The iconic Boeing 747 just celebrated 50 years of flight — here’s how the ‘Queen of the Skies’ changed the world of aviation forever

A Qantas Boeing 747-400 aircraft.

caption
A Qantas Boeing 747-400 aircraft.
source
REUTERS/Daniel Munoz
  • Boeing’s most iconic aircraft celebrated 50 years of passenger service on Wednesday.
  • The aircraft first flew in 1969 and began commercial service in 1970, revolutionizing air travel with its iconic design.
  • Despite over 50 years in the air, most airlines around the world are retiring their 747s in favor of new, fuel-efficient dual-engine aircraft.
  • Qantas, British Airways, and Lufthansa are among the last operators of the aircraft dubbed the Queen of the Skies.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

One of the greatest feats of American aerospace engineering celebrates 50 years of passenger service this week.

Long before the Boeing 737 Max, there was the Boeing 747, the first quad-jet engine and dual-level passenger aircraft to roam the skies. It’s known by many names including Jumbo Jet, Queen of the Skies, and even the Humpback, and is arguably the most recognizable aircraft in the skies.

Boeing conceived the aircraft in the mid-1960s when it was designed to be the next step up from the similarly four-engined and widely popular Boeing 707 passenger jet. With demand for air travel on the rise, the Boeing 747 would offer airlines greater seating capacity, increased range, and extra room for luxuries such as onboard lounges and bars.

Though it took its first flight in 1969, it wouldn’t enter service until January 22, 1970, fifty years ago on Wednesday, with Pan American World Airways.

Here’s the story of the Boeing 747, the aircraft that would firmly establish America as a leader in aircraft manufacturing for decades to come.


Shortly after the Boeing 707 rushed the world into the jet age, airlines were already looking for bigger and better aircraft, including Pan American and its CEO, Juan Trippe.


Fresh off the heels of competing for a government contract for a widebody military transport, Boeing used its newfound knowledge in the field to lay the foundation for its newest project, according to the manufacturer.

caption
A Boeing 747 being built by Boeing in Everett, Washington.
source
Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty

Source: Boeing


Over 50,000 employees working on the project at a new assembly plant in Everett, Washington, according to Boeing, that was so large it was given its own zip code. They were called “The Incredibles” and lead by veteran Joe Sutter.

Source: Boeing


The aircraft they produced would be the Boeing 747-100, the first variant of a new aircraft that featured four engines and two-levels, the first jet aircraft of its kind.

caption
The first flight of the Boeing 747.
source
Bettmann/Getty

The flying public had never seen anything like it before, with jet aircraft only recently coming to prominence just over a decade prior.

caption
Unveiling the first Boeing 747.
source
SSPL/Getty

Its first flight flew in the early morning hours of January 22, 1969, from New York to London operated by Pan Am, inaugurating a new era for air travel.

caption
A Pan Am Boeing 747 arriving in London for the first time.
source
Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty

The aircraft was seen as a status symbol for airlines, with the extra space allowing for additional luxuries and extravagances on some airlines.

caption
First class passengers in a BOAC Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet are served lunch.
source
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Most airlines of the time including Pan Am and Qantas used their upper decks for as bars, lounges, or restaurants.

caption
Early Boeing 747s featured lounges, bars, and even restaurants on their upper decks.
source
Getty/Bettmann / Contributor

They were a glamorous place to steal away to while flying high in an enclosed tube.

caption
Lufthansa 747 lounge.
source
Hutmacher/ullstein bild/Getty

It was the most exclusive club in the sky.

caption
Spiral stairs lead up to an exclusive club in the sky.
source
Fox Photos/Getty Images

The aircraft allowed airlines to fly more people further, with normal passenger capacity for the aircraft growing to upwards of 300 seats in later variants.

caption
British Airways Boeing 747s.
source
REUTERS/Toby Melville

The range of the aircraft gradually increased over the years with the -400 variant – one of its more modern bestsellers – having the ability to fly over 7,000 nautical miles, enough to connect New York with nearly every continent with a nonstop flight.

Source: Boeing


Even to this day, the Boeing 747 continues to outlive most of its rivals from the time period, including the supersonic and similarly iconic European Concorde.

caption
British Airways operated both the Boeing 747 and Concorde.
source
REUTERS

Its supremacy went unmatched for decades despite a long list of competitors until Airbus unveiled a dual-level and quad-engine aircraft of its own, the Airbus A380.

caption
An Airbus A380.
source
REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

With the rise of fuel-efficient, dual-engine aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 XWB, the need and desire for the quad engine aircraft such as the 747 and A380 has dwindled over the years, despite Boeing’s best efforts with the larger and more modern 747-8i.

caption
A Boeing 747-8i at the Paris Air Show.
source
Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

Most operators of the more recent -400 variant have retired or are in the process of retiring their fleets, with only a handful opting to upgrade to the 747-8i variant.


Only three airlines purchased the Boeing 747-8i for passenger service: Lufthansa, Korean Air, and Air China.

caption
A Korean Air Boeing 747-8i landing in London.
source
Steve Parsons/Getty

The rest were cargo airlines such as UPS Airlines, Qatar Airways Cargo, and Atlas Air.


Despite being an all-American plane, all US airlines have retired the Boeing 747 from their fleets, with United Airlines and Delta Air Lines as the final two to fly it.

caption
The final passenger flight of a United Airlines Boeing 747.
source
Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto/Getty

Among the most common operators of the aircraft today are European airlines such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and Lufthansa, though Australia’s Qantas also has a long record of faithfully operating the Queen of the Skies.

caption
A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 aircraft.
source
Virgin Atlantic Airways

The Australian flag carrier recently retired its Boeing 747, which was once a staple of transpacific travel, from all of its American routes in favor of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A380, with plans to fully retire the fleet in the next few years.

caption
A Qantas Boeing 747.
source
James D. Morgan/Getty

Perhaps the most well-known operator of the aircraft currently is the United States Air Force, which flies the President of the United States on a modified Boeing 747-200 called Air Force One when he’s aboard.

caption
Air Force One arrives in West Palm Beach with President Trump.
source
YURI GRIPAS/Reuters

The blue-and-white 747 with “United States of America” is an iconic symbol of the presidency.

source
Carsten Koall/Getty

While the current model will soon be retired, the president can look forward to flying on the next aircraft to be used for Air Force One, the Boeing 747-8i.

caption
The aircraft replacing the current Air Force One is the Boeing 747-8i.
source
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty

As the Queen of the Skies nears the end of its reign, its legacy will surely live on forever as the aircraft that revolutionized the aviation industry and made the world a smaller place for over 50 years.

source
REUTERS/Toby Melville