MIAMI — Forty-five years ago today, on September 30, 1968, the very first Boeing 747 jumbo jet rolled out of the hangar in Everett, WA. Thousands came from all around to see the largest airplane Boeing had yet built; well over twice the size of the largest passenger jets at the time. Flying for the first time five months later, the airplane went on to become the international symbol of air travel for decades. Yet the iconic 747 was never envisioned to be the revolutionary airplane it became.
That was supposed to have been the Boeing SST-2707. In the 1960s it was widely believed that the age of supersonic travel was just over the horizon. Military aircraft were now routinely breaking the speed of sound, and airlines such as Pan American had begun shopping around for a supersonic transport (SST) in the early ‘60s. At that time the only option publicly on the table was the British/French Concorde. The US Government, not wanting to miss out on the future of air travel, gave Boeing (and Lockheed) a contract via NASA to build an American SST to compete with both the Concorde and the Soviet TU-144: the Boeing SST-2707 was hatched.
At around the same time, the- 2707 program was getting underway, the military was searching for a new large long-haul cargo jet. Both Boeing and Lockheed competed aggressively for the C-5 program, though Lockheed wound up winning the contract. Boeing figured they could salvage some good from the loss, and decided to go ahead with designing a large transport for civilian purposes based on lessons learned from the C-5: the new project became the first 747.
The conventional wisdom of the time dictated that the SSTs would wind up capturing most of the passenger traffic, leaving the 747 to wind up being a freight dog. As a result the airplane was created with an enormous cabin width to accommodate two shipping containers side by side on the main deck; the first wide-body. Of course the airplane could be configured to carry either people or pallets, and indeed the first order from Pan American was in fact a mix a both passenger and freight versions.
Yet the prediction that the 747 would become primarily a freighter would soon prove shortsighted. Winds began to change against the SST projects not long after the 747’s roll out. The 2707 project, which was heavily subsidized with taxpayer money, became an increasingly popular target for budget cuts. Growing opposition from critics, NIMBY’s, and rising jet fuel costs ultimately led the program being scrapped in 1971. Meanwhile the Concorde proved to be a financial boondoggle that never gained serious traction, and the Russian TU-144 was scrapped in 1977 after very limited service.
The loss of the SST proved to be the 747’s gain. The airplane suddenly found itself to be one of the fastest and definitively largest jets in the sky, and airlines clambered for orders. Carriers loved the airplane’s good fuel economy, flexible cabin options, and impressive range. Passengers, for their part, loved the prestige of flying on board the world’s largest airplane, and enjoyed the often palatial interior arrangements. It did not take long before the 747 became the flagship aircraft in fleets around the world, connecting cities across the globe.
The unintentional success of the 747 did not mean, however, that Boeing had considered it a secondary project. Begun in 1966, the airplane required an enormous undertaking. Boeing’s Everett plant, still the world’s largest building by volume, was initially created solely to accommodate production of the giant airplane that stood six stories tall and ran over two-hundred feet long. Ten million man hours were placed into the airplane from the engineers alone.
Over the next four decades the 747 would be significantly stretched, shrunk, and redesigned a total of six times. Boeing had expected to sell around 400 airplanes, yet to date has produced three times what they originally anticipated. While the airplane has sadly been on the way out from passenger service it remains one of the most popular freighters in the world, working for dozens of airlines the world over.
And thus, in a very small nutshell, is the story of how one of the most successful airplanes ever to grace the skies almost wasn’t.