50 years of the Boeing 747 in 11 photos
January 22, 1970, was a big day in the history of aviation. That's when the first-ever commercial service by a Boeing 747 touched down. The arrival of Pan American flight PA2 from New York JFK to London's Heathrow airport was saluted by the BBC as "the dawn of a new era in long-distance air travel" — and 50 years ago to the day, we can say that it really was. The giant airplane has since earned the respectful moniker of Queen of the Skies, and while it is no longer the biggest aircraft around, it remains the most recognizable.
There's a grace about it that belies its immense size, and it's no surprise that it still commands a peerless devotion among frequent flyers and airplane enthusiasts. People who know about airplanes still go out of their way to fly it, even more so now that it's becoming a rare sight, superseded by more fuel-efficient jets.
Aside from size, though, the 747s of today, have little in common with the birds of 50 years ago. From digital technology on the flight deck to quieter engines and better cabin amenities, the Jumbo Jets you fly today offer features that would have seemed outlandish to the 324 passengers of that fateful flight PA2. (Navigation by satellite? Wi-Fi on board? Seats that turn into flat beds? None of that was even remotely a thing in 1970.)
So here is a look at the remarkable history of a plane like no other, in 11 photos spanning its career — one image every five years.
Remember when a 747's arrival drew a crowd of awed onlookers?
Probably not. It's been many decades since a Jumbo Jet would routinely stun people who had never seen anything like it. But that's exactly what happened at Heathrow the day of the first scheduled flight's arrival.
Note the upper deck with just three windows; that was a feature of the earliest 747s, which had a passenger lounge up there, an ancestor of the bar aboard the Airbus A380.
Five years later, a little brother was born to the family. On July 10, 1975, the first Boeing 747SP made its first flight and was photographed over its native habitat in the Pacific Northwest. (To this day, all 747s are built in Everett, outside Seattle.)
That SP stood for "special performance": the plane had been built to go far. Farther, in fact, than any other commercial plane could at the time without stopping for fuel. Smaller than a regular 747 but with pretty much the same fuel capacity, and therefore more range, it became the only jet capable of then-unheard of feats like regular nonstop service from California to Australia. It would relinquish the title of longest-ranged jet in the world only 15 years later, to another one of its siblings: the 747-400.
Speaking of the 747SP: it was a pilot's darling, like all 747s, known as forgiving and supremely well-engineered airplanes. Captain Gordon Hargis, photographed here in May 1980 at the controls of one of the three SPs ordered by Trans World Airlines, was quoted as saying that the smaller jet handled no differently than a standard Boeing 747, which is 46 feet longer.
By the mid-1980s, the growth of air traffic had airlines clamoring for more capacity. Boeing gave it to them with a simple trick: a stretched upper deck to accommodate more seats. The resulting 747-300 was no less graceful than the standard-sized Jumbo, and was a commercial success in Asia, where airlines were experiencing a fast increase in passenger demand. Here, a Cathay Pacific 747-300 flies in July 1985, when it was brand new and freshly delivered to the Hong Kong-based airline.
If you need to move a lot of people in a hurry during a crisis, a good idea is to get a 747 — or a bunch of them, if you have that kind of pull. Which is what the U.S. government did in 1990, after Iraq had invaded Kuwait and the Pentagon quickly mounted Operation Desert Shield, sending tens of thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia to stop any further advance by Saddam Hussein's army. Many of those troops got there on 747s that the government had chartered under a program known as CRAF, for Civil Reserve Air Fleet. In short: when needed, the government can charter airplanes from a select group of U.S. carriers, including all the majors, to supplement the carrying capacity of its own transport planes.
Which is how these U.S. troops got to Saudi Arabia in August 1990, aboard a United 747.
Lie-flat seats weren't yet around in the mid-1990s, but airlines were beginning to offer their premium passengers something that looked a lot like a bed. 747s were among the first planes to sport what was, at the time, the fanciest way to fly. Air France was a pioneer in this area, installing quasi-flat-bed seats in the nose of its 747s. While this seat would get a pretty bad grade in a TPG review today, it was the best you could hope for if you were boarding a 747 in August 1995, when this photo was taken.
During their long career, 747s have done pretty much everything an airplane can do, including carrying the Space Shuttle and fighting fires. They've also been flying billboards, in this case for Formula 1 auto racing, advertised on the side of a Qantas 747-400 seen in January 2000 at London's Heathrow airport.
When the Space Shuttle stopped flying in 2011, NASA's two very cool 747s modified to carry it between landing and launch sites were out of a job. They have been since retired to museums.
But in 2005, you could still see the awesome sight of a 747 with a spaceship on its back, like in the image below, shot at Edwards Air Force Base in August 2005 as Discovery took off on the way to Cape Canaveral, after landing earlier that month.
There's business class. There's first class. There's private aviation. And then there's private aviation with a 747, which is what you do if you are Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, an immensely wealthy Saudi royal. He owns Kingdom Holdings, which has stakes in a lot of companies including Twitter and Citigroup, giving him a net worth hovering around $19 billion. That may not be Jeff Bezos money, but it's still plenty enough to buy yourself a 747-400 and put in its nose an actual gilded throne room.
Access to the prince's 747 is rare, but a photographer managed to have a look inside while the plane was parked in Riyadh in 2010.
In the 2010s, Boeing rolled out what's probably going to be the last model of the 747 family, the 747-8. Longer than any 747 before, at 250 feet, it manages to maintain all the elegance of its predecessors and adds a few modern touches like a raked wingtip. It comes in two versions: a passenger model with a long upper deck, and a cargo carrier with no windows on the main deck and a short hump on the top level. The latter looks quite stunning, like this 747-8F from Luxembourg-based freight airline Cargolux seen taking off in 2015 from New York JFK.
The 747-8 may be a beauty, but it has been a commercial flop. Only three airlines have bought the passenger version, and it's very unlikely that any more will. For the U.S. Air Force, though, there is no substitute for the delicate job of carrying the president of the United States. Since 1990, Air Force One has been a 747, and it will continue to be for decades: the Pentagon has bought two 747-8s and is in the process of converting them to presidential jets. For now, whoever occupies the White House gets around on a unique hybrid of the 747-400 and -200 known as VC-25. Seen here in New Orleans earlier this month, it looks as good today as its predecessors did in 1970.