40 years later, Boeing’s 747 is still soaring

EVERETT — It’s a common sight around the Puget Sound region — a Boeing Co. 747 coasting through the clouds.

But 40 years ago today, when a 747 took to the skies for the first time above Everett’s Paine Field on a cold and gray February day, it was anything but ordinary.

“I don’t think anybody can imagine where aviation would be without the 747,” Joe Sutter, lead 747 engineer, told The Herald in 2006.

Boeing delivered its first 747 10 months after the jumbo jet’s maiden flight in 1969 and since has turned out 1,412 747s to customers around the world. Boeing estimates its 747s have carried more than 3.5 billion passengers — equal to about half the world’s population — during the last 40 years. Besides connecting people, the 747 also has made a jumbo impression on air cargo, opening up capacity for ferrying goods — even 787 aircraft assemblies — worldwide.

Over the last four decades, Boeing has introduced 21 different versions of the “Queen of the Skies,” including its latest 747-8 cargo and passenger models. The jumbo jet has served as the presidential aircraft of choice since the 1990s, though former President Ronald Reagan ordered the Boeing jets.

Until Airbus introduced its A380 superjumbo jet in 2007, Boeing’s 747 remained the largest commercial jet in service carrying more than 400 passengers. Airbus’ A380 can be configured to carry 840 people, as recent buyer Air Austral plans to operate the superjumbo.

Sutter, who has been called the “father” of the 747, described the gamble that Boeing took with its 747. The company tied up most of its money with the program, building its behemoth factory here in Everett to house the jumbo jet. Sutter was the first official 747 program employee, assigned to research the potential of the jumbo jet, as first proposed to Boeing by Pan American’s Juan Trippe.

“It’s very flexible in its design,” Sutter said. “The design has been able to absorb technology.”

The company believes its 747 can benefit from the fuel efficiency and technology of the company’s new 787 Dreamliner jet.

But setbacks on the 787 delayed a shift of engineering resources to the 747-8, which faced more design challenges than Boeing anticipated. The company delayed the 747-8 Freighter’s first delivery to Cargolux until the third quarter of 2010.

And all eyes will turn to Everett’s skies again this fall for another 747 first flight.

Reporter Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454 or mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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