In 50 years, the 747 has transported an astounding 5.9 billion people, 80 percent of the world’s population. But its inception represented a huge gamble for the aerospace giant.

Share story

It’s not an exaggeration to say Boeing’s future was on the line that Sunday morning at Everett’s Paine Field, exactly 50 years ago.

Feb. 9, 1969, was the first flight for model No. 1 of the 747, the largest commercial airplane in the world, capable of carrying more than 400 passengers.

Boeing had gone into deep debt, using a workforce of 50,000 that called itself “the Incredibles” because of the arduous task, to build the aircraft in less than 16 months. The banks that Boeing borrowed from for the project were worried.

On that winter day there was cheering from the several hundred people at Paine Field — most of them Boeing staff and management — when the 747 landed after an hour and 15 minute test flight over the Olympic Peninsula.

It was on the front page the next day in The Seattle Times, with a story headline that quoted test pilot Jack Waddell, “It’s ‘beautiful.’ ”

The legend of the “Queen of the Sky” had begun.

Since then, Boeing has delivered 1,548 747s. The planes have transported an astounding 5.9 billion people, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population, Boeing says.

Boeing 747 makes its first flight, Feb. 9, 1969. (Vic Condiotty / The Seattle Times)
Boeing 747 makes its first flight, Feb. 9, 1969. (Vic Condiotty / The Seattle Times)

Pan Am was the first airline to fly the jet, and it ran big print ads showing the gigantic plane’s nose filling up the page.

“The first one has our name on it … where the big thing is comfort,” it said. “With two aisles throughout. A double-decker section up front, complete with upstairs lounge … And three livingroom-size Economy sections … And seats almost as big as First Class … you want to fly the plane that’s a ship, the ship that’s a plane.”

From the start, the 747 had a mystique about it.

One of the many interior configurations possible in the new Boeing Model 747 is shown in this full-scale mockup of the airplane at the company’s Commercial Airplane Division. Here is one possibility for the first class section. (Boeing)
One of the many interior configurations possible in the new Boeing Model 747 is shown in this full-scale mockup of the airplane at the company’s Commercial Airplane Division. Here is one possibility for the first class section. (Boeing)

In his memoir “Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot,” Mark Vanhoenacker   explains the allure of the giant aircraft.

He writes that the 747’s familiar humplike upper deck “recalls a natural relationship — that of the head of a bird, a swan perhaps, to a long body and wide wings.”

He recalls, “Recently I was taxiing a 747 past a portion of the tarmac at San Francisco that was closed off for reconstruction. More than a dozen airport workers, though presumably already accustomed to the sight of airplanes at close range, nevertheless put down their tools to photograph us.”

Joseph Frederick “Joe” Sutter was an American engineer for the Boeing Airplane Company and manager of the design team for the Boeing 747 under Malcolm T. Stamper, the head of the 747 project. Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine has described Sutter as the “father of the 747.”(Boeing)
Joseph Frederick “Joe” Sutter was an American engineer for the Boeing Airplane Company and manager of the design team for the Boeing 747 under Malcolm T. Stamper, the head of the 747 project. Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine has described Sutter as the “father of the 747.”(Boeing)

There was a reason why Boeing President Bill Allen was beaming that morning 50 years ago as he used binoculars to watch the 747 from a trailing 727 during that maiden flight.

The bet had paid off.

Boeing didn’t just build a brand-new aircraft. It had to construct a new plant at its Everett location to fit the 747 that at 185 feet was half a football field in length, along with a 65-foot tail that was as tall as a six-story building and a wingspan equivalent to a 20-lane highway.

Just the plant, still the world’s largest by volume, cost $200 million, Allen said in a 1975 interview.

That’s about $1.4 billion in today’s dollars.

Allen said that “if you figure in all the development costs, it approached a billion dollars.”

That’s about $6.8 billion in today’s dollars.

It was Juan Trippe, the pioneering founder of Pan American Airways, who gave Allen and Boeing the impetus to build the 747.

“The age of mass travel owes much to Trippe’s foresight,” says a story in the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) website. “The Pan Am boss reasoned that the more often he could fly, and the larger the aircraft, the cheaper he could make Pan Am’s fares.”

In 1965, Trippe asked Allen to consider designing and building an aircraft that would be far larger than anything on the market.

“The Boeing 747 was born with a legendary exchange: ‘If you build it, I’ll buy it,’ said Trippe, to which Allen replied: ‘If you buy it, I’ll build it,’ ” according to the IATA.

On Jan. 3, Delta Air Lines became the final U.S. airline to a fly a passenger 747,   from Atlanta to Pinal Airpark in Arizona, northeast of Tucson. Amid the dry desert air, in a site known as the graveyard for planes, the 747 will end its days being picked for parts.

The 747 is not quite done, though. Freighter versions, known as the 747-8F, are still being built to serve as cargo jets for firms such as UPS, which just ordered 14 of them.

Mike Lombardi, Boeing historian, says the lasting legacy of the 747 directly relates to the time it was created.

“The late 1960s were a time of real turmoil. We had the Vietnam War, we had the race problem, people in the streets rioting. Then two things happened: the 747 and the Apollo program, going to the moon,” he said. “Both showed that despite all the differences and turmoil, we could come together and do something great. Boeing had built the world’s biggest airplane. It’s still part of the DNA of the company.”

Joe Sutter, the legendary Boeing engineer who was known as the “father of the 747” for leading the development of the plane, wrote about the genesis of the aircraft in his book, “747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation.”

“The world economy dipped into recession. Airline orders dried up, depriving Boeing of badly needed revenues for the 747 development and other programs … The financial situation actually became so dire that … I was to drop 1,000 engineers from my program! At that point I had 4,500 people reporting to me, some 2,700 of whom were actually engineers. The rest were manager, clerical and technical support people …”

At one point, Sutter told Boeing President Allen and others in management that the 747 was already behind schedule and cutting back personnel was impossible. He expected to be fired. “And I had a family, a mortgage, college expenses, a broken-down old car, and not a hell of a lot of money in the bank.”

But he wasn’t fired, and Sutter kept his crew of 4,500. The company stuck it out.

Sutter died in 2016 at age 95.

Of that Sunday morning in 1969 when the aircraft made its maiden flight, Sutter wrote, “I saw Boeing’s new jet as 75,000 drawings, 4.5 million parts, 136 miles of electrical wiring, 5 landing gear legs, 4 hydraulic systems, and 10 million labor hours.”

He watched the landing.

“A lot of so-called experts had been saying the 747 was too big for airline pilots to get it safely back onto the ground. How could pilots judge the landings, these critics said, when the cockpit was three stories off the ground? … Before my eyes, it descended to the runway with the stately majesty of an ocean liner.”

Boeing 747 makes its first flight, Feb. 9, 1969. William M. Allen, Boeing board chairman, checked the 747 from a 727 photo plane. (Vic Condiotty / The Seattle Times)
Boeing 747 makes its first flight, Feb. 9, 1969. William M. Allen, Boeing board chairman, checked the 747 from a 727 photo plane. (Vic Condiotty / The Seattle Times)
Pilot Jack Waddell, flight engineer Jess Wallick, center, and co-pilot Brien Wygle wave after the flight. The three wore shirts and ties rather than flight suits for the occasion. (Vic Condiotty / The Seattle Times)
Pilot Jack Waddell, flight engineer Jess Wallick, center, and co-pilot Brien Wygle wave after the flight. The three wore shirts and ties rather than flight suits for the occasion. (Vic Condiotty / The Seattle Times)

Brien Wygle, 94, of Bellevue, was the co-pilot on that first flight. Besides Wygle, pilot Waddell and flight engineer Jess Wallick were the only ones on the plane.

Sometimes on test flights, the crew wore flying suits, or a flight jacket. The photos from that day show the men wearing dress coats and shirts, ties and classic-style rain coats.

“Jack suggested we have office dress, and not put on a lot of hardware to make it look like there might some terrible danger. The idea was to make it look easy,” says Wygle.

And it was,   not going more than 300 mph, half its top speed, and not flying higher than 15,000 feet.

Wygle is an understated man.

“When we lifted into the air, we exalted a little bit in the flight deck. It was a great feeling,” he says. 

NOTE: Because of the weekend snow, Saturday and Sunday events at the Museum of Flight commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the 747 have been postponed.

Related

The Seattle Times commemorated Boeing’s 100th anniversary with a special edition in 2016. Here is a recap of “Boeing: 100 years of flight” »

 More on Boeing

For Boeing, juggling cash flow often means “another ‘Houdini moment’”

Read more about Boeing here »