The Boeing 747 in Commercial Service
The Boeing 747 first flew on February 9, 1969. It entered airline service on January 22, 1970.[i] It was the reigning “Queen of the Skies” for the rest of the 20th century. Boeing sold 1,546 747s. It was the first of the wide body jetliners. It had the capability to carry up to 500 passengers, more than twice as many as the Boeing 707. This raised some concern. A Boeing 747 crash could double the fatality record for air crashes. Many who saw it flying found it amazing such a large craft can fly.
[i] Commercial Transport Aircraft, Editor Michael J.H. Taylor, © 1990 Tri-Service Press, Ltd.
Boeing 747 and its Competitors
DC-10 Series 40
601mph (967 km/h)
573 mph (922 km/h)
599mph (964 km/h)
7,595 miles (12,222 km) - 366 passengers
7,260 miles (11,684 km)
3,086 miles (4,965 km)
The History and Times of the Boeing 747
On January 15, 1970, First Lady Pat Nixon christened Pan American’s (Pan Am) first Boeing 747, at Dulles International Airport. This aircraft was to go into service on January 21, 1970 but an engine overheating prevented that. Another aircraft, Clipper Victor, flew the first 747 passenger flight on January 22, 1970. It was a New York-London flight. The engine overheating and other technical difficulties with 747s caused some to question if the 747 was perfected. The technical difficulties were easily solved. Other airlines knew they had to purchase wide bodies to stay competitive with Pan Am.
Despite its capabilities the odds seemed stacked against the 747. The economics were such that a 747 had to be almost fully loaded with passengers to make a flight profitable. McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed were also developing wide bodies. There were also plans to develop Supersonic Transports (SSTs). The SST threatened to make subsonic jetliners obsolete within a decade. In the 1970s airline prestige was important so many flag-carriers purchased 747s despite the purchases making no economic sense. The United States decided to stop funding the development of the SST. The American SST design was for a wide body which theoretically would have been profitable. The British-French development of the SST, the Concorde, was a narrow body and impractical from an economic standpoint.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked Pan Am Flight 93 on September 6, 1970. They forced the crew to fly this Boeing 747 to Beirut, then to Cairo. After the PFLP evacuated the aircraft they blew it up. The PFLP and the Japanese Red Army hijacked a JAL Boeing 747 on July 23, 1973.[i] One of the hijacker’s grenades detonated killing her and injuring the flight’s chief purser. On July 23 the surviving hijackers released the passengers then blew up the 747 in Benghazi. Japanese Red Army terrorist and hijack leader Osamu Maruoka escaped and hijacked another jetliner in 1977. The Japanese arrested him in Tokyo. Japan gave him a life sentence and he died in prison in 2011.
The first fatal 747 crash was Lufthansa Flight 540 on November 20, 1974. There were 59 deaths and 98 survivors. A lightning strike destroyed an Imperial Iranian Air Force 747 and killed all 17 people on board. On March 27, 1977 a ground collision involving two Boeing 747s happened at Tenerife Airport in the Azores. KLM Flight 4805 attempted to take off without clearance. As it became airborne it collided with Pan Am Flight 1736. The collision killed 583 people. All on board the KLM 747 died. There were 61 survivors from the Pan Am 747. This was the worst aviation accident in history. The Pan Am 747 was the first 747 to enter service.
Boeing developed the 747SP for ultra-long-range flights. The 747SP has a shorter fuselage than other 747 models. It has a ferry range of over 9,000 miles. It could carry 276 passengers almost 7,400 miles or 331 passengers over 6,500 miles. Boeing delivered the first 747SP to Pan Am in March 1976. The South African Airways delivery flight set a long-range record on March 23/24, 1976. The 747SP flew from Paine Field in the state of Washington to Cape Town, South Africa. It was a distance of over 9,900 miles. Boeing built 45 747SP and as of 2005 18 were in service.[ii]
On August 31, 1983 a Korean Airlines Boeing 747-230B, piloted by captain Chun Byung-in, with first officer Son Dong-hui and flight engineer Kim Eui-dong, with 20 other crew members and 246 passengers took of from Anchorage International Airport, Alaska. Its destination was Seoul-Kimpo International Airport, Republic of Korea. The Boeing 747-230B, flight KE007, drifted off its intended course. KE007 flew over Soviet airspace and a Su-15, piloted by then Major[iii] Genadi Osipovich, shot it down killing all 269 people on board. The incident increased tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. governments. In the U.S. there were many conspiracy theories about how the United States was using the jetliner to spy on the Soviet Union or using the off-course jetliner as a target of opportunity to see the Soviet reaction. “Shootdown”, a 1988 move, dramatized one of these conspiracy theories.
On June 23, 1985 a bomb exploded on an Air India Boeing 747-237B “Emperor Kanishka”. The 747 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the Irish coast. All 329 people on board died in the crash. It was the worst terrorist incident involving an aircraft in the 20th century. It is believed the Sikh militant group Babbar Khalsa planted the bomb and attempted a double bombing. A bomb exploded at Narita Airport as the same time. The bomb at Narita exploded before it was put on an aircraft. In 2003 a Canadian court convicted Inderkit Singh Reyat, who pled guilty to manslaughter. He assembled the bombs on Air India 182 and at Narita Airport. Canada sentenced him to 15 years. He was the only person convicted in connection with the bombing.
The deadliest single-aircraft accident occurred on August 12, 1985 when a Japan Airlines 747SR crashed into Mount Takamagahara 32 minutes after its rear pressure bulkhead shot through and destroyed most of the aircraft’s vertical stabilizer. There were only 4 survivors. The crash killed 520 people. Among those killed was Kyu Sakamoto who was the first Asian recording artist to have a number one song, released under the title “Sukiyaki” in 1963, on the United States Billboard chart.[iv]
On December 21, 1988 a bomb destroyed a Pan Am 747-100 over Lockerbie, Scotland. This terrorist bombing killed all 259 people on the aircraft and 11 people on the ground. The bombing was eventually linked to Libya. Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah were indicted for murder in 1991. Libyan Leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi turned them over to an international court. A court in The Netherlands with 3 Scottish judges acquitted Fhimah and found Megrahi guilty on January 31, 1991. The court sentenced Megrahi to 27 years in prison. The Scottish Government released him on August 20, 2009 on compassionate grounds. Megrahi died on May 20, 2012.
Boeing launched the 747-400 in October 1985. This was the first airliner with winglets. The first 747-400 flight was on April 29, 1988. The 747-400 can go over 8,000 miles with a full load. The typical seating capacity for international flights is 416. In June 2002 Boeing rolled out the 747-400ER. This aircraft has a range with a full load of over 8,500 miles. Boeing has received orders for over 900 Boeing 747-400s.[v]
United Airlines flight 811 experienced explosive decompression on February 24, 1989. The decompression ejected 9 passengers from the 747-122. The jetliner was flying from Honolulu to Sydney. The 747 made an emergency landing in Honolulu. The accident was attributed to a faulty switch or wiring in the door control system. A contributing cause was lack of timely corrective actions by Boeing and the FAA following a 1987 cargo door-opening incident on a Pan Am B-747.[vi] This happened a little over a year after an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737-297 had an explosive decompression on a local flight. These incidents caused some concern that aircraft that flew routes in and out of Hawaii might be more susceptible to corrosion because of the salt water. This United Airlines 747, N4713U, was 18 years old at the time. N4724U was deregistered in 1997.
On August 2, 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait. British Airways Flight 149 landed in Kuwait in the middle of the invasion. Iraqi forces captured the British Airways Boeing 747-136 and the 376 of the people on board. An MI6 team of 9 was among the passengers. The MI6 team got their equipment off the airplane then carried out intelligence missions. An Iraqi soldier raped a flight attendant. Cabin services director Clive Earthy told the senior Iraqi officer about the rape. The soldier was picked out of a lineup and executed. Richard Brunyate, the pilot, and five other crew members escaped captivity. The passengers were subject to mock executions and other brutalities.[vii] The women and children were released after a couple of weeks. The men were held as human shields. The Iraqis released the last of the BA149 hostages in December 1990. In the last days of Kuwaiti occupation Iraqi forces engaged in mass property destruction. The Iraqis destroyed the Boeing 747 on February 18, 1991.[viii]
The first 747-400 loss occurred on November 4, 1993. This China Airlines plane landed at Kai Tak Airport 2,000 feet past the threshold. The pilot steered the aircraft into Victoria Harbor. All on board got out safely.
TWA flight 800 exploded off Long Island, New York on July 17, 1996. All 230 people on board died. Some eye witnesses claimed they saw something headed towards the aircraft before the explosion. This led to speculations terrorists shot down the 747-100 with a Surface to Air missile. Some speculated a missile from a U.S. Navy ship shot down the jetliner. The investigation revealed a spark from a wire in the center fuel tank caused the explosion. Carriers adopted changes in fuel tank management to prevent such crashes in the future.
The worst mid-air collision in history involved a Saudi Arabian Airlines 747-100B and a Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyushin Il-76. These aircraft collided over Charkri Dadri, India on November 12,1996, killing all 349 people on board.
On July 23, 1999 Nishizawa Yūji attempted to hijack All Nippon Airways Flight 61 with a kitchen knife. He stabbed captain Nagashima Naoyuki, the pilot, in the chest, mortally wounding him, and took control of the 747-481D. Other crew members subdued Nishizawa Yūji and co-pilot Koga Kazuyuki made an emergency landing. The court found Nishizawa Yūji guilty but of unsound mind and judge Hisaharu Yasui sentenced him to life in prison.[ix]
Lithium-ion batteries in the cargo hold of a UPS Airlines 747-400F caused a fire. The crash killed two crew members. A National Airlines 747-400BCF stalled and crashed shortly after taking off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan killing all 7 crew members on board. Troops loyal to deposed president Ali Adbullah Saleh damaged a Yemen presidential 747-SP on March 19, 2015. This aircraft was later set on fire. On January 16, 2017 a Turkish Airlines Boeing 747-400F crashed in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan killing the 4 crew members and 35 people on the ground.
As of December 31, 2014, Boeing 747s have made over 20.81 million flights.[x] The 747-8 is the latest version of the Boeing 747 and the only version that is still in production. It has seats for 410 passengers and a range of almost 8,900 miles (14,816 km).[xi]
[i] Aviation-Safety.net, http://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19730723-0, last accessed, 8/19/2018.
[ii] Airliners.net, http://www.airliners.net/aircraft-data/boeing-747sp/98, last accessed, 8/22/2018.
[iii] Genadi Osipovich retired as a colonel.
[iv] An English language version of the song was released in 1981 and performed by the duo “A Taste of Honey”.
[v] Airliners.net, https://www.airliners.net/aircraft-data/boeing-747-400/100, last accessed, 8/23/2018.
[vi] National Transportation Safety Board, Explosive Decompression – Loss of Cargo Door in Flight, United Airlines Flight 811 Boeing 747-122, N4713U, https://ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/AAR9202.aspx, last accessed, 8/26/2018.
[vii] Contact Center Solutions, The Betrayal of Flight 149, October 16, 2006, https://callcenterinfo.tmcnet.com/news/2006/10/16/1985028.htm, last accessed, 8/24/2018
[viii] Aviation Safety.net, https://aviation-safety.net/database/record.php?id=19910218-0, last accessed 8/24/2018.
[ix] Revolvy.com, All Nippon Airways Flight 61, https://www.revolvy.com/page/All-Nippon-Airways-Flight-61, last accessed 8/26/2018.
[x] Airsafe.com, http://www.airsafe.com/events/models/rate_mod.htm, last accessed, 8/26/2018.
[xi] Boeing Official Web Site, http://www.boeing.com/commercial/747, last accessed, 8/26/2018.
© 2018 Robert Sacchi