Bon Voyage, Boeing 747. You Really Did Change Everything.

The first Boeing 747 after being rolled out of the Boeing factory in Everett, Wash., in 1968. Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The first Boeing 747 after being rolled out of the Boeing factory in Everett, Wash., in 1968. Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Some legends really are true, and indeed it is the case that two men on an Alaskan fishing trip in the mid-1960s struck a bargain that wound up starting the era of the jumbo jetliner, which democratized air travel in ways that are hard to appreciate today.

“If you build it, I’ll buy it”, said Juan Trippe, the head of Pan American World Airways.

“If you buy it, I’ll build it”, countered Bill Allen, the president of the Boeing Airplane Company.

Remarkably, barely three years after a handshake agreement, the Boeing 747 rolled out of a giant factory a bit north of Seattle. It quickly made global air travel more affordable than it had ever been, fulfilling Trippe’s vision of a world where plumbers and schoolteachers, not just the well-heeled, could think about taking their families to London or Rio de Janeiro or Tokyo.

This week, 53 years after the first Pan Am passenger flights between New York and London, the 1,574th — and last — Boeing 747 had its ceremonial send-off and took to the skies. This ultimate example of the famous airliner has a depiction on its tail of Atlas holding the world atop his shoulders, as the logo of the cargo and charter carrier Atlas Air Worldwide. How appropriate, for the 747 created a worldwide web long before there was a World Wide Web.

As the last of the giants leaves the nest, it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge the 747’s role in aviation history, not to mention the ways in which it symbolized an era when American manufacturing still seemed to be able to pull off anything, including a trip to the moon.

The 747 was nearly three times the size and capacity of any jet airliner at the time, and with that distinctive double-decker bulge, it certainly looked like none of its predecessors. (The hump, by the way, was an act of engineering genius: It allows the plane to open up on hinges at its nose, creating a huge cavity eight feet high and nearly 12 feet wide. That is what has made it a huge success as a freighter.)

Some professional pilots said the plane was so big and so heavy that it would never get off the ground — literally. It did fly, of course, though even today one can be forgiven for watching this mammoth humpback lumber down a runway and wondering how in the world the thing will ever get aloft. All told, 747s have carried more than six billion passengers about 60 billion nautical miles, the rough equivalent of 144,000 trips to the moon and back.

But aside from its engineering superlatives and its military variant’s star turn in Hollywood and as the president’s airplane, what the 747 ultimately accomplished was more profound. In bringing air travel to the masses, it further shrank our world and allowed for a degree of human connection that was simply unthinkable for prior generations.

For many, cheap air travel gave the human heart a much wider range of choices, as people living on opposite coasts or even in different countries discovered they could start and sustain long-distance relationships in a way that was simply not conceivable in the past. More prosaically, it gave the human appetite wider choices, be it just-picked kiwis from New Zealand or fresh Copper River salmon from Alaska. Unhelpfully, it also helped viruses to travel with ease across the globe.

All of this didn’t start with the 747, of course. The Boeing 707, the iconic leading airliner of the early Jet Age, had its own important role. (One example: Hawaii had just 171,367 visitors in 1958, the year before Pan Am started flying the 707 to Honolulu. By 1970, the 747’s inaugural year, that figure was up to 1.75 million.)

But it was the 747 that brought worldwide travel within reach for hundreds of millions of people. Today, air travel is a victim of its own success, and most of us hardly give more thought to flying on an airplane than we do to taking a bus; we may even consider the former a more miserable experience.

Anyone who got caught in the Southwest Airlines holiday meltdown may not appreciate this sentiment, but overall air travel today remains something of a miracle. Whether you need to get to Paris or Pasco, you can usually do so in a matter of hours, at a price that allows you to think about taking such a trip in the first place and with an astonishing degree of confidence that you’ll get there safely.

The “Queen of the Skies” is passing out of fashion because nimbler, more energy efficient jetliners with two engines — rather than the 747’s four — have come along to do a better job of getting people from point to point internationally.

In fact, the biggest challenge facing the aviation industry today isn’t how to move passengers around better. The existential question for airliner manufacturers and airlines alike is whether they can do it in a way that’s better for the planet. Aviation takes a frightful environmental toll, and for most of us, the single most significant thing we could do to fight climate change is simply to stop flying. The industry is working hard on solutions, but aviation remains one of the most difficult activities to decarbonize, for pretty obvious reasons.

Gravity is a difficult thing to overcome, and no battery yet known to man could possibly get a modern jet airliner across the Atlantic Ocean from Kennedy to Heathrow. Aviation engineers truly accomplished the phenomenal more than half a century ago when they met the challenge concocted by those two guys fishing in Alaska. Today’s airplane designers should use the story of the Boeing 747’s success as inspiration for the great task they now face of building an airliner that’s not only fast and affordable and safe but green as well.

Sam Howe Verhovek, a former national correspondent for The Times, is the author of Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World.

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