxiing from a flight deck that was so high off the ground. Boeing built them a ‘Waddell’s Wagon’ (named after chief test pilot Jack Waddell) as a training aid.

Joe Sutter, designer of the 747, only joined Boeing as a summer job. He planned to move to California with his family and join the Douglas company.

In our early days, when we didn’t have the capacity to land in poor weather, across the road from our engineering restroom at Gatwick was a tree which became known as the landing tree. If it was too foggy to see the tree the engineers knew that they could relax for a couple more hours because the aircraft couldn’t land in that visibility.

We once flew a 747 non-stop from Hawaii to London. G-VIRG was returning from a maintenance input in Australia.

For an aircraft designed in the 60s it still holds a number of records:

Fastest navigation of both poles by aeroplane

Largest firefighting aircraft

The longest cargo loader aircraft

The longest passenger aircraft

Largest airborne telescope

Most passengers on an aircraft (1088)


Martin Harrington is our outsourced and overseas base maintenance manager, and he has shared these photos of our early days with the Boeing 747 Classic. Martin started work in 1990 as a technician and then moved on to become a certifying engineer in 1995. His job has taken him to many countries including a two-month maintenance check in Singapore as well as Dublin, Amsterdam and Xiamen in China.

Joe Sutter passed away in 2016 but he got to see his aircraft reach its latest iteration the Boeing 747-800. That means we’ll get to see this amazing machine in our skies for at least another 20 years, an incredible legacy.

Next time you see a 747, wherever you are jn the world, raise a glass to Joe Sutter and the wonderful folk at Boeing. Thank you for giving us such a magnificent aeroplane.

Dave Gunner

I love telling the story of our people, our planes, our places and our planet through Ruby Blog.

Categories: Our Aircraft