MIAMI — Without a doubt, the most popular member of the Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” family, also known as the “Queen of the Skies,” is the 747-400, which entered service more than a quarter century ago. This year, we have dedicated several Flashback Friday articles to the overall 747 program and to the latest variant – the 747-8. On this Flashback Friday, we continue to reminisce on the 747 by focusing on 747-400 passenger version, which was produced from 1987 to 2005.
By the mid-1980s, the Boeing 747 had proven to be one of the most successful airliners after 25 years in the air. However, the older design meant conventional flight control systems, the use of a flight engineer, and older engines that increased fuel costs. Rival manufacturers Airbus and McDonnell Douglas were working on potential competitors – the A340 and MD-11, respectively. Moreover, Boeing introduced new glass cockpits, more efficient engines and lighter materials with the debut of the 757 and 767 in 1982.
Thirty years ago, the Boeing 747 neared 700 orders, but demand dropped sharply. The popular Boeing 747-200 passenger version, which would go on to have 225 deliveries, had a range of 6,850 nmi (7,875 mi or 12,600 km). In 1984, Boeing began plans to upgrade the 747. Among its goals were a range increase of 1,000 nm (1,150 mi or 1,840 km), newer and more efficient engines, use of the latest technology, and a 10 percent decrease on operating costs.
Boeing introduced this upgrade as the “Advanced Series 300” at the Farnborough Air Show in September 1984. Northwest Airlines became the first customer, marking the official launch of the Boeing 747-400 on October 22, 1985. Major 747 operators Air France, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and United Airlines soon followed.
Since the early days of the Jet Age, Boeing has valued customer input in the development of its aircraft. This phase for the 747-400 was no exception, with the participation of British Airways, Cathay Pacific, KLM, Lufthansa, Northwest, Qantas and Singapore. These airlines lobbied for major design changes, such as a glass cockpit with the elimination of the flight engineer. As a result, Boeing retained some traditional 747 systems, while introducing a new two-pilot glass cockpit with primary cathode ray tube displays and analogue gauges as backup.
Another improvement on the 747-400 was and increased wingspan of 17 ft (5.2 m) and 6 ft (1.8m) winglets that reduced aerodynamic drag. Despite the larger wings, the new alloys actually decreased their weight, compared to the original 747s. Furthermore, the horizontal stabilizer was fitted with a fuel tank for increased range. Additional improvements included the use of lighter carbon brakes on the landing gear.
The 747-400 retained the extended upper deck of the -300 and had three engine options: Pratt & Whitney 4062, General Electric CF6-80C2B5F or Rolls-Royce RB211-524G/H. The engines were more efficient and allowed for a cruise of Mach 0.855. Most importantly, they contributed to a maximum range of 7,260 nmi (8,350 mi or 13,360 km), which eliminated the use of traditional fuel stop airports, like Anchorage. A typical -400 seating configuration was designed for 416 passengers in three classes.
The 747-400 entered final assembly at Boeing’s Everett plant in September 1987, and it rolled out on January 26, 1988, with Pratt & Whitney engines. At this time, there were 100 orders for the -400. The maiden flight took place on April 29, 1988. The aircraft took off from Paine Field in Everett and landed at Boeing Field in Seattle two hours and 26 minutes later. Boeing would use four test aircraft – two equipped with Pratt & Whitney engines (PW), and the other two with General Electric (GE) and Rolls-Royce (RR) engines.
Teething pains had to do more with production than with performance. For example, the first flight had a delay of six weeks due to subcontractor delays in supplying components. There were also electrical systems faults that contributed to the delay. Other production problems stemmed from mistakes made by new plant workers in the interior configuration, which required costly reassembly. Finally, the advanced electronic systems integration of the new flight deck also caused some delays. Boeing squashed all these bugs by the middle of 1989.
Entry into Service
The FAA certified the PW engines on January 9, 1989, and the first 747-400 entered service with Northwest one month later on February 9. The GE and RR engine variants received certification on May 18 and June 8, respectively. Moreover, Singapore Airlines operated the first -400 on an international route, with a flight from Singapore to London on May 31, 1989.
European certification faced a delay, as Boeing was getting ready to deliver the -400 to its first European customer, KLM. Authorities demanded a strengthened upper deck floor, in case of sudden decompression. Boeing and the European JAA agreed to a temporary operating certificate, if the company reinforced the upper deck floor within two years, which prevented delayed deliveries to European carriers.
Boeing followed a similar pattern of variants to that of the -200 series. It developed the -400M “Combi” that could carry passengers and freight in the main deck, which utilized a side cargo door in the rear. Japanese carriers received a -400D high-density domestic version, which could carry whopping 660 passengers in a single class, or 568 in two classes. Of note, this model did not require winglets, since they only provide actual savings on longer flights. Japan Airlines was the first carrier to receive the -400D in October 1991. Finally, Boeing also developed a freighter version, the -400F, which entered service with Cargolux in May 1993.
The 747-400 went a step further with respect to variants with the introduction of the -400ER with Qantas in October 2002. Additional fuel tanks allowed what would be the sole customer of this variant to fly its Melbourne-Los Angeles route non-stop with a full passenger and cargo load, instead of the weight restrictions it had been following with its original -400s.
In addition, the -400ER adopted a cabin design, known as the “Boeing Signature Interior,” that was standard on the 777, and would go on to offer it as a retrofit for existing -400s. The freighter also got an extra range or payload boost with the introduction of the -400ERF.
Some counties, like Japan and the United Arab Emirates, bought VIP-configured versions of the -400 to transport government officials. Furthermore, the U.S. Air Force considered a C-33 variant of the -400, but ultimately went with the McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) C-17. However, it still bought and heavily modified the -400F to operate as the YAL-1 “Airborne Laser,” recognizable by its nose-mounted laser turret.
The passenger version of the 747-400 became the most popular model of the 747 family, with 467 deliveries out of the total 1,537 ordered to date. The passenger version of the -200 comes in second with 225 orders. By the mid-2000s Boeing announced development of the larger 747-8, marking the end of the -400. China Airlines has the distinction of being the last airline to receive the passenger -400 on April 2005, while the last member of the -400 family delivered was a -400ERF in November 2009.
Airlines are in the process of retiring the -400 in favor of more efficient twin-engine airplanes, but that does not mean this great airplane will make its final flight anytime soon. The -400F and -400ERF will be in the air for some time to come. Moreover, passenger -400s are being converted to all-cargo versions known as the -400BCF (Boeing Converted Freighter). Furthermore, a major conversion led to the -400LCF (Large Cargo Freighter) that transports fuselage sections of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.