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From Compromise to Queen

March 5, 2019

On its maiden flight, in February 1969, very few people were likely to have predicted that the Boeing 747 would spark a revolution in commercial aviation, but now, fifty years later, no-one can dispute that it did. Yet the early story of how the Jumbo rose to become the most recognised aircraft in the world is far from smooth or trouble free.





You’re probably familiar with the concept of ‘The Butterfly Effect’. A classic example of which is how, when two men went to Alaska on a fishing trip in the summer of 1965, it produced a worldwide change in the face of commercial aviation. The two men were both giants of the aviation world: Juan Trippe, the suave owner of Pan Am, shared his vision of a ‘superplane’ with Bill Allen, the no-frills boss of Boeing.

Trippe’s vision was of a plane that was at least twice as large as any commercial plane then in existence; an aircraft with 400 seats to carry more people and make more revenue than anything before. Allen brashly promised him that he could have it within 28 months. The resulting order from Pan Am for 25 of the new superplanes was the biggest in aviation history to date, but it posed some major technological and engineering challenges for Boeing and brought the company to the brink of financial disaster.

The first of the problems was that, despite the size of the challenge, it was not Boeing’s number one project. The company’s focus was on the B2707, the supersonic transport (SST) which Boeing was expecting to be the future of airline transport. As a result, the prime talent in the engineering division and most of the company’s resources were allocated to the SST, leaving what were, in effect, the ‘B-team’ to design, build and deliver on Bill Allen’s commitment – within 28 months.

Heading the 747 team was a young engineer named Joe Sutter, a capable, but not particularly popular project leader who faced consistent pushback from more senior staff. Looking back on the early days of the project, Joe commented, “I had to do a little education that I was the boss, and if they didn’t want to go with my instructions, I had a great assignment in Bangladesh where they might be more suitable.” Joe Sutter had the 747-design team working around the clock, despite their being relegated to unsuitable premises and starved of resources.

This was 1965, when computers were the size of a smallish housing estate and needed a week to tally up your daily grocery shopping bill. There were no computer aided design tools, no automated computer modelling systems to run complex simulations and even electric calculators were few and far between – and couldn’t do long division. So the Boeing 747 was designed by engineers working at drawing boards using pencils and slide rules. Every one of the roughly five million parts (other than fasteners) had to be hand designed, then built and finally hand-tested to destruction. A seemingly impossible task in only a little more than two years.

Developing a clear concept of what the final product should look like was the first hurdle to be overcome by the team before they could get down to the design work. Juan Trippe was a man with a nautical bent and so he had specified an ‘ocean liner’ type aircraft with two decks, one above the other. This led to the initial concept of taking two Boeing 707 type single-aisle fuselages and moulding them together to create a single twin deck aircraft. Joe Sutter’s team disagreed and according to Joe, thought the double-decker idea was a “turkey”. He said, “We had a look at the requirements for that design and decided that there were so many gate and evacuation problems with that concept that there just had to be a better solution.” The team then had a ‘eureka moment’ and decided that going with a side-by side, twin-aisle, wide single deck fuselage would be the better solution.

But even this solution faced its own hurdles, the major of which was the attitude to the 747’s future. As mentioned, Boeing was staking its future on supersonic travel as the way forward and believed that when the SST came into service, the 747 would be relegated to hauling freight. It was seen only as a stopgap measure and the company estimated that they would only sell about fifty of them as freighters. The design problem for the cargo version was that opening the nose was the best solution for freight loading. But then where to put the flight deck? In a stroke of genius, the team decided to put it on top, and so the distinctive 747 ‘hump’ was born. Logical if you look back from today, but at the time, the hump was decidedly a ‘thinking out of the box’ solution.

Boeing management agonised that Trippe would go ballistic if he didn’t get his double decker solution. They decided to tell him the bad news, but banned Joe Sutter, not known for his tact, from attending the meeting. In his stead, the interior design specialist Mel Heinemann attended – with a secret weapon in his briefcase. During the presentation, Trippe remained unconvinced, so Heinemann played his trump card. He took a 20-foot long piece of clothesline from his briefcase and showed the Pan Am executives just how wide the proposed solution would be. It was a moment of discovery for them and even Trippe was finally convinced when he saw a full-size cross-sectional mock-up of what his plane’s fuselage would look like.

Sutter got the go ahead and the task of turning a wooden mock-up into a real aircraft in record time was underway. Working ten hours per day six days a week, the team converted their 75,000 drawings bit by bit into the breathtaking-sized prototype. But even this came with its own challenges. Quite simply, where to build the biggest aircraft in history? A new site at Everett City was chosen, and work on the new factory commenced. The factory was to become the largest building on earth, so big that its interior has its own atmosphere and clouds form near the ceiling. While the 747 team built the largest plane in history, the largest factory in the world was going up around them – a weighty project.

The plane was also becoming a ‘weighty project’ as the luxury interior-finish demands of the Pan Am executives were pushing the weight up, beyond the point where the aircraft would ever fly. It was finally time for Joe Sutter to face down Juan Trippe. His presentation was simple, either cut your demands, or cut the number of fare-paying passengers that the plane could carry. In Joe’s own words: “He took it very well. He didn’t like it, but he understood and pulled back on the luxury.”

Another crisis was looming. The 747 project was costing Boeing US$ 33 million a day (in current prices) and Boeing had gambled the company on being able to deliver, considering that they wouldn’t make any real money until the plane flew. To add to the looming cash crisis, the SST project was way behind schedule and far over budget. The banks were threatening to pull the plug. Once again Joe Sutter had to confront corporate executives, this time from his own company. He was tasked with cutting 1000 engineers from the workforce, but stood his ground claiming that with the press launch less than 12 months away, they couldn’t afford to slow the project. He won the stand-off and Boeing bet the bank on the 747.

Two days before the press roll-out, the prototype was ready to be shown. With still-wet paint and parts missing, the 747 was revealed to the press, and more importantly, to the nervous bankers. Roll-out day was also an opportunity to reassure the other 25 airlines who had placed orders for the new ‘Jumbo-Jet’ that they were buying into the aircraft sensation of the decade. However, the one thing that Boeing did not shout about at the dramatic roll-out was that the aircraft couldn’t fly – the engines on the prototype were purely decorative.

54 days before the first flight, the team had a crisis on their hands. A crisis with the major component of any aircraft – its engines. Up until then, no engine manufacturer had built an engine with even half the power needed to lift the weight of a Jumbo, but Pratt and Whitney had promised that they had a new, untested engine that could. Their JT-9D was a high-bypass turbofan engine and this new concept promised better fuel efficiency and quieter operation, yet most important, phenomenal thrust. It appeared that they had promised too much. Under test, the engines would shake, surge and break apart, with disastrous results. During the development of the 747, sixty multi-million dollar engines were written off in tests and no-one could figure out what was wrong.

When test pilot Jack Wadell and his co-pilot Brien Wygle walked out to the 747 for its first flight, they were under enormous pressure as the attention of the aviation industry globally was focused on the success of their maiden flight. According to Brien Wygle; “This thing had drawn the attention of the world and there was a huge mob from around the globe watching it.” The maths and the wind tunnel tests had said that the Jumbo would fly, but the pilots still had concerns about the durability of the engines. Without any simulators to prepare for flying the plane, there was much scepticism about the 747, a lot of people had said that the Jumbo was too big to fly, so to give the appearance of an everyday event, both pilots chose to wear normal suit and tie and not ‘test-pilot’ flight suits.

Fifty years ago, a little after 11h00 Seattle local time on 9 February 1969, the Jumbo Jet flew into the history books.

During certification testing the 747 passed all the tests with flying colours, including evacuation, stall, tail strike, takeoff abort, cruise and multiple systems failure. But the engine problem was still unsolved and on the return flight from the Paris Air Show launch, the number four flamed out. Production 747s were racking up outside the factory with concrete blocks hanging from their engine pylons. Boeing didn’t feel that Pratt and Whitney were taking the engine problems seriously enough and Jack Wadell decided to give the engine manufacturers a wake-up call. He took the President of Pratt and Whitney for a flight during which he throttled up one engine to the point of surge with the attendant dramatic flame-out. To prove it wasn’t merely a single rogue engine, he did the same to a second engine. He was about to do the third when Pratt’s boss stopped him – their engine problems were solved soon after.

In many ways, to its owners, pilots and passengers, this is an aircraft that is more poetry than machine.

“The Jumbo Jet is a pilot’s aircraft.” I’m sure you’ve heard someone, somewhere say that. I’ve seen even multi-hour 747 pilots disembark the aircraft that they’ve just spent many hours flying to Cape Town, London or Hong Kong and then pause, turn around and photograph it.

Indeed, the 747 may be most loved by those who have been lucky enough to fly it. The very first to do so, described it as “a pilot’s dream” and a “two-finger airplane” — one that can be flown with just the forefinger and thumb; it’s hard to imagine higher praise for such an enormous aircraft. As one of its many lovers, I’ve found the aircraft to be smooth and manoeuvrable, a stately joy to fly and land. Many pilots will agree that when flying the difficult approach to the old Kai Tek airport at Hong Kong, mere feet above the buildings and facing the mountain with its infamous chess board; when you were about to make the tight, slow 47 degree turn onto final, you would rather be in a 747 than any other aircraft.

But do not be lulled into thinking that stately equals slow and dull. The 747 is also a hot rod; and this queen can gather up her skirts and run if the occasion demands. That distinctive hump, added as a solution to a freight loading problem by its designers, also improves the ‘area rule’ (supersonic drag) capability of its fuselage, so its cruise speed extends further into the transonic range than most, if not all of the contenders to its throne.

The pilots’ love for the 747 is only matched by that of the millions of passengers who’ve boarded any one of the 1,540 made. For those who have grown up under 747-crossed skies, it can be hard to appreciate how revolutionary the Jumbo Jet was when it first (and improbably, to some observers) flew in 1969. Nor is it easy, in the age of the internet, to feel the same awe at the 747’s ability to shrink and connect the world. Looking back, it’s perhaps enough to marvel at the billions of reunions, migrations, exchanges and all manner of collaborations that were made possible, or at least more affordable, by this aircraft. 

Yet on a planet that previously only the well-heeled could cross at will, the 747’s lasting impact may well be on our everyday notions of distance and travel. In its first year, a fully-loaded 747 cut the cost of flying a passenger by half and opened the skies to billions of travellers.

The Boeing 747 justifiably deserves its title as queen of the skies, because the equivalent of more than three quarters of the world’s population have had their lives ruled, even for the briefest of time, by this queen. And even though it is now, after reigning for 50 years, abdicating its throne to make way for its newer siblings, the original design ‘compromise’ of making it also suitable as a freighter will ensure that, in its cargo role, many of our children’s children will still have the opportunity to see the queen aloft.

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