Published On: Thu, Feb 1st, 2018

The 747 in Winter

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Update: January 1, 2018

Since this post was first published, Delta Air Lines retired its last Boeing 747 from scheduled passenger service. Delta’s retirement didn’t get the media fanfare that United’s did (which is a little weird, since it was Delta, not United, who made the final flight), but the result is a profound and depressing one: For the first time since 1970, the 747 is gone from the fleets of the U.S. majors. How sad is that? Atlas Air, that New York-based freight outfit, we turn our lonely eyes to you.

November 8, 2017

ON TUESDAY, November 7, United Airlines operated its final Boeing 747 flight. Commemoratively designated as flight UA747, the plane left San Francisco at around noon local time and touched down in Honolulu about five hours later, closing out nearly fifty years of 747 flying for United. The company was one of only six current-day airlines to have operated the iconic jumbo jet since its inception.

Delta too is retiring its 747s, which it inherited several years ago through its merger with Northwest Airlines. This means the type is about to vanish completely from the fleets of North American passenger carriers. Once upon a time, United, American, Northwest, Braniff, TWA, Pan Am and Air Canada all flew the type simultaneously.

There are plenty of 747s still out there, scattered around Europe and Asia, but not nearly as many as there used to be, and the number is getting smaller. Lufthansa, British Airways, KLM and Korean Air are for now the biggest operators. Lufthansa flies 42 of them. British Airways has a fleet of 36, and says it will keep them flying at least through the next six years.

The 747’s replacement is not so much the double-decker Airbus A380, as many people assume. The A380 indeed has captured some of the ultra high-capacity market, but, with the exception of Emirates’ 100-plus fleet, it is found only in limited numbers. Rather, it’s Boeing’s own 777-300, which can carry almost as may people as a 747, at around two-thirds of the operating costs, that has rendered the four-engine model otherwise obsolete. Pretty much every 777-300 that you see out there — and there are hundreds of them — would have been a 747 in decades past. The -300 has quietly become the jumbo jet of the 21st century. United, American, and Air Canada are operators of the type, as are scores of carriers overseas.

In other cases, market fragmentation has resulted in carriers switching to smaller long-haul planes like the 777-200 and the Airbus A330. In past decades, traveling internationally meant flying on only a handful of airlines from a small number of gateway cities. Today, dozens of carriers offer nonstop options between cities of all sizes. More people are flying than ever before, but they’re doing so in smaller planes from a far greater number of airports.

The 747’s demise is painful for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s such a great looking airplane.

In the mid-1960s, aerodynamicists at Boeing, led by the visionary engineer Joe Sutter, faced a momentous task. Their assignment: to build the largest commercial jetliner ever conceived — one that would feature twice the tonnage and capacity of any existing plane — and make it pretty. Where to begin?

Well, specifically, you begin in the front and in the back. “Most architects who design skyscrapers focus on two aesthetic problems,” explains the architecture critic Paul Goldberger in an issue of The New Yorker. “How to meet the ground and how to meet the sky—the top and the bottom, in other words.” Thinking of a jetliner as a horizontal skyscraper, we see that its beauty is gained or lost chiefly through the shaping of the nose and tail. The builders at Boeing understood Goldberger’s point exactly, and the airplane they came up with, the iconic 747, is an aesthetic equal of the grandest Manhattan skyscraper.

It’s perhaps telling that today, strictly from memory, with only the aid of a pencil and a lifetime of watching airplanes, I am able to sketch the fore and aft sections of the 747 with surprising ease and accuracy. This is not a testament to my drawing skills, believe me. Rather, it’s a natural demonstration of the elegant, almost organic flow of the jet’s profile.

The tail rises to greater than 60 feet. Though it’s essentially a six-story aluminum billboard, there’s something sexy in the fin’s cant, like the angled foresail of a schooner. Up front, it’s hard to look at a 747 without focusing on the plane’s most recognizable feature — its second-story penthouse deck. The 747 is often — and unfairly—described as “bubble-topped” or “humpbacked.” In truth, the upper-deck annex is smoothly integral to the fuselage, tapering forward to a stately and assertive prow. The plane looks less like an airliner than it does an ocean liner in the classic Queen Mary mold. There is something poetic and proud even in the name itself — the stylish tilt of the 7s and the lyrical, palindromic ring: seven-forty-seven.

The 747 was built for a market — high capacity, long haul — that technically didn’t exist yet. By the end of the 1960s, a growing population craved the opportunity to travel nonstop over great distances, but no plane was big enough, or had enough range, to make it affordable for the average person. Boeing’s four-engined 707 had ushered in the Jet Age several years earlier, but with room for about 180 passengers at most, its economies of scale were limited. The technological challenges and development costs of the 707 had been formidable, and planemakers were uneasy with the idea of building anything larger. It was up to Juan Trippe, the legendary leader of Pan Am, who’d been at the vanguard of the 707 project, to persuade Boeing that not only was an airplane with twice the 707’s capacity feasible, it was a revolution waiting to happen.

He was right, even if vindication didn’t come easy. Boeing took a chance and built Trippe his superjet, nearly bankrupting itself in the process. Early-on engine problems were a costly embarrassment, and sales were alarmingly slow at the outset. But on January 21, 1970, Pan Am’s Clipper Victor made the maiden voyage on the New York–London milk run, and the dynamics of global air travel were changed forever. For the first time, millions of flyers were able to cover tremendous distances at great speed — at affordable fares. Four-hundred passengers at a time — New York to Tokyo; Paris to Rio; Hong Kong to Sydney — moving at five-hundred miles per hour in a safe, spacious, incomparably elegant machine weighing close to a million pounds.

It’s not a stretch to consider the advent of the 747 as the most crucial turning point in the history of civil aviation, and over a nearly fifty-year production run it would go on to become one of the bestselling airliners of all time. Of all Boeing jets, only its little brother, the 737, would sell more copies.

747 at Kennedy Airport, 1997.   Author’s photo.

In the second grade, my two favorite toys were both 747s. The first was an inflatable replica, similar to those novelty balloons you buy at parades, with rubbery wings that drooped in such violation of the real thing that I’d tape them into proper position. To a seven-year-old it seemed enormous, like my own personal Macy’s float. The second toy was a plastic model about 12 inches long. Like the balloon, it was decked out in the livery of Pan Am. One side of the fuselage was made of clear polystyrene, through which the entire interior, row by row, could be viewed. I can still picture exactly the blue and red pastels of the tiny chairs.

Also visible, in perfect miniature near the toy plane’s nose, was a blue spiral staircase. Early 747s were outfitted with a set of spiral stairs connecting the main and upper decks — a touch that gave the entranceway a special look and feel. Stepping onto a 747 was like stepping into the lobby of a fancy hotel, or into the grand vestibule of a cruise ship. In 1982, on my inaugural trip on a 747, I beamed at my first real-life glimpse of that winding column. Those stairs are in my blood — a genetic helix twisting upward to a kind of pilot Nirvana. (Alas, later-variant 747s adopted a traditional, ladder-style staircase.)

In the 1990s, Boeing ran a magazine advertisement for the 747. It was a two-page, three-panel ad, with a nose-on silhouette of the plane against a dusky sunset. “Where/does this/take you?” asked Boeing across the centerfold. Below this dreamy triptych, the text went on:

“A stone monastery in the shadow of a Himalayan peak. A cluster of tents on the sweep of the Serengeti plains. The Boeing 747 was made for places like these. Distant places filled with adventure, romance, and discovery. The 747 is the symbol for air travelers in the hearts and minds of travelers. It is the airplane of far-off countries and cultures. Where will it take you?”

Perfect. I so related to this syrupy bit of PR that I clipped it from the magazine and kept it in a folder, where it resides to this day. Whenever it seemed my career was going nowhere (which was all the time), I’d pull out the ad and look at it.

Its grace, its capabilities, and its place in history give the 747 an unmatched mystique that transcends aviation. Its legacy belongs to the bigger, more important context of human imagination and achievement. The nature and travel writer Barry Lopez once authored an essay in which, from inside the hull of an empty 747 freighter, he compares the aircraft to the quintessential symbol of another era—the Gothic cathedral of twelfth-century Europe. “Standing on the main deck,” Lopez writes, “where ‘nave’ meets ‘transept,’ and looking up toward the pilots’ ‘chancel.’ … The machine was magnificent, beautiful, complex as an insoluble murmur of quadratic equations.” No other airplane could arouse a comparison like that. Technologically, aesthetically, whichever — the 747 is without a doubt one the most impressive and inspirational works of industrial art ever produced.

But now for some fun:

The picture at the top of this article shows the prototype Boeing 747 on the day of its rollout from the factory in Everett, Washington. It was September 30th, 1968. I love this photo because it so perfectly demonstrates both the size and the elegance of the 747. It’s hard for a photograph to properly capture both of those aspects of the famous jet, and this image does it better than any I’ve ever seen. When I was a kid, I had a copy of this picture on my bedroom wall.

Across the forward fuselage you can see the logos of the 747’s original customers. The one furthest forward, of course, is the blue and white globe of Pan Am. Pan Am and the 747 are all but synonymous, their respective histories (and tragedies) forever intertwined. But plenty of other carriers were part of the plane’s early story, as those decals attest. Twenty-seven airlines initially signed up for the jumbo jet when Boeing announced production.

My question is, can you name them? How many of those logos can you identify?

Here, and here, are a couple of closer-in, higher resolution shots to help you.

Once you’re ready, scroll down for the answers.

The 747 in those archival Boeing photos still exists, by the way, and you can visit it — touch it — at the Museum of Flight at Seattle’s Boeing Field.


Here are the 27 original customers. You may wish to reference this close-up photo as you go along, left to right…

Top row:

Delta Air Lines
Eastern Airlines
Air India
National Airlines
World Airways
United Airlines
American Airlines
Air France

Bottom row:

South African Airways
Air Canada
El Al
Braniff International
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS)
Aer Lingus
Northwest Airlines
Continental Airlines
Trans World Airlines (TWA)
Japan Airlines (JAL)
Pan American

Twenty-seven carriers got things rolling, though many more would follow, from Cathay Pacific to Air Gabon. I’m not sure of the meaning of the order of the decals. Pan Am was the launch customer, and its logo is located furthest forward — either first or last on the list, depending how you see it. The rest may or may not be chronologically arranged, I don’t know.

Whatever order they are in, there’s a tremendous amount of history in those logos. Let’s take a quick look at each of the 27 carriers, and their trademarks. Again, left to right, top row first:

1. Delta operated only a handful of the original 747-100, and not for very long, although later it would inherit more than 20 of the -400 variant through its merger with Northwest. The last of those jets is slated for retirement at the end of this month. The Delta “widget” symbol is today a two-tone red, but is otherwise identical to the mark you see in the photos.

2. A single 747-100 flew in Eastern colors only very briefly before it was sold to TWA. The airline’s blue and white oval, however, one of the most iconic airline trademarks of all time, endured a lot longer. This was the final incarnation of the carrier’s longtime falcon motif, and Eastern used it right to the end, until the company’s demise at the hands of Frank Lorenzo in 1991.

3. The Air India centaur, representative of Sagittarius, suggested movement and strength. It also resembled the farohar, a Parsi heavenly symbol featuring a winged man. The Parsis are a Zoroastrian sect of the Subcontinent — of which Air India’s founding family, the Tatas, were members — and their farohar is a sign of good luck. Sadly, Air India abandoned this culturally rich trademark some years ago. The airline operated four different 747 variants before switching to the 777-300.

4. National Airlines flew the 747 on routes between the Northeast and Florida. In 1980 the airline merged with Pan Am. Its “Sundrome” terminal at Kennedy Airport, where the JetBlue terminal sits today, was designed by I.M. Pei.

5. World Airways was a U.S. supplemental carrier that flew passenger and cargo charters worldwide for 66 years, until ceasing operations in 2014. It operated the 747-100, -200 and -400.


6. Until this week, United Airlines operated the 747 without interruption since 1970, having flown the -100, -200 and -400 variants, as well as the short-bodied SP version. The latter were inherited from Pan Am after purchase of that airline’s Pacific routes in 1986.

7. American Airlines sold the last of its 747s more than two decades ago, but over the years its fleet included the -100 and, for a short period, the SP. The emblem in the photos shows an early version of the famous AA eagle logo, later perfected by the Italian designer Massimo Vignelli and worn by the carrier until its disastrous livery overhaul in 2013.

8. The Air France seahorse logo still graces the caps of the airline’s pilots. Air France flew the 747-100, -200, and -400. Today, the 777-300 and A380 do the heavy lifting.

9. BOAC, the British Overseas Airways Corporation, merged with British European Airways in 1974 to form what today is known as British Airways. That black, delta-winged logo traces its origins to Imperial Airways in the 1920s. Known as the “Speedbird,” this is where British Airways’ air traffic control call-sign comes from.

10. Lufthansa’s crane logo, one of commercial aviation’s most familiar symbols, is mostly unchanged to this day. The airline’s 13 747-400s and 19 747-8s comprise what is, at the moment, the largest 747 fleet in the world. The -100 and -200 were in service previously, including a freighter version of the -200.

11. Sabena, the former Belgian national carrier, flew the 747-100, -200 and -300. The airline ceased operations in 2002 after 78 years of service. This logo is one of the hardest to identify in the Boeing photos. It’s blurry in most pictures, and the carrier didn’t use it for very long. People are much more familiar with Sabena’s circular blue “S” logo.

12. Spanish carrier Iberia flew 747s for three decades, but today it relies on the A330 and A340 for long-haul routes. Different versions of the globe logo were used until the late 1970s.

13. South African Airways is among the few airlines to have flown at least four different 747 variants: the -200 through -400, plus the SP. The springbok, an African antelope, remained its trademark until a post-Apartheid makeover in the 1990s.

14. Air Canada recently brought back the five-pointed maple leaf as part of a beautiful new livery. Alas, you won’t be seeing it on a 747. The last one left the fleet in 2004.

15. El Al is Hebrew for “to the skies,” and the Israeli airline still operates a handful of 747-400s mainly on flights between Tel Aviv and New York.

16. It was hard to miss one of Braniff’s 747s. The Dallas-based carrier, one of America’s biggest airlines until it was killed off by the effects of over-expansion and deregulation, painted them bright orange.

17. Each of Scandinavian’s 747s carried a “Viking” name on its nose — the Knut Viking, the Magnus Viking, the Ivar Viking among them — with a fuselage stripe that soared rakishly upward into the shape of a longboat. Just a beautiful plane, as you can see below. That striping is long gone, but the SAS trademark, one of the most enduring in aviation, is unchanged.


18. After being in business for 71 years, Swissair closed down forever in March, 2002. It had flown the 747 -200 and -300.

19. Qantas — that’s an acronym, by the way, for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services — uses a modernized version of this kangaroo logo, and continues to operate a fleet of a dozen or so 747-400s.

20. KLM is the world’s oldest airline, and this logo, a masterpiece of simplicity, is still in use today, only barely altered. There are 17 747s in the KLM fleet. With United out of the picture, KLM joins Lufthansa, Qantas, El Al and BOAC/British Airways as the only members of the original 27 to have operated the jet continuously since 1970.

21. Aer Lingus 747s were a daily sight here in Boston throughout the 1970s and 1980s, before the airline downsized to the Airbus A330. A modernized shamrock logo remains on the tail.

22. Alitalia’s “Freccia Alata” bow and arrow is the emblem that readers had the most trouble with. This was the airline’s symbol until 1972, before changing to the stylized red and green “A” used to the present day. It looks even older than it is. One emailer described it wonderfully as, “something Gatsby would have on cufflinks.” Alitalia parted ways with the 747 in 2002, switching to the 777 and A330.

23. Northwest, which merged with Delta in 2008, was for a time the world’s largest 747 operator, with more than 40 in service. It was the launch customer of the 747-400 in 1989. The last of those planes, now wearing Delta colors, will be flown to the desert later this month, ending 47 years of 747 passenger service by U.S. carriers.

24. Continental Airlines flew the 747-100 and -200 on and off, but never had more than a handful. The “meatball” logo, as some people callously called it, was designed by Saul Bass and used from 1968 until 1991. Continental merged with United in 2010.

25. TWA, one of the world’s most storied carriers, was an early 747 customer and kept the type in service until 1998m — shortly after the flight 800 disaster. Though few people remember it, TWA also had a small fleet of three 747SPs at one point. The SP paint job included the markings “Boston Express,” and they were primarily used on routes from Boston to London and Paris.

26. Japan Airlines flew more 747s than anybody — at one point over 60 — including a high-density short-range version that held 563 passengers! (It was one of those “SR” planes that crashed near Mt. Fuji in 1985, in what remains the deadliest single-plane accident of all time.)  JAL’s crane logo, with the bird’s wings forming the shape of the Japanese rising sun, is the most elegant airline logo ever created. JAL retired the crane in 2002 as part of a monstrously ugly redesign, but wisely brought it back nine years later.

27. And then there’s Pan Am — the blue globe that was once as widely recognized as the logos of Coca-Cola or Apple. What can you say?

In closing, a little-known fact: Yours Truly was a passenger on the inaugural international passenger flight of the Boeing 747-400. It was a Northwest Airlines flight from JFK to Tokyo-Narita on June 1st, 1989. I have this commemorative sake cup to prove it…

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