The World the 747 Didn’t Predict

On July 15, 1966, Juan Trippe, the founder and C.E.O. of Pan American World Airways, addressed roughly twelve hundred people assembled in the banquet hall of a Seattle hotel. They had gathered to celebrate the Boeing company, founded fifty years earlier, on the shores of nearby Lake Union. Outside the opulent downtown hotel, the world had, seemingly overnight, turned into a more dangerous place. U.S. jet fighters in Vietnam had begun encountering Soviet-supplied MiG-21s; in Europe, volunteers from Eastern Bloc countries were threatening to fly to Southeast Asia to engage Americans in combat.

The Vietnam War was heating up. The Cold War was decades from ending. But Trippe, who’d recently preordered twenty-five units of Boeing’s new jumbo jet, which still only existed on paper, spoke of a bright future: “The new era of mass travel between nations may well prove more significant to human destiny than the atom bomb. . . . The 747 will be a great new weapon of peace.”

So began the legend and mythmaking of what is arguably the planet’s most recognizable airplane. And, for the next half century, the 747, christened by its maker the “queen of the skies,” ruled the airways and won over the hearts and imaginations of travellers—a reign celebrated, earlier this week, when a similar crowd gathered at the Boeing assembly plant in Everett, Washington, to fête the jumbo jet as the company delivered the final 747 to its last buyer.

For the most part, the hype that started in the late nineteen-sixties was justified. There had never been anything like the 747: the first wide-body, multi-aisle passenger jet, the largest craft to nose up to any airport—from the ground to the top of the tail, as tall as a six-story building, and three-quarters of a football field in length—capable of carrying more than four hundred passengers. And it was one of the safest aircraft ever built, as a Boeing in-house historian has claimed.

There was nothing like the 747 aesthetically, either. Admirers spoke of it—still speak of it—with the reverence of a Galleria dell’Accademia docent regarding Michelangelo’s “David.” The swoop of the plane’s tapered body, the contour of its wide, gleaming nose, and, most glorious of all, its iconic hump.

The first 747 left the ground in early 1969. After touching back down, the Boeing test pilot expressed awe at how effortlessly it flew. “Let’s put it this way,” his voice cracked over the radio, “the airplane landed itself.” Passengers loved the plane so much that Trippe’s Pan Am eventually purchased dozens more. Other airlines followed, finding new ways to attract travellers. The plane’s distinct hump had come about to accommodate the flight deck—for aerodynamic reasons, it extended back far enough to create extra space, which some airlines used as a lounge or seating for élite customers, cast in ads in nineteen-seventies shag-carpet swank.

For all its glamour, though, the plane also helped to democratize air travel. Because the 747 could now seat more travellers on a single flight, airlines were able to sell more tickets at lower prices. Suddenly, travel, particularly intercontinental travel, was accessible to people who had rarely, if ever, been in the air. The 747, in a sense, taught the world to fly.

It also etched its image onto popular culture. In the visual grammar of film, a 747 touching down on a runway, heat waves warbling in the foreground, is shorthand for our character has left the country. The 747 is a—if not the—plot point in countless blockbuster movies, “Air Force One” and “Snakes on a Plane” among them.

Along the way, Boeing and its famous planes transformed Seattle. The atmosphere of innovation the company fostered in its home town since the early twentieth century—hiring engineers from all over the world, investing heavily in research and training in local schools and universities—helped turn the region into an international tech hub, one that paved the way for companies like Microsoft and Amazon. But it also chained the local economy’s fate to that of Boeing. By 1957, the company employed a hundred thousand people throughout the region. When Boeing did well, so did Seattle. When Boeing struggled, the city did as well.

In the early seventies, commercial-airplane sales at Boeing began to lag. The company laid off sixty thousand employees. The unemployment rate in the Seattle area rose to fifteen per cent. The event, known locally as the Boeing Bust, left downtown businesses shuttered as people moved away in droves. Locals were angered when two copywriters put too fine a point on it, erecting a billboard that read “Will the last person leaving SEATTLE — Turn out the lights.”

The city later bounced back, and so did the 747. Boeing released several new versions over the decades. But the twenty-first century was less kind to the jumbo jet than the twentieth. For one, technology had advanced to the degree that planes could confidently cross continents and oceans with just two engines rather than the 747’s four. Those new engines also used less fuel—appealing to airlines and travellers increasingly wary of a heating planet. In 2020, Boeing announced that it would be building its last 747 in 2022.

Though a few airlines—including Lufthansa and Korean Air—still fly passengers via 747s, and likely will for decades to come, most in use today are cargo planes. “If you’re flying [a Boeing plane] abroad, it’s going to be either 777 or 787, which have the range of 747 with only two engines and smaller size,” the aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia told me. He’s followed the volatile course of Boeing since 1988 and is a frequent critic of the company, most prominently for its handling of the deadly 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019. But Aboulafia remains awed by the 747, he said. “It’s one of the great wonders of the twentieth century.”

Earlier this week, thousands gathered at the Boeing assembly plant in Everett, about thirty miles outside Seattle, to honor that great wonder. The event was—not a wake, exactly, but something like a celebration of life.

John Travolta stood onstage inside what is presumed to be the world’s most capacious building. Head shaved, beard impeccably trimmed, the actor, seventies icon, and longtime aviator wore a gray suit jacket over a black sweater and white collared shirt. “How many in the audience have actually flown on a 747?” he asked. The executives, engineers, and mechanics, seated upon nine columns of chairs stretched across the assembly floor, raised their hands.“Yeehaw! Yes!” Travolta shouted back, before singing a line from the Earth, Wind & Fire 1981 hit “Let’s Groove”—the part that goes, “like a seven-forty-seven.”

He gushed about the iconic jumbo jet, which, years ago, he’d been certified to fly as part of a promotional deal he had with Qantas Airways. Travolta was one of several speakers Boeing brought onstage to extoll the plane, including corporate leaders at some of its customers: Lufthansa, UPS, and the final 747 customer, Atlas Air, a cargo-and-charter company that was flying the plane—parked right outside—to Cincinnati the next morning.

Despite a few nods to the future by the Boeing C.E.O. Dave Calhoun, the cameo by Travolta, a star of the No. 1 box-office draw of 1978, captured the afternoon’s vibe the best. The event was heavy on history and nostalgia, as if Juan Trippe’s words about international harmony could still be mistaken for prophecy. Nearly sixty years after the C.E.O. of the now defunct Pan Am predicted that the 747 would be a “weapon of peace,” the world is very much gripped by nationalism, and the threat of nuclear conflict is rising. (It was another Boeing-designed plane, the B-29, that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first and only use of nuclear weapons against a population.)

Trippe was right, though, about one thing. The 747 made the world smaller, encouraging and making it possible for more people to travel. And, in that way, it changed us fundamentally—as citizens of the planet and maybe even as a species. Nearly a hundred and twenty years after the Wright brothers first untethered themselves from the earth, and half a century after Boeing’s jumbo jet took us all up there with them, we are different. We soar through the skies at six hundred miles per hour, six and a half miles up, and hardly blink. We jump across whole continents, across entire oceans, in these soft, human bodies, with little more protecting us than a thin sheet of aluminum alloy, and we barely give it a second’s thought. We should go woozy at the vertiginous improbability. We should be unmoored by existential dread. Instead, we loosen the seat-belt buckle. We convince ourselves of brighter futures. ♦

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