Tuesday, January 21, 2014

big bird- 44th anniversary of the jumbo jet

The departure was getting out of hand, especially for Pan Am. The airline which was the model of efficiency and professionalism was struggling with a late departure on Flight 2 to Heathrow. The flight, which had been sold out for months, actually did push back at one point only to return to the World Port when an engine overheated on the runway. They made the decision to change equipment which caused even more delay. They would have canceled the flight completely except that the entire world was watching. Pan Am Flight 2 was the first scheduled passenger flight of the jumbo jet era, the entry into service of the Boeing 747-121.

N736PA Clipper Victor at Heathrow, 1970

The plane was created for Pan Am. CEO Juan T. Trippe had told Boeing management in 1966 that if they would build a bigger jet, he would commit to buy 25 of them on the spot. Boeing, sounding like a line from "Field of Aircraft Dreams" told him that if he would buy them, they would build them, and so the deal was struck in April 1966- 25 airplanes for a staggering $525 million dollars.

It was a huge undertaking for Boeing, as they had to design a totally new airplane and construct a new facility to build it in all at the same time. They had gambled their entire future once before, and the 707 that resulted catapulted them past Douglas to preeminence as an airplane manufacturer. Now they were rolling the dice again.

N747001 City of Everett in Seattle, 1968

Less than three years later, a very big plane sat on the runway at Boeing field waiting for takeoff. It was the City of Everett, tail number N747001, MSN 20235, and line number 1- the very first 747-100 prototype. It flew on March 9 1969 and despite a small problem with flaps, soon paved the way for production to begin. Airplane production ramped up quickly, more quickly than Pratt and Whitney could ready the massive plane's new JT-9D engines, which were suffering from teething pains. At one point, almost 20 new 747-100's sat around Everett waiting for their engines. Airworthiness was issued in December, 1969, and preparations began for passenger flight.

Three brand new 747-121's await engines in the summer of 1969. They are Clipper Victor (N736PA), Clipper Young America (N735PA) and Clipper Defender (N738PA)
First Lady Pat Nixon christened the first Pan Am 747 on January 15, 1970 at Dulles International Airport. The actual aircraft she honored was Clipper Victor (N736PA, msn 19643, line # 11). This was not the plane chosen for the first passenger flight. They selected Clipper Young America (N735PA, msn 19642, line #10), but when the engine overheated, they made a last minute substitution.

Clipper Victor
, N736PA, the actual plane that the First Lady had christened, was hastily fueled and readied for flight. Among the last minute preparations was a hasty re-naming so that the "Clipper Young America" would be the first 747 in service. They had already announced the name of the plane that would be making the historic flight and didn't want to answer any unpleasant questions about engine problems. Only the keenest observer would notice a one-digit variation in the tail number.

Finally at 1:52 AM, N736PA pushed back from the World Port and ushered in the era of the Jumbo Jet, bound for Heathrow and infamy. After an uneventful flight, Pan Am Two Heavy touched down at 14:14 GMT. Ultimately, the 747 was kinder to Boeing than it was to Pan Am. The recession and fuel price spikes of the early 70's put Pan Am in a very tight spot economically, with high debt and only partially filled planes, and set then in a precarious place leaving airline deregulation to deliver the knock out punch. Sadly, the first 747 to fly, the N736PA Clipper Victor, was itself lost at Tenerife in a tragic accident for which it was not to blame.

But the majestic 747 has flown on. Two generations have grown since then. An astonishingly high percentage of the traveling public have no firsthand knowledge of life before the 747. It has evolved through several versions and has sold 1,418 copies. The most popular version, the 747-400, has been produced for over twenty years, concluding production in December 2009 with just over seven hundred made. And very first of the newest version, RA501 N747EX, the 747-8, had its first flight almost forty years to the day from the 747's first passenger flight. It is longer, the iconic fuselage will be stretched in two places, and fitted with totally new wings and new General Electric GENx engines. Offered in both 747-8I Intercontinental passenger and 747-8F freighter versions, as of December 2013 64 have been delivered and another 119 are currently on the order books.

The first 747-8, RA501 N747EX msn 35808 being prepared for gauntlet testing

I hope she flies forever. Happy anniversary, big bird. You've still got it.