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Boeing 747-400

Boeing 747-400. Carrying up to 421 passengers, it can fly nonstop from New York to Tokyo. It was the largest airliner in service in 2001.

Boeing 747 final assembly

The Boeing 747 in final assembly.

Boeing factory

Boeing production facilities near Everett, Washington. Airliners parked at the left are 747s.

The Boeing 747

In the early 1960s, airlines started thinking about larger jetliners to accommodate the growing number of air passengers Boeing's market research showed that air-passenger growth would be dramatic and concluded that only a plane that could hold more than 300 passengers could manage this increase. Pan American Airway's president Juan Trippe was especially interested in such a plane, first talking about it with Boeing's president William Allen in the fall of 1965 and pushing to make it a reality. The two signed a letter of intent in December to develop what would be the 747. Trippe formally ordered 23 passenger and two freight versions in April 1966, an order totaling $550 million. And once non-U.S. airlines realized that Pan Am planned to dominate the international airline market with the 747, they also ordered some.

Nevertheless, building the plane was a highly risky undertaking for Boeing, both financially and technically. It stretched both airframe and engine technology. The company committed to an ambitious development schedule and also required Pratt & Whitney, the company that would be providing the engine, to quickly come up with a turbofan engine powerful and dependable enough. The massive airplane required construction of a new plant. This 200-million-cubic-foot (5.7-million cubic meter) assembly plant—the world's largest enclosed space, large enough to hold 43 football fields—north of Seattle, cost $200 million and put the company in debt right from the start. From the time the company decided to proceed with the project, $2 billion were invested in the project. Daily expenditures in 1969 reached $6 million per day.

Boeing's Allen oversaw the early stages of 747 development. Once Pan Am had signed the contract to purchase the 747, the project was made a separate group headed by Malcolm "Mal" T. Stamper. Stamper was an electrical engineer who had come to Boeing just four years earlier from General Motors to build up Boeing's aerospace electronics capabilities and who had been named a Boeing vice president in 1965. Fifty thousand people and 1,500 subcontractors were employed to develop and build the 747. Its 4.5 million parts, designed from some 75,000 engineering drawings, came from virtually every state and 17 foreign countries.

Safety was a top priority. If a 747 crashed, more people would be killed at one time than died in airplane accidents over an entire year. Boeing used a new method of spotting potential hazards known as "fault tree analysis," where engineers could easily see the impact of a failure of one part or system on other parts. The 747 became the first airplane to use this accurate method of forecasting possible trouble.

Everything about this revolutionary plane was impressive. With close to three times the capacity of the largest 707 airplane, its more than 400 passengers would sit across two aisles. Although it had initially called for a double-deck cabin that ran the length of the aircraft, the unacceptable evacuation time of a double-decker as well as the reduced cargo space it provided led Boeing to build the plane as a single-deck aircraft with the hump on top of the fuselage. This hump became the 747's trademark and its most distinguishing feature. The hump area was initially used as a lounge and later for seating above the main passenger deck. The 747's fuselage was 225 feet long (69 meters), the tail as tall as a six-story building. When pressurized, it carried a ton of air, and the cargo area could hold 3,400 pieces of baggage, which Boeing claimed could be unloaded in seven minutes. The plane's wings swept back at 37 degrees for very high cruising speeds over longer distances. It also had high-lift slats that had first been tested on the 707. It could carry enough fuel to drive the average automobile 10,000 miles (16,093 kilometers) a year for 70 years. So it could be used as a cargo plane as well as a passenger aircraft in the future, Boeing designed the plane with the flight deck positioned above the passenger cabin so containers shipped on freighter and convertible versions could be loaded straight in through the nose, which swung upward on a hinge.

The first plane rolled out on September 30, 1968, less than three years after Pan Am had signed the letter of intent. Development costs to that time were said to exceed $1 billion plus the cost of the new plant. The first flight took place on February 9, 1969, a little past the target date of December 17, 1968, but still in time to meet the commitment to Trippe of a mid-December 1969 delivery for the first production plane.

Flight tests between February and December revealed several problems, the most significant with the engines, which were underpowered for the increase in weight and size that had occurred since earlier designs. The engine problem hadn't been solved by the time the plane entered service in January 1970, and airlines experienced one delay after another because of engine troubles. At one point early in 1970, Boeing had some 30 planes parked at its plant that could not be delivered until Pratt & Whitney had corrected the deficiencies of its JT-9D engine. It took a year before the engine problems were solved. In the meantime, too little money was coming in, the country was experiencing an economic recession, and new orders were drying up. The company almost went broke.

Eventually, Boeing began to recoup some of its investment. Sales took off in the late 1970s and by the 1980s, the 747's usefulness had become apparent.

In the 1980s, Boeing began developing a 747 with an extended upper deck, designated 747-300. Its seated area behind the flight deck was 23 feet (7 meters) longer than the earlier version. The 747-300 was soon superseded by the 747-400, which entered design in 1985. This larger, more powerful, and longer-ranged 747 also had the extended upper deck and as well as six-foot (1.8-meter) drag-reducing winglets on each wing tip. It could accommodate 416 to 524 passengers.

The new version was plagued by problems, though, as airlines kept requesting new technologies and more extensive modifications. Costs soared and schedules slipped. The 747-400 didn't fly until April 29, 1988.

But the problems hadn't ended yet. The inexperienced workforce that had been hired after the most recent round of layoffs found the design too complex to implement. The managers ordered forced overtime: 50-to-60-hour workweeks became common. The problems affected other Boeing airplanes and complaints from customers began to mount. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered special inspections of all Boeing jetliners produced since 1980 to look for defects that might affect safety. The strains of the forced overtime contributed to a 48-day strike in the fall of 1989 that hurt Boeing financially.

Boeing gradually worked itself out of its problems through special employee training and more efficient procedures. As well as the passenger version, it also produced a 747-400F freighter that could carry 129 gross tons of cargo and which flew farther than the earlier 747-200F freighter while using 16 percent less fuel. By 1990, the plant was rolling out a new 747-400 every six days. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) modified two 747s for use as Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, the planes that carry the Space Shuttle cross-country. In 1990, two 747s became the new Air Force One, replacing the 707s that had served in that role for almost 30 years. During 1993, the 1000th 747 entered production, and orders for more would support production for years to come. In 1995, the 747 was in service with 83 airlines around the world. In March 2001, the company announced that its airline customers indicated that the 747-400 family will, with ongoing improvements, continue to satisfy most of their large airplane needs into the foreseeable future.

—Judy Rumerman


Pattillo, Donald M. Pushing the Envelope: The American Aircraft Industry. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Rodgers, Eugene. Flying High: The Story of Boeing and the Rise of the Jetliner Industry. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996.

Serling, Robert J. Legend and Legacy: The Story of Boeing and Its People. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Yenne, Bill. Legends of Flight. Lincolnwood, Ill: Publications International, Ltd., 1999.

Boeing: A Brief History – 747. http://www.boeing.com/history/boeing/747.html

"747-400 Family." http://www.boeing.com/history/boeing/b47.html

Additional References:

Ingells, Douglas J. 747: The Story of the Boeing Superjet. Fallbrook Calif.: Aero Publishers, 1970.

Irving, Clive. Wide-Body – The Triumph of the 747. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1993.

Kuter, Laurence S. The Great Gamble: the Boeing 747. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1973.

Mansfield, Harold. Vision, the Story of Boeing. New York: Madison Publishing, 1986.

Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 8

Students will develop an understanding of the attributes of design.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of experimentation and research and development in problem solving.