Designed to meet the demand for mass travel in the late 1960s, the nose and upper deck of the world’s first twin-aisle wide-body jetliner became the world’s most luxurious club above the clouds.
But it was in the seemingly endless lines behind new jumbos that the 747 changed travel.
“This was the airplane that started flying for the middle class in America,” said Ben Smith, CEO of Air France-KLM.
“Before the 747 your average family could not fly cheaply from the US to Europe,” Smith told Reuters.
The jumbo also left its mark on global affairs, from America’s “doomsday plane” nuclear command post to papal visits on a chartered 747 nicknamed Shepherd One, a symbol of war and peace.
Now, two previously delivered 747 aircraft are being fielded to replace the US presidential jets known globally as Air Force One.
As a Pan Am flight attendant, Linda Freire served passengers ranging from Michael Jackson to Mother Teresa.
“It was an incredible diversity of passengers. People who were well dressed and people who had very little and spent everything they had on that ticket,” Freire said.
When the first 747 took off from New York on January 22, 1970, after a delay due to engine failure, the aircraft’s capacity was more than doubled to 350–400 seats in exchange for a reshaping of the airport’s design.
Aviation historian Max Kingsley-Jones said, “It was the plane for the people, which really gave it the potential to become a mass market.”
“This was transformative in all aspects of the industry,” said Ascend By Cerium Senior Advisor.
Its birth became the stuff of aviation myth.
Pan Am founder Juan Trippe sought to cut costs by increasing the number of seats. On a fishing trip, he challenged Boeing president William Allen to dwarf the 707.
Allen put veteran engineer Joe Sutter in charge. Sutter’s team, known as the “Incredibles”, took only 28 months to develop the 747 before its first flight on February 9, 1969.
Although it eventually became a cash cow, the problems encountered in the 747’s early years and the $1-billion development cost nearly bankrupted Boeing, which believed the future of air travel lay in supersonic jets.