For a half-century, Boeing mechanics in a sprawling factory north of Seattle have riveted together aluminum panels into the familiar hump-backed form of the 747 jumbo jet. Test pilots then put each new plane through its paces on an adjacent air strip before sending it off to roam the globe.
This airplane, more than any other, made long-range travel into a mass-market phenomenon. And on Monday, one of the jets born here returned home.
Delta Air Lines flew a 747 filled with employees and customers from its Detroit hub to Boeing’s plant in Everett, Washington. It was the first in a series of farewell flights to Delta hubs this week, marking the end of the airliner’s U.S. passenger service. For those aboard, it was a rare opportunity to touch down on the same runway from which the first 747 lifted skyward on Feb. 9, 1969.
On the ground, Boeing workers who helped build 747-400s like the returning Delta plane celebrated an aviation milestone. But there’s poignancy to the moment: With just 14 unfilled orders in Boeing’s backlog, four-engine aircraft appears to have fallen out of favor. The future isn’t bright for jumbo jetliners such as the old 747.
For a morning, at least, Delta and Boeing set aside their differences to bask in nostalgia. Just last week, Delta ordered 100 jets from Airbus SE, Boeing’s rival. And a trade fight between the U.S. jetmaker and Bombardier Inc. threatens to foul up a separate deal that’s key to Delta’s fleet plans.
There were those aboard Monday’s farewell-to-passengers flight who came of age with the 747. The planes’ hulking wings-and, for children riding on Pan Am in the 1970s heyday, those captain’s wing pins-symbolized access for millions of us to foreign lands not easily reached by telephones of the era. A generation came to learn the aircraft’s quirks, such as the jet’s bulbous nose and swept wings and the vibrations during the take-off roll that caused over-stuffed luggage bins to pop open on early models. There was also the fascination, never lost for some, of ascending a staircase to ride high above the world in the “bubble,” the deck behind the cockpit.
Delta Flight 9771 rumbled down the runway and lifted into the air at 7:47 a.m. on Monday in Detroit, the first flight on a farewell tour this week, with stops planned at Delta strongholds in Seattle, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. The aircraft will ferry NFL and college football teams in late December before making a final ferry flight to the desert in January. To win a seat on Monday’s charter flight, Delta customers bid frequent flyer miles, while employees and retirees entered an internal lottery, with selection based in part on seniority and personal connection to the 747 fleet.
The celebration on board was low-key, more a reunion of old friends than the boisterous parties that sometimes mark commemorative flights. The four-and-a-half-hour journey provided many on board a chance to relive old times, especially for those who had plied trans-Pacific routes for Northwest Airlines prior to the merger. There was a throwback meal service-hot breakfast followed by a light lunch-and a 747-centric trivia quiz. (Sample question: How many miles of wiring are on a 747-400? Answer: 171.)
“I get all choked up,” said Christine L’Allier, who has spent most of her 32 years at Delta and Northwest as a flight attendant aboard the jumbos. She recalled Thanksgivings spent at 35,000 feet, with the traditional meal cooked in ovens large enough to fit a turkey.
The 747 was the first twin-aisle airplane, with more than double the capacity of the largest commercial craft at the time. Delta’s 747s, introduced on a maiden voyage in 1970 from Atlanta to Dallas to Los Angeles, brought the first overhead luggage bins to the airline, as well as the first in-flight audio channels, dubbed “Deltasonic,” which featured the Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Beethoven. The planes could hold 370 passengers, including 66 in first class and six in those penthouse seats up the stairs.
The design made it literally a wide-body, which became a moniker for long-range aircraft. “It’s one of two seminal airplanes,” said George Hamlin, an aerospace consultant, a former airline and aerospace executive and an aviation history buff. The DC-3, the other iconic aircraft on Hamlin’s list, was a silver piston-engine made by Douglas that helped airlines evolve from mail carriers to people movers in the 1930s and 1940s.
But it was the long-haul capability-a 6,000-mile reach-that made the 747 transformational. “The range of the plane allowed it to go anywhere in the world,” said Michael Lombardi, Boeing’s corporate historian. “It was at that point in history where all of humanity had the ability to get on a flight.”
The peak year of the 747 came in 2002, when the airplane completed 33,000 flights hauling 10.5 million passengers on 50 airlines. All told, 1,540 Boeing aircraft have been delivered since 1969.
“It was the plane that shrank the world. That is the legacy of the 747,” Lombardi said. “Joe Sutter would tell you the same thing.”