It’s the end of an era for the Queen of the Skies in commercial aviation, as the last-ever Boeing 747 was delivered this week, marking the start of the final chapter for perhaps the most iconic commercial airline jet, ever. Production of the Boeing 747, the world's first twin-aisle airplane, began in 1967 and spanned 54 years, during which a total of 1,574 airplanes were built. In a ceremony that was broadcast live online, the aircraft was handed over to its new owner, US air cargo operator Atlas Air, at Boeing's plant in Everett, Washington.
A string of speakers representing companies that have relied on the 747 came to celebrate the aircraft. "The 747 is a symbol for many, many things, and above all, I think it's a symbol for the world, which the 747 has made substantially smaller," said Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr.
Actor and pilot John Travolta, who narrated a series of videos chronicling the aircraft's colourful history, appeared to thank the employees of Boeing for "the most well-thought-out and safest aircraft ever built."
British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, who was inspired to start an airline with a single Boeing 747 after getting stuck on a delayed flight, earlier on Tuesday called it a "wonderful beast" as he bid farewell.
While the final 747 won't be carrying paying passengers, its delivery is another milestone for the distinctive double-decker "Queen of the Skies," which revolutionised intercontinental travel while also appearing in James Bond films and even giving rides to the Space Shuttle.
Seventy-five thousand engineering drawings were used to produce the first 747. The first 747 completed more than 15,000 hours of wind-tunnel testing, and the original 747 flight test programme, which led to the airplane's certification for commercial service in December 1969, used five airplanes, lasted 10 months and required more than 1,500 hours of flying.
With the last passenger 747 having entered service more than five years ago, the end of the 747's enduring career now moves even closer, hastened by airlines switching their preferences to smaller and more economical aircraft.
The 747's origins date to the 1960s, a period when aviation was on the upswing and airports were becoming increasingly busy.
At the urging of Pan American Airways, Boeing began to plan for a jet that could carry significantly more passengers. Engineers initially conceived of a plane with two fuselages, but dropped that idea due to concerns about evacuating passengers from a second level.
Instead of making the plane taller, the 747 was made quite a bit wider, Michael Lombardi, Boeing's company historian said of a jet that became the first designed with two aisles.
"This airplane will always be recognised as the queen of the sky," Lombardi said at a recent briefing.
The 747 would go on to be powered by four engines and was conceived from the start as a plane that would also carry cargo. Modifications took place, such as there need to raise the cockpit above the nose, leading to the 747's iconic "hump."
The aircraft remained the largest passenger plane until the arrival in the 2000s of the ‘superjumbo’ Airbus A380 – a popular aircraft here in the Middle East.
Lufthansa remains the largest operator of the passenger version of the B747-8, with 19 in its current fleet and potential commitments to keep the jumbo flying passengers for years, possibly decades, to come.
The 747 has proven more popular among cargo operators. There are still 314 747 freighters in use, according to Cirium, many of which were initially used as passenger jets before being renovated into freighters.
Features such as the distinctive nose-loading capability, and the cockpit's elevated position, leaving the whole length of the lower fuselage available to carry large-volume items, have
made it a cargo favourite.
The delivery also brings questions about what will happen to Boeing's vast Everett factory, in which the 747 has been produced since 1967.
While Boeing hasn't disclosed much publicly about what it intends to do with the facilities that housed the Boeing 747 final assembly line, in the run up to the final jumbo delivery reports have emerged that they may be used to work on stored B787 Dreamliners.
What's more, according to these same sources, Boeing may also produce additional B737s in Everett. Production of this bestselling model currently takes place at another facility in Renton, further south in the greater Seattle area.
There are still two more Boeing 747 deliveries pending – but it’s an extraordinary order. They will be the two new US presidential planes, which are technically called VC-25, frequently referred to as "Air Force One" (a call sign that is only used when the US President is on board). These two planes have already been built, having originally been destined for Russian airline Transaero, which went bankrupt in 2015. The two future Air Force Ones are currently undergoing an extensive programme of modifications to prepare them for presidential service.
* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir
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