Remembering the Queen of the skies

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Remembering the Queen of the skies

Boeing 747 revolutionised air travel and now, as the distinctive ‘Jumbo Jet' is eased out of service worldwide by most airlines, let us remember one of the 20th century's greatest engineering achievements

It is remarkable that two of the most significant achievements in modern jet aviation took place in the late-1960’s. The first was the development of the supersonic Concorde by an Anglo-French combine. The second was the development of the 747 by American aerospace giant, Boeing. Both projects were financed very differently. The Concorde, which was to be a source of European pride, was funded by the taxpayer with generous grants from both Governments. Boeing almost went bankrupt trying to develop the 747 because it was assumed that the future of air travel was supersonic. Instead, the Concorde, while an engineering masterpiece, was a commercial disaster with only 14 aircraft ever built. The Boeing 747, on the other hand, was a remarkable success story with over 1,500 aircraft over various versions having been sold to airlines across the world.

It has been a decade since the Concorde last took to the skies, the planes are now serving time as museum display pieces, one even at Boeing’s Museum of Flight outside the city of Seattle. The Boeing 747, however, technically remains in production, almost half a century after its first flight. However, airlines across the world, which built their fleets on the back of the Boeing 747, are gradually withdrawing the aircraft from service.

The American airline United, which had been a long-time flyer of the aircraft, just flew its last commercial flight, another American carrier, Delta Airlines, will be retiring the 747 shortly. Several European airlines, such as Air France, have already withdrawn the aircraft from service and others like British Airways and KLM, which still fly the —400 variant, will be retiring the plane soon. Even Air India, which still has four 747-400 aircraft in its fleet, still uses the aircraft infrequently on commercial services but it is still the ‘go to’ aircraft for presidential and prime ministerial flights. However, the days of the aircraft in Air India service are numbered.

The latest 747 variant, the — 8, which was built to compete with the bigger Airbus A380, has not been a huge commercial success, with only three airlines ordering the passenger variant of the aircraft. However, the German airline, Lufthansa, which is the largest operator of the latest version, does fly the aircraft on some Indian services daily. Also, the relatively recent introduction into service of the 747-8 means that the aircraft will continue to fly across the skies for at least another 10-15 years but the common sight of tens of 747’s of various airlines from across the world conversing at major airports, has already become a thing of the past. And the 747, that epitomised the ‘Palace In The Skies’ slogan of Air India with its Maharaja logo, will become a thing of the past soon enough.

It was technologies developed for the 747 that were to eventually lead to its extinction, most importantly the high-bypass turbofan engine. This type of the engine which actually makes a bulk of the air it ingests ‘bypass’ the combustion stage, modern turbofans bypassing as much as 90 per cent of the air it ingests have made engines extremely fuel efficient. The classic Boeing 747’s that Air India acquired starting 1971 had Pratt and Whitney JT9D engines could fly 12500 kilometers with a moderate load.

The latest Boeing 747 — 8i carries both more passengers and more cargo at ranges exceeding 15,000 kilometers but are over 50 per cent more fuel efficient thanks to the General Electric GEnx engines. But those new engines coupled with other new manufacturing technologies on modern aircraft such as Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350XWB which make use of composite materials across the board and fly with just two engines while delivering unbelievable range have made the Boeing 747 pretty much obsolete as a passenger plane. Also, these new aircraft which include the Boeing 777 have allowed for flights that connect India to the United States non-stop, Air India offers flights between New Delhi to New York, Chicago, Washington DC and San Francisco. Until not so long ago, a passengers would have to take at least a one-stop flight to get to the United States, but back in the 1970’s even flights to London would need a stop or two.

Many people lament that modern air travel has become decidedly unglamourous, and as a very frequent flyer your columnist has to agree to an extent. Thanks to onerous security checks and the volume of people travelling, travelling is certainly less glamourous, but at the same time, thanks to technologies created for the Boeing 747, flying has also become far more democratic. While in a low-income country like India it would be a stretch to imagine that everyone can fly, more Indians are flying than ever before. And frankly, while travelling at the sharp end (business/first class) of a plane might not be glamourous as old films might lead you to believe, you can again sleep on a plane, get stunning cuisine and drinks. The latest first class offerings are completely enclosed suites and exclusive bottles of vintage champagne. And of course, there is nothing as exciting as travelling in Business Class on board the upper-deck of a 747 sipping champagne. That exclusive ‘Upper Deck’ experience is why the 747 will always be ‘The Queen of the Skies’.

The 747 may not leave the skies anytime soon, while fewer than 50 planes might be ferrying passengers around in a few years, the 747 is the powerhouse of today’s digital economy. How could a fifty-year old plane power the digital economy you ask? Well, the Boeing 747 which was initially developed for an US Air Force contract to carry cargo remains the world’s most popular cargo aircraft. Hundreds of 747 Freighters carry everything from horses destined for racecourses to fresh seafood and freshly-cut flowers as well as the millions of smartphones that people use across the world. In fact a majority of the 747’s in service today including several former passenger — carrying ones are hauling airfreight across the world. Heck, Boeing themselves use a highly modified variant of the 747, the ‘Dreamlifter’ to carry components of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner from factories across the world.

Joe Sutter, the man who designed the 747 passed away last year could never have imagined how successful his aircraft would have become. And as they leave passenger service, do wave out to the next passenger 747 you see taxiing by at the airport, because they are the last of a kind.

(The writer is Managing Editor, The Pioneer)

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