MIAMI — Half a century ago, today, the first Boeing 747 took to the skies, forever changing the shape of the world as we knew it.

The first 747 rolled out of the assembly line on September 30, 1968, in Everett, Washington.

The Queen of the Skies was the first plane capable of carrying more than 400 passengers, wowing the world with its immense dimensions, an upper deck, and a wingspan of 196 feet.

To honor the Queen’s 50th anniversary, here’s a quick tribute revisiting the history of how Boeing came up with the idea of creating a plane that ended up changing the shape of the world.

The Boeing Jet Era Begins

By the mid-1950s, Boeing was clearly a distant number three in the commercial airliner race behind market-leaders Douglas and Lockheed.

In some respects, Boeing even trailed the Glenn L. Martin Company, the latter’s Martin 4-0-4 having outsold the Stratocruiser nearly 2 to 1.

As the weakest player in the race, Boeing had every incentive to try and supersede its rivals with a more risky approach.

Starting in 1949, Boeing conducted studies into a new jet aircraft design for a dual mission: serving passenger routes and refueling military planes in midair.

Boeing eventually settled on the 367-80—a prototype jet at a cost of $16 million. It would become the basis for the Boeing 707 and the venerable KC-135 tanker.

This was a huge risk for Boeing; neither the Air Force nor any airline had committed to buying Boeing’s new jet.

But CEO Bill Allen was convinced of the viability of the project and, on July 14, 1954, the ‘Dash 80’—as it became known—took off on its first flight.

The military soon committed to the Boeing tanker and, in 1955, the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) ordered 250 KC-135s. Yet, as with the Stratocruiser, the 707’s success with commercial airlines was far from assured.

Allen continued with the project anyway, even though market leader Douglas was trying to develop its own passenger jet. Both the Boeing and Douglas jets initially languished without orders; this all changed on October 13, 1955, when Pan Am placed an order for 20 707s and 25 DC-8s.

From then on, the orders race was on. Air France, American, Braniff, Continental, Sabena, Air India, and BOAC all bought the 707 over the next couple of years, while Douglas won orders from United, National, KLM, Eastern, JAL, SAS, Delta, Swissair, Trans Canada, TAI, and UAT. By early 1958, Douglas had sold 133 DC-8s; Boeing, 150 707s.

However, Boeing had a crucial first-mover advantage. The company had gained a reputation for responding to customer demands; widening the 707’s fuselage on two different occasions, offering a variety of fuselage lengths, and investing in more powerful engines.

In fact, the most important order in the 707’s history came after Allen had offered American Airlines an extra half-inch of width versus the DC-8, to reach 148in and thus enable six-abreast seating.

As a result, American bought 50 707s. Boeing had a slight but meaningful edge over Douglas. When the 707 made its entry into service (EIS) in 1958, it changed the very fabric of commercial aviation. The Jet Age had begun.

The Jumbojet and Supersonic Travel

The advent of the Jet Age accelerated air travel growth around the world, as a roaring postwar economy combined with the newfound convenience and comfort of jet airliners.

Over in Europe, the French Sud Aviation Caravelle actually predated the Boeing 707 as a jet transport.

Boeing felt more competition from Britain’s British Aircraft Corporation BAC 1-11, Hawker Siddeley HS 121 Trident, and Vickers VC-10.

Yet none of these aircraft came close to matching the success of the Boeing or Douglas jets. The best seller among them, the Caravelle, won just 282 orders in its lifetime.

Meanwhile, Boeing and Bill Allen had their eyes on a huge prize—a twin-aisle jumbo jet.

The Boeing 747 program was born out of the research that Boeing had conducted from 1963 to 1965 as it attempted to win a contract to supply the Air Force with a very large strategic transport aircraft.

In 1965, engineer Joe Sutter began conducting design studies with airlines—including Pan Am—for a new, very large transport aircraft dubbed the Boeing 747. The audacious goal was to build an aircraft that would trigger a step change in commercial aviation passenger volumes.

To get started, Boeing once again turned to Pan Am, its partner in launching modern aircraft since the Age of the Clippers. Pan Am formally placed an order for 25 747-100s on April 13, 1966.

Its position as the launch customer and key participant in the design studies allowed it to influence the 747’s design to a much greater degree than any other airline on any other program, both before or since.

The initial design saw the 747 as a high-wing aircraft similar to the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. But Boeing quickly rejected that in favor of the low-wing design that had become its trademark.

Sutter and the rest of the 747 team also began investigating a variety of double-decker designs at the behest of Pan Am, mainly from its hands-on CEO Juan Trippe.

The hump became the 747’s most distinctive feature. But the most important innovation to come out of the 747’s development was perhaps the high bypass turbofan engine.

Boeing even briefly considered a full double-decker plane, but there were too many concerns about evacuation times and cargo capacity. Instead, Boeing quickly honed in on a longer, wider single deck with a hump on top of the fuselage to house the cockpit.

The Pratt & Whitney JT9D that powered the 747 was the first commercial application of this technology.

In committing Boeing to deliver the first 747 to Pan Am before the end of 1969, Bill Allen and his team took on a herculean task. The financial burden was no less severe—Boeing was betting the company on the 747.

The first challenge was manufacturing-related. Boeing Plant 2 was not large enough to assemble the 747. The solution: a new factory in Everett, a 1.9-million square foot behemoth that is still the world’s largest building.

Boeing Everett Factory Construction 04-26-1967 K64016

The reasons, interestingly, were the same that had spurred the birth of Boeing Plant 2 in the 1930s. Once again, Boeing was attempting to build the world’s biggest airplane. This time, the commercial risks were perhaps even more severe.

The Everett Plant cost $200 million to build, plunging Boeing into debt before the 747 had even flown.

Over the next three years, the company sank $2 billion into the 747 program, with daily expenditures prior to EIS in 1969 peaking at $6 million. But Boeing continued to execute, even if the process wobbled at times.

The first 747 rolled out of the assembly line in Everett on September 30, 1968.

The 747’s first flight took place a few months later on February 9, 1969, and, despite several issues with the engines during flight-testing, the 747 had its EIS with Pan Am on January 22, 1970.

Boeing’s 1970s

Despite the 747 making it into service, the simultaneous decline of Vietnam War spending, the 1969-1970 recession, the cancellation of the supersonic Boeing 2707 program, and the debt taken on for the 747 had put Boeing in a precarious financial position.

With the downturn in Boeing’s fortunes, the company slashed its workforce from 83,700 Commercial Airplanes employees in 1968 to 20,750 in 1971, nearly dealing a crippling blow to Seattle’s economy and inspiring a famous billboard: ‘Lights out, Seattle’.

The loss of the 2707 was a particularly bitter one. This Supersonic Transport (SST) was meant to be the US’s answer to Concorde. Envisioned as a 250 to 300 seat airliner, the 2707 would have been three times as large as Concorde and flown at a faster speed.

After a design process that had spanned most of the decade, the 2707 had managed to generate serious momentum by 1969, with Boeing starting work on a prototype and having won commitments for 122 SSTs from the likes of Delta, Iberia, KLM, and Northwest Orient airlines.

But the program’s cost was becoming increasingly problematic for a recession-struck US government, as President Kennedy had pledged that the US government would pick up 75% of the cost of any American made supersonic jet.

(Credits: Pan Am)

When the nascent environmentalist movement emerged, with concerns about sonic booms and damage to the ozone layer being two of its pet issues, the Nixon Administration had the political cover it needed to kill the SST. From an aerospace perspective, it was one of the greatest tragedies and ‘what-ifs’ in aviation history. And Boeing suffered as a result.

Overall, the 1970s were not a happy time for Boeing, as the recession at the start of the decade was soon followed by a pair of oil crises precipitated by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

The surge in oil prices sapped demand for air travel and new aircraft, harming airlines the world over.

One particular casualty was Pan Am, the oil crisis triggering a series of loss-making years that eventually spiraled into the doomed National Airlines merger and Pan Am’s downfall. Boeing no longer had its partner in launching new aircraft programs.

Photo: Eduard Marmet

But, before Pan Am began its long decline, it still had one last innovation to inspire. The Boeing 747SP (Special Performance) was a shortened 747 designed for Iran Air (IR) and Pan Am to fly nonstop routes from New York to Tehran and Tokyo, respectively.

Along with the improved 747-200B that launched in 1971, the 747SP was an incremental innovation but played an important role in aviation history: until the 747-400 came along, it was the longest-range airplane in the world.

Otherwise, Boeing’s 1970s were uneventful. The commercial division mostly focused on delivering advanced versions of the 727-200 and 737-200, while 707 production wound down.

Luckily for Boeing, after an uneasy start, the 747 hit its stride by the end of the decade and became a steady seller.

Air France Boeing 747-200. (Credits: Author)

Perhaps the most significant developments of the decade took place at competing companies. Both Douglas and Lockheed launched tri-jet wide-body airliners to capitalize on the growing demand for the type.

The 747 eventually surpassed both programs in sales but, for much of the 1970s, the DC-10 and L-1011 actually outsold the 747.

A more serious threat was developing across the Atlantic. Airbus Industrie was formed as a joint venture between a series of European companies from Germany, France, Spain, the UK, and the Netherlands.

Airbus launched the A300 and A310 in the 1970s, but neither aircraft positioned it as a threat. Not yet.

Boeing’s Wide-body Dominance

Elsewhere in the Everett factory, the 747-200’s useful lifespan was winding down. After selling 594 units between the first two models in the family, the Queen of the Skies was in need of a refresh.

Initial studies focused on increasing seating capacity and improving performance; a natural source for expansion was the 747’s hump.

Although airlines had initially used the 747’s hump for everything from a piano bar to a cigar lounge, they soon realized that the upper deck could be used to add seats and lower seat mile costs.

Many airlines opted to fill their upper decks with Premium Cabin First or Business Class seats, while others used the space for additional Economy Class seats. So the 747-300’s primary value advantage over previous 747 models was a stretched upper deck, allowing the 747-300 to seat about 50 more passengers in a typical two-class configuration.

However, without a major step change in performance capabilities, the 747-300 was a relative dud, selling just 81 copies across its three major variants after its entry into service with Swissair in 1983.

Yet, the 747 program still had life in it and, soon after the 747-300 had shipped, Boeing began to plot a step change in the 747’s capabilities.

The new 747-400 variant, formally launched on October 22, 1985, with an order from Northwest (NW) for 10 airplanes, boasted an enhanced interior, the latest two-person glass cockpit technology, a 1,000 nautical mile increase in range, and a 10% reduction in operating costs.

The -400’s wingspan was stretched 17ft longer than previous models with wingtip extensions and became the first 747 model to offer winglets.

The planes saved fuel through three new engine types from Pratt & Whitney, GE, and Rolls-Royce, reduced drag from the new wing design, and a new auxiliary power unit from Pratt & Whitney.

Flight testing for the -400 was relatively smooth after the first flight on April 29, 1988, but Boeing’s production ramp-up was slowed by several weeks because of the complexity of the interior configurations (which confused suppliers), and the inexperience of Boeing’s workforce (recently boosted after the cuts of the 1970s).

United 747-400 N121UA wearing fresh 1970s retro “747 Friend Ship” titles made multiple passes at San Francisco’s Fleet Week Airshow. SF landmarks Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island provided iconic scenery for photo opportunities.

The production issues were resolved by the middle of 1989, after the type had had its EIS with Northwest on February 9, 1989, flying between Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) and Phoenix (PHX).

The 747’s place atop the wide-body food chain was secure. The capable 747-400 would end up winning 694 orders across six unique variants and dominate the top end of the wide-body market for nearly a decade and a half, until it was superseded by the Airbus A340-600, Boeing 777-300ER, and, eventually, Airbus A380.

The Last Chapter: 747-8

Announced on November 14, 2005, the 747-8 was the culmination of years of study into improvements and replacement for the 747-400.

Relative to the -400, the -8 would be a stretched variant capable of handling 40 extra passengers (the 747-8i) or the world’s largest dedicated freighter (747-8F). The 747-8 would also feature an updated interior and FBW cockpit.

747-8I First Flight K65204-04

Developed at the same time as the 787, the 747-8 suffered from many of the same issues as its smaller cousin, with Boeing pushing back delivery by more than a year across multiple delays.

Almost as soon as it had launched, the 747-8i was awkwardly placed for the passenger market. On the lower end, the 777-300(ER) was a hot seller and replacement for the 747-400 that offered killer operating costs and better seasonal operating flexibility.

But Airbus’s A380, albeit having experienced a troubled rollout of its own, had the 747-8i beat for operating economics. The 747-8i burned too much fuel with its four engines in an aviation world trending towards twinjets.

Eventually, the A350-1000 and 777-9X were added to the mix, and the net result was that 747-8i sales never took off. To date, the 747-8i has sold just 51 units.

When Boeing launched the 747-8F, a significant portion of the business case rested on the new-build freighter market, which Boeing projected to boom in line with generally bullish projections about the air cargo market as a whole and expectations of high fuel prices.

Picture from Boeing.

Instead, the air freight market turned choppy, as economic uncertainty and growth slowdowns in several emerging markets put pressure on cargo space utilization and yields.

Moreover, belly cargo is playing a larger role in the long-haul freight market, as the passenger wide-body fleet booms in size.

The 747-8F is the best and only new build freighter in its class. But there’s nobody left that has a true need for it. The shift to belly cargo has tamped down demand for medium and large wide-body freighters.

Recent rumblings in the defense industry indicate that the US Air Force (USAF) is fast-tracking the acquisition of the next generation of Air Force One presidential transport aircraft.

Air Force One (Credits: United States Air Force)

According to defense industry newsletter Inside Defense, the USAF has moved forward to 2018 the timeline to acquire new aircraft, after having indicated that a purchase would not occur before 2021.

The Air Force One contract is a prestigious one for Boeing, which also supplied the 707 and 747-200 that made up the base for previous iterations, and Boeing is likely to compete vigorously for the new contract.

Having its production line open will prove critical for Boeing to produce the new Air Force One, a public relations bonanza, at a reasonable cost.

For that reason alone, Boeing is expected to try to produce them until no more orders come in for the Freighter version, which it’s only a matter of time before it happens.

Happy 50th Anniversary to the plane that changed the shape of the world.

The one and only. The 747.