For decades the Boeing 747 was the largest passenger airliner in the world, and it debuted (in 1968) just a few years before I had occasion to take a plane flight anywhere, or pay attention to different kinds of planes. (Actually, perhaps 10 years; I didn’t fly on a passenger jet until May 1979, when I flew from LA to visit my family in Tullahoma TN.) So when it debuted I took it for granted as being the current pinnacle of a certain kind of technology, just as the landing on the Moon in 1969 was the pinnacle of that era’s space technology, the latest in a long line of ever-impressive pinnacles of technology that kept appearing, two thirds of the way through the 20th century.
What I didn’t understand at the time, but have gathered just in recent weeks as articles about the last 747 to be manufactured, is how how revolutionary the 747 was in its time — and for that matter, how revolutionary passenger jets were just a decade before, with the Boeing 707’s first service in 1958.
Let’s link this piece again, which I did yesterday.
NYT, Sam Howe Verhovek, 1 Feb 2023: Bon Voyage, Boeing 747. You Really Did Change Everything.
The key point here is that the volume of passengers the 747 could carry dramatically reduced the cost of air travel.
It quickly made global air travel more affordable than it had ever been, fulfilling [Pan American head Juan] Trippe’s vision of a world where plumbers and schoolteachers, not just the well-heeled, could think about taking their families to London or Rio de Janeiro or Tokyo.
The 747 was nearly three times the size and capacity of any jet airliner at the time, and with that distinctive double-decker bulge, it certainly looked like none of its predecessors. (The hump, by the way, was an act of engineering genius: It allows the plane to open up on hinges at its nose, creating a huge cavity eight feet high and nearly 12 feet wide. That is what has made it a huge success as a freighter.)
Some professional pilots said the plane was so big and so heavy that it would never get off the ground — literally. It did fly, of course, though even today one can be forgiven for watching this mammoth humpback lumber down a runway and wondering how in the world the thing will ever get aloft. All told, 747s have carried more than six billion passengers about 60 billion nautical miles, the rough equivalent of 144,000 trips to the moon and back.
And before that was the 707.
The Boeing 707, the leading airliner of the early Jet Age, had its own important role. (One example: Hawaii had just 171,367 visitors in 1958, the year before Pan Am started flying the 707 to Honolulu. By 1970, the 747’s inaugural year, that figure was up to 1.75 million.)
The article goes on to point out that no amount of Green Energy initiatives will soon replace airplanes like this: “…no battery yet known to man could possibly get a modern jet airliner across the Atlantic Ocean from Kennedy to Heathrow.”
Vaclav Smil’s How the World Really Works — another nonfiction book I’m slowly working through — makes this point too.
With this historical perspective in mind, here is where images and events from my personal history click in, now making more sense.
- The opening scene of the film Fantastic Voyage (reviewed here) is that of a seemingly massive, then high-tech, 707, landing with a very special passenger.
- The opening TV credit sequence of the 1960s series Hawaii Five-O here — one of the greatest opening credit sequences — features key moments of 707s, with loving close-ups, which as the article above mentioned, vastly increased tourism to Hawaii in the 1960s. (And we all know that Jack Lord was considered by Gene Roddenberry to play Captain Kirk. Lord demanded half ownership in the series, and was declined.)
- That Pan Am airlines was at the forefront of introducing the 747 was no doubt a reason Stanley Kubrick, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, identified the space plane arising from Earth to dock at the space station, in the second sequence of that film. Alas, Pan Am went out of business a few years later.
I’m sure there are more, as I think of them.
I remember one trip on a 747 specifically. In 1999, I traveled with Locus editor Charles N. Brown to New Zealand, then Australia, to attend the World Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne, and do some sight-seeing before and after. Charles had told me the best way to travel: accumulate mileage points by flying coach on short flights, and on long flights, use points to upgrade. On this occasion, he had me pay for my own coach ticket, then graciously used his mileage points to upgrade my seat so that we both flew on the upper deck of a 747 from Los Angeles to Auckland, and later from Sydney back to LA. (As we settled in I opened my brand new first ever laptop to show how I could watch 2001: A Space Odyssey on it.)
The singular moment of that trip was when, I think landing in LA, for some reason we had to disembark on the runway, not at a gate. We exited the plane and walked down a mobile staircase, standing on the tarmac until a shuttle bus came to pick us up. And that aircraft, standing next to it, looking up at it, was so *enormous*. In a way you never have the impression of, just seeing it in flight or seeing takeoffs and landings (as in the video above).
The other incident, much more recent, was at a cousins’ party just a few weeks ago, at a canal-side house in Foster City. We’d been there many times before; from there you can sit all day and watch planes descending into SFO, the San Francisco airport. On this occasion I asked the cousin — a successful businessman, maybe 35 years old — if he’d ever seen 747s fly in. And he didn’t know what a 747 was.
Thus, the era of huge passenger airplanes seem to be over. The 747 was superseded by the A380, which came and went more quickly, having already ceased production. It’s more efficient these days, apparently for smaller jets to fly more direct flights, than for large ones to move between hubs.
I recall a New Yorker cartoon, from decades ago, which I saw once and have never found again, though I still remember it.
Two men are standing in an empty auditorium. One of them gestures grandly and says, “Yes, this is the largest passenger aircraft we’ve ever built.”