On 9 February 1969, a large crowd had gathered at Paine Field in Everett, Washington state. They were there to see the first-ever flight of an airplane that was to define an era of mass, ever-cheaper air travel: the Boeing 747.
The flight of the 747 prototype only lasted 75 minutes, but it was enough to convince onlookers that what the 747 promised really was possible: the transportation of large numbers of people in a single aircraft. This, remember, was the first wide-body plane ever produced. Indeed, it was two-and-a-half times larger in capacity than what was then the pre-eminent commercial airplane of the 1960s, the Boeing 707. This huge increase in size was also to affect people’s experience of long-haul flights: it was less a case of being propelled through the air in a tin tube than it was travelling on board a high-ceilinged airliner.
What onlookers witnessed 45 years ago this month was also the product of a lot of hard, complicated work. In 1966, commercial aviation was a growing industry. To capitalise on people’s desire to travel further evermore quickly, the president of Pan American Airlines, Juan Trippe, having been shown Boeing’s designs based on an ill-fated military project, commissioned Boeing to produce 25 747s. This was a big ask. In fact, it was so big that it was to take the combined efforts of 50,000 Boeing employees to first build a huge hangar (measuring over 200million cubic feet) before they could even start constructing the planes. But Boeing president William Allen was so impressed by the construction team’s efforts that he nicknamed its members, ‘The Incredibles’.
And there it was, on Paine Field, less than three years after it was first mooted: the Boeing 747, the world’s largest-ever commercial airplane. It was certainly striking, with its distinctive hump at the front housing the cockpit, and its huge engines undergirding the wings. And while it was subsonic rather than supersonic, the 747 was no slouch, with a top speed of 550 miles per hour. But even its biggest fans at the time would not have predicted just how iconic – and popular – this original jumbo jet was to become. With over 1,500 planes ordered to date, it is by the most successful wide-body jet ever. More impressive still are the passenger numbers. Since its first commercial flight in 1970, it has transported nearly four billion passengers – equivalent of over half the current world population.
More significant still has been the plane’s contribution to ever-cheaper air travel. The more people a single plane is able to carry, the cheaper the cost per seat. A simple case of economies of scale, but one that is incredibly significant. The 747 played a vital role in allowing more people to afford to travel long distances. It meant air travel, which had for much of the twentieth century been a luxury for the wealthy few, could start to become a necessity for the many. Faraway places became closer; famous but distant cities suddenly opened up to the world; and friends and family divided by continents were brought together. And this increase in our freedom to move, to travel, and to experience was made possible in part by the 747.