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747: Past-Present-Future

This post is all about the Boeing 747 aka the Jumbo Jet and it comes in three parts. First a bit of history, second some of my own memories and finally some ideas on what you can do with a retired 747. It’s a plane where you don’t have to love planes to still love it.

Virgin Atlantic recently called time on their fleet of Boeing 747’s and it is a decision that follows a trend seen across many other airlines in recent months. Whilst Covid-19 has without doubt hastened the end for these planes; with the new generation of more efficient twin-engine airliners, like Boeing’s 787 or the A350 from Airbus coming on stream, its days were already very much numbered. Quick note here, Boeing did launch an updated 747-8 in 2005 and despite being a fantastic aircraft; with modest sales, it’s not really been a game changer in the way its predecessor was. So, whilst there will still be the odd 747 flying passengers for a year or two yet, as well a number flying cargo for a few more years beyond that; this does mark the end of a 50-year era when the Jumbo was THE plane.

The back story of the 747 reads like a Hollywood movie script. A plan agreed on a fishing trip, developed in the late 1960’s at Boeing for Pan Am, the design was led by the legendary aircraft engineer Joe Sutter. It was initially only a back-up plan for the supersonic 2707, which was to be larger and faster than Concorde. Despite this, the development of the 747 still nearly bankrupted Boeing. However, by the early 1970’s things were changing; the oil crisis had caused a consequent huge rise in fuel costs. Due to this and other financial and technical issues, supersonic airliner development was either cancelled or severely curtailed. Boeing had effectively pushed all it’s chips into the middle of the table on the back of the Jumbo, but crucially everyone else folded and it was left the winning hand; 50 years later and with over 1,500 produced the rest is history.

The 747 is very distinctive; one of the few aircraft where you could show a picture to the average person and they could tell you what it was; maybe it is only up there with Concorde in this regard. The most distinctive feature, the upper deck, was designed not for aesthetics or with business class in mind (Boeing were not initially sure what to use it for), but simply to allow the nose to load cargo through a swing open door on freighter versions. Boeing never solved the issue of how to make the upper deck run the length of the aircraft and so the result was the iconic hump or bubble. I have put below a documentary link on the history of the 747 which is available on YouTube if you are interested in more detail.

The last time I flew on a 747 was with the family on a holiday to Orlando in 2017. Looking back now I am so glad we flew on it; okay so it might not be like a trip on Concorde, but the kids had an opportunity to fly on one of the truly great machines of (for them) the previous century. What made it better was, almost unbelievably when I think about it now, that whilst we went economy, if you booked your seat early enough you could travel in one of the 30 economy seats upstairs*.

Just to be able to board, go straight up the stairs to your own select cabin and join some of the posher seats was fantastic. We were so high off the ground; the plane felt huge, solid and so cocooned in flight. I am not sure if there is a Japanese phrase or a German compound word for an object that ‘really feels like it was meant to do what is does’? However, if there isn’t, then there should be; and it would certainly apply to the 747. I will gladly hold my hands up and say I am a massive fan of Virgin Atlantic, we were looked after superbly in our 'bubble'; the food, drinks, entertainment and of course cabin crew were great. The air steward managed to quietly pass a mug and salt and pepper pots from Upper Class to my daughter and my son had the model of the plane as a memento, see picture below. We may have been flying economy, but up there on the top deck we felt anything but.

All this brings us to what the future holds for these planes, it would be great if Virgin Atlantic could keep us updated? But, in the meantime here are some options with varying degrees of credibility!

Keep flying with another airline – Seems unlikely in the current climate there would be any takers but you never know.

Conversion to private or governmental use – Again seems unlikely, but you never know there might be someone out there with very deep pockets, perhaps John Travolta fancies an upgrade from his vintage Qantas 707?

Conversion to Cargo planes – Maybe some of these planes will be converted for cargo carrying duties, as the 747 has proved a very adept cargo carrier over the years. There is still quite a few flying for this reason, so it’s a plausible option.

Image by nickyhardinguk from Pixabay

Launching space rockets – Virgin Atlantic sold one of its 747’s, Cosmic Girl, too Virgin Galactic in 2015. It now flies small payload rockets to be launched at high altitude; so far with varying degrees of success.

Museum or static displays – The “City of Everett” the first 747 built and named after the Boeing factory site near Seattle, is now on display at the Museum of Flight in Washington State; after at one time very nearly being scrapped. It would nice to think that maybe one of the Virgin 747’s could be preserved in a similar way.

Hotel or similar – Could one of the aircraft be re-purposed into a cool nightclub or airport lounge or hotel? Well its already been done; checkout “STF Jumbo Stay” in Sweden at Stockholm Arlanda airport.

Boneyard – So what if these 747’s had to ultimately be scrapped in an aircraft boneyard? What happens to all the cool stuff? Could it be repurposed like Californian Anthony Toth has done in the video below?

Even without going to this extent, there must literally be tons of cool stuff to upcycle from chairs and Upper Class lie flat seat beds, to crockery, lockers, trolleys, the Upper-Class bar, bits of fuselage as wall art and many more bits and pieces that would make great items.

So, thanks to the Queen of the skies for her magnificent reign and for all the memories. It would be great to hear from Virgin Atlantic on their plans for their retired 747’s. Thanks for reading, please comment if you want to and stay safe until next time.

Thanks to Wikipedia for various facts and info and to all the YouTube videos used above.

*If you are interested on what Virgin Atlantic Economy on the upper deck used to look like, you can visit this video.

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