[bankrupted] the company.”
But after that 85-minute inaugural flight — not a minute more, according to Wygle’s detailed flight logbook, which he still has — even the naysayers were convinced. “All my worries evaporated,” Sutter wrote in his autobiography. “I knew we had a good airplane.”
It was far from just a “good” airplane. The Boeing 747 would come to redefine air travel in the late 20th century. With its four engines, it could travel farther and faster than other jets and, with a seating capacity of 550, carry three times as many passengers. The extra seats meant prices for international travel came down, and a golden age of global tourism for the masses was born.
Between 1970 and 2017, more than 3.5 billion people have flown on a 747, more than half the world’s population, according to the Smithsonian. 747s have carried Space Shuttles for NASA, been the choice for Air Force One since 1990 and was Richard Branson’s first plane when he launched Virgin Atlantic in 1984. There has never been a more iconic passenger plane, one that even casual travelers can recognize by sight, thanks to its teardrop-shaped “hump” above the main deck.
Its success is a little ironic, given that the 747 was created with the assumption of failure. In the late ’60s, supersonic airplanes like the Concorde, capable of cruising at more than twice the speed of sound, were widely predicted to be the future of commercial air travel.
“The thought was 747s would eventually be converted into cargo planes,” says Lombardi. “They would become freighters.”
So they designed it with cargo in mind, not passengers. By placing the cockpit above the fuselage on a second deck, creating that distinctive hump, the nose of the plane could become a front-loading door. The wide body design allowed for even more cargo room.
When the Concorde failed to take over — carriers like Pan Am and TWA weren’t interested in a plane that used 11 times more fuel while carrying a fraction of the passengers — the 747 became the jumbo jet of choice.
“Every airline had to have one,” says Bob van der Linden, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “It became a status symbol.”
Pan Am was the first airline to offer flights on the 747 — First Lady Pat Nixon helped christen the plane in January of 1970 with red, white and blue champagne — but soon every major carrier was clamoring to add at least one of the iconic jets to their fleet.
And with good reason. Passengers loved them. As Boeing promised in magazine ads in the early ’70s, “Welcome to the Spacious Age.” The 747’s twin aisles didn’t just come with extra legroom but also vertical sidewalls and high ceilings that made it easy to forget you were on a plane at 35,000 feet. “Boeing extensively studied the psychological effects of a cabin’s layout,” says Lombardi. “Just having the feeling of space and openness makes passengers feel instantly more relaxed.”
The upper deck, an extra area of space that had no real purpose in the initial design, turned into a first-class lounge, where first-class passengers walked up a spiral suitcase to be wined and dined. Jeffrey Ruthizer, 77, a former New Yorker (he now lives in Delray Beach, Fla.), remembers taking a 747 for a honeymoon trip to Paris with wife Monica in 1976. “It was all about caviar and foie gras and the finest filet mignons,” he says. “The stewardesses were beautiful and every single guy, and half the married guys, would be trying to grab one of them.”
Carriers went above and beyond to make their lounge area special. Continental had a fully stocked pub, including arcade games. United’s “Red Carpet Room” featured swivel chairs, wide-screen movies and over a dozen baby bassinets. American Airlines had a grand piano to keep passengers entertained. Frank Sinatra Jr. played a surprise show with his nine-piece band during a red-eye flight on American from Los Angeles to New York in 1971.
The flight attendants talk about the 747 like they were mansions in the sky. “We had a formal dining room,” says Christa Keppel, who became a Pan Am stewardess in 1970. “Maxim’s of Paris did a lot of our catering. Dom Perignon was our Champagne of choice.”
Carole Tye, who flew with United during the ’70s and ’80s, says stewardesses would “put orchids throughout the cabin. We even dabbled in aircraft-approved ‘pyrotechnics,’ creating tiny volcanoes with dry ice and crème de menthe. It was all part of the pomp and circumstance that went along with flying the premier airplane of its day.”
Even Laura Brentlinger, a retired stewardess who nearly lost her life on a 747, has nothing but praise for the plane. In 1989, Brentlinger was working on United Flight 811 out of Honolulu, and the cargo door ripped open at 22,000 feet, pulling nine passengers out of the plane to their deaths. As Brentlinger was being sucked towards the aircraft’s hole, she grabbed onto the spiral staircase and says her feet “were flailing in the wind like a flag. Had it been any other airplane, I’m not sure I would have survived. She [the 747] saved my life. I cried when she was retired.”
From the beginning, stewardesses loved the 747. That’s true even for Laura Brentlinger (inset), who was almost killed in 1989 when a hole tore open in the side of her jet. She survived by clinging to the spiral staircase.
Devastating accidents like Flight 811 have been the exception. Just 4 percent of the more than 1,500 Boeing 747s built since 1970 have been involved in crashes, and more than half of those had no loss of life. But as with all things 747, even their tragedies had to be the biggest. In 1977, two Boeing 747s collided on a foggy runway in Spain, killing 583 passengers. It remains the deadliest air disaster of all time.
The 747 began to fall out of favor over the last few decades. “Carriers have started to turn to twin-engine jets like the Boeing 777 and Airbus 330 for transatlantic travel,” says Linden. Both burn less fuel and have substantially lower operating costs than a 747.
“A modern jet engine is more efficient and unbelievably reliable,” Linden says. “You just don’t need four of them anymore to get across an ocean.”
The last 747 commercial flight by a US airline happened in January 2018. It was Delta Flight 9771 carrying just 48 people from Atlanta to Arizona, and two of the passengers got married mid-flight. Today, there are more than 500 Boeing 747 jumbos in use around the world, on airlines like Korean Air, British Airways and Lufthansa, among others, but they’re slowly being phased out. Qantas, Australia’s biggest airline, plans to retire its six remaining 747s by 2020.
Even the White House may be joining the anti-747 tide. President Trump isn’t a fan of the jet’s “out of control” costs and in 2016 tweeted that he intends to “cancel order” for a “brand-new 747 Air Force One.”
But even as they disappear, the 747 remains a gold standard. Mark Vanhoenacker, a pilot for British Airways and author of the memoir Skyfaring, says the 747 is the reason he and many other young pilots wanted to fly at all.
He remembers one of his first (and last) trips on the famous jumbo jet with an equally enamored co-pilot. “We looked out those enormous 747 flight-deck windows,” Vanhoenacker says, “and one of us said to the other, ‘This is it. It doesn’t get any better than this.’ ”
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the February 24, 2019 edition of the New York Post