On Feb. 9, 1969, the first flight of the Boeing jumbo jet was cut short by a minor problem with the wing flaps. The test pilots kept their cool, landed the plane safely, and the rest is history. To date, 1,412 of the jets have been delivered.
About an hour into the first flight of the 747 jumbo jet — 40 years ago today — the pilots moved the wing flaps and heard a bang.
The big plane gave a momentary shudder that morning in 1969, but pilot Jack Waddell and his co-pilot Brien Wygle kept their cool.
Wygle, now an elegant 84-year-old living in Medina, said he recalls some “mild concern.”
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“We weren’t alarmed,” Wygle said. Still, they decided to cut short the flight.
Back at Paine Field in Everett, on a cold day with snow on the ground and broken clouds overhead, thousands had gathered to watch.
The plane, powered by newly developed fanjet engines, was two and half times bigger than any existing airliner. Boeing Chairman Bill Allen and a retinue of journalists were set to follow the flight in a smaller 727 to take air-to-air photos.
“It was a huge affair,” said Wygle, Boeing’s chief test pilot at the time. “There were so many unknowns. There were people who doubted it could get off the ground.”
The bang happened when one of the plane’s flaps slipped off its track. Now it wouldn’t retract.
But with the jet flying fine, Waddell decided he didn’t need to bring it home immediately. They could wait for the 727 to catch up to them.
To make sure Allen and the engineers back in the radio tower knew things were fine, Waddell engaged in a little banter with chase-plane pilot Paul Bennett.
Clive Irving’s 1993 book “Widebody”relates the radio chatter between the two:
“What kind of a lookin’ ship is this from out there, Paul?”
“It’s very good-looking, Jack. Fantastic!”
“Rather majestic, you might say?”
“Roger. That’s the word, Jack. Majestic.”
The plane landed smoothly and the pilots were greeted as heroes.
Wygle still has the carefully preserved flight logbook showing how long that curtailed first flight lasted. “There it is,” he said, pointing to a meticulously penned entry at the top of one page. “It was 85 minutes.”
The big plane had handled beautifully and taken turbulence in stride despite the flap problem. The 747’s engineers knew the stuck flap was minor.
“We were euphoric. Boeing had a real airplane, and it looked to be a winner,” chief engineer Joe Sutter wrote in his 2006 book “747.””An awful lot of celebrating took place that night.”
Later flight tests unearthed deeper concerns. A flutter problem took months to solve. The airplane was significantly overweight and the Pratt & Whitney engines gave trouble.
But the 747, the first commercial wide-body in service, would soon propel Boeing ahead of all other commercial jet makers.
To date, 1,412 have been delivered. There are still 112 orders to be filled. The latest and largest version, the 747-8, is behind schedule and lacking customers, but it’s expected to fly this year.
Wygle, whom Sutter describes as “very quiet and very competent,” was no top-gun hothead.
He and his test-pilot peers at Boeing were for the most part a reserved and well-educated bunch, Wygle said, “pretty Steady Eddies.”
Steady enough to be cool. But definitely not boring.
In World War II, Seattle-born Wygle flew military cargo versions of the DC-3 for the Royal Canadian Air Force to supply the British army in Burma.
After he joined Boeing, the company sent him to train at the U.S. Air Force test-pilot school. For three seasons in the late 1950s, he raced hydroplanes in his spare time.
Some years before that 747 flight, flying a final high-speed, high-vibration test on the first 737, Wygle’s jet went out of control and he momentarily thought he’d lost the aircraft’s tail. “There’s no way out now,” he remembers thinking.
The plane was damaged, but the tail was still there when he brought it down.
Looking back from the vantage point of today, when Boeing still awaits the first flight of the 787 Dreamliner almost two years after rolling it out, the compressed development of the original 747 seems nothing short of miraculous.
Boeing bought an empty property adjacent to Paine Field in 1966 with a plan to build a factory just for the 747. The plane rolled out of the newly built factory on Sept. 30, 1968, and flew four months later.
That was eight weeks later than planned, but Boeing made up the time during flight tests. The first 747 was delivered on schedule to Pan Am World Airways in December, 10 months after first flight.
What does Wygle make of the Dreamliner delays?
“I don’t understand what’s happened at Boeing. I don’t remember any significantly late deliveries,” Wygle said. “Among the retirees, there’s lots of discussion, as you might guess. It’s been a discouraging time. We want the company to be successful.”
Waddell died in 1999. The flight engineer on that 747 flight, Jess Wallick, lives in Arizona.
Wygle retired in 1990, though he meets with old Boeing colleagues occasionally. Joe Sutter is a friend. He knows Mike Carriker, the Dreamliner’s chief pilot.
A widower with four daughters out of state, Wygle has lived in Medina for 53 years. He doesn’t travel much.
“I don’t enjoy the airports,” he said.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report.