27 NOVEMBER 2017
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As with Mark Twain, who responded to publication of his obituary by saying reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated, so with the Boeing B747. Special events by several airlines marking the end of B747 operations prompted BTN last week, among other publications, to foresee the end of the Queen of the Skies’ long reign.
This in turn brought a polite response from Boeing’s international corporate communications director for the UK and Ireland, Matt Knowles: “Just a little note,” he wrote, “to ask you to remember that the Boeing 747 will be flying for many years to come. It’s far too early to be saying farewell.”
We at BTN are still drooling over the appearance by the BOAC VC10 in the new Heathrow Christmas advertisement (see this issue), so we are happy to hear the original Jumbo will still be seen in all its bulbous glory. As Knowles continued: “While some airlines are retiring their 747-400s, others will keep flying theirs for some time while recently-delivered 747-8s will be in service for much longer, not least at Lufthansa, Korean and Air China.” The point, he says, is we should be talking about 747-400 retirements rather than 747 retirements: “It is very premature to say goodbye to the 747 in service,” he added.
Well, we did say it was an “almost” farewell but it would indeed have been sad if that had been the end of the story. And what a story. The original version of the 747 was envisioned to have 150% greater capacity than the Boeing B707. It was first flown commercially in 1970 and held the passenger capacity record for 37 years but the distinctive hump, although designed to serve as a First Class lounge or provide extra seating, had an extra purpose. That was to allow for easy conversion to a cargo carrier because Boeing thought supersonic aircraft would replace subsonic fleets in the passenger role and the 747F was the perfect answer.
In short, the 747 was expected to become obsolete after 400 were sold. Instead, production passed the 1,000 mark in 1993 and 1,536 had been built by the end of September this year. The newest version, the 747-8, is still on-line with currently a 17-aircraft backlog. At one a month, the cargo version may also be around for a long time.
There is another story about the famous hump which since it also contained the cockpit put 747 flight crews a long way from the ground. The late Captain Jack Nichol when director of flight operations for BOAC was involved with the certification of the aircraft at Seattle which included the emergency evacuation of the aircraft. Not for Jack, later to become Master of the Oxford Air Training School. The idea of descending via a hatch from that height did not appeal. He organised a younger crew member to take his place. When at Oxford Jack tried his hand with a Piper Warrior. This you landed sitting 3ft from the runway. You don't flare out a Warrior at 25ft. New undercarriage required!
Proof the Jumbo is still in demand, albeit in the cargo version, came last week with the news two 747 freighters had been sold on the Chinese website Taobao, the country's equivalent of eBay – China's SF Airlines outbid 25 other interested buyers to secure the aircraft for about $48m.
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