Boeing’s 747 Design Reaches Fifty Years

By: Category: Airlines

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The first Jumbo Jet, Boeing’s model 747, garnered its launch order from Pan American World Airways in April of 1966. The design for the largest commercial jet transport (up to that time), hadn’t even been frozen for production yet. It has been said that Pan Am was able to influence parts of the new design while it was still on the drawing boards. The prototype finally flew on February 9, 1969, and was introduced into service by Pan Am some eleven months later, on January 22, 1970.

Originally, what ultimately became the 747 design was a response to a large military transport aircraft competition that was advertised in May, 1964. The CX-LHS winner was Lockheed’s C-5A Galaxy, but Boeing retained much of their design idea in a commercial passenger jet proposal. During Boeing’s 50th Anniversary year (1966), the first orders were inked. This year (2016), Boeing just celebrated its 100th anniversary… how time flies!

Many new and innovative designs were incorporated into the commercial 747, including a new class of engines, more complex wing structures, and some new emergency exit procedures needed for the revolutionary aircraft. The bulge and associated short deck on the front of the jet held the cockpit, left over from an original double-deck design left over from the CX-LHS design. This allowed for the nose to be fitted with a hinged cargo door for planned air freighters. The wings carried a new configuration of flaps and slats that allowed operations from moderate sized runways, not requiring restrictions to only the longest ones available at the time. The new high-bypass turbofan engines produced much more thrust than previous commercial designs too.

There have been a series of 747 versions built, as innovative design upgrades have been incorporated over the past fifty years. Here’s a general review of many of them…

B-747-100 The initial passenger version of the jet. Many were manufactured with only three windows on the upper deck. The -100B version contained different engines. Although no original freighter version was built by Boeing, many -100 versions were retrofitted with cargo doors and decks later in their lives.
B-747SR A high density seating version of the -100 with less fuel capacity and a higher flight cycle lifespan, the so-called “Short Range” version was popular with Japanese carriers.
B-747SP The “Special Performance” version of the -100 had a shortened fuselage and taller tail, it weighing less than the normal -100 versions too. This allowed for more range and slightly better speed and altitude performance (and thus even better economy for longer range) for use on the Middle East to New York City routes for which it was designed.

B-747-200-F/-C/-M Uprated engines by three different manufacturers were offered with this upgraded version. A 747-200B version offered a larger maximum operating weight. Numerous pure freighter aircraft were manufactured from the basic -200 version, with two cargo loading door options – a nose door or a side fuselage door. Additional freighters were converted from -200 and -200B airframes with side doors, but only the original -200/-200B freighters have the nose cargo door. The “C” version was convertible, allowing for seating pallets to be offloaded for pure cargo operations. The “M” version offered mixed capacity, with both seating and cargo space on the main deck. These “M” versions were also known as Combination, or “Combi“ versions.

B-747-300/SUD/EUD The -300 version included a lengthened, “Stretched Upper Deck”, sometimes called the “Extended Upper Deck”. Some Combi versions were built. Interestingly, the SUD extension was originally offered on the 747-100SR versions as a retrofit and option on the final few -100s built.

B-747-400 Keeping the longer upper deck design, this variant was equipped with new engines and a wing extension with winglets that improved performance yet again, especially in regards to range. A new glass cockpit was included in this redesign too. Pure freight versions were delivered with a shortened upper deck, and Mixed and Combi versions were offered too.

B-747-8 Now the only 747 version in production. This is the current version of the 747, with raked wing tips instead of winglets and the newest glass cockpit equipment from the 787. New engines and a longer fuselage are included, but most ground servicing operations are still common with the older 747-400.

Government/Military C-19A/C-33A/KC-33A, VC-25A, E-4B, YAL-1 The C-19A and C-33A were projected cargo versions of the 747 that would supplement the C-5 and C-17 freighters in the USAF, but never ordered. An air refueling version was named the KC-33A, but was never produced for the USAF as it lost out to the KC-10A design. Some civilian 747s had the C-19 special designation while they were part of the Civil Reserve Airlift Fleet (CRAF). The pair of VC-25As are the Presidential Air Transport’s premiere airframe, (sometimes incorrectly) referred to as “Air Force Ones”. The 4 E-4Bs are command and control aircraft based at Offutt AFB in Nebraska, and serve as emergency airborne command posts, known as NAOC – or National Airborne Operations Center. Finally, the YAL-1, already retired, was an airborne laser-equipped aircraft projected to be used as an anti-missile platform. Numerous 747 airframes were or still are in use by foreign governments for VIP transportation, and the Imperial Iran Air Force received four as tankers for their fighters under the rule of the last Shah of Iran.

SOFIA/BSCA/LCF SOFIA is a former 747SP equipped with a telescope carried aloft, above much of the earth’s atmosphere and its inherent pollution and air density interference. The two BSCAs (Boeing Shuttle Carrier Aircraft) were a -100 and a -100SR that were converted to carry Space Shuttles between landing sites and launching/replenishment facilities. The 747 LCF is Boeing’s Large Cargo Freighter, built for carrying partial assemblies of the new 787 transport from factories around the world. These were built on a basic -400 airframe.

The current 747-8 is still in production, in both passenger and freighter versions. Today’s 747 has redesigned wings and engines, which has given the original fifty-year airframe design an economically-driven boost. Most of the original 747-100, -200 and -300 series jets have been parked and either broken up or parted out to keep others in the air; of those left in service, many have been converted from passenger to freighter configurations. Only the -400 and -8 versions are regularly seen in passenger service.

In 2019, we’ll celebrate 50 years since the first flight of the 747 prototype. The concept was hatched more than half a century ago; the basic design has roots in the early 1960s – a few years earlier. The Boeing 747 even gathered orders even before it went from the drawing board to production, and more than fifteen hundred airframes have been produced. Any aircraft with a history of more than half a century of development and production has to be considered a success; there’s no doubt that Boeing’s 747 design (maybe with a little help from Pan Am?) has surpassed that milestone and is still going strong. In fact, on October, 2016, UPS ordered fourteen new 747-8F aircraft, with an additional fourteen options.

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