The first Boeing 747 takes off for the first time from Paine Field in Everett on Feb. 9, 1969. (Boeing Co.)

The first Boeing 747 takes off for the first time from Paine Field in Everett on Feb. 9, 1969. (Boeing Co.)

50 years after the 747 first flew, a 797 is on the horizon

With eyes on the future, Boeing’s commemoration of an iconic but fading jumbo jet will be low-key.

EVERETT —It’s been 50 years since the world’s first Boeing 747, escorted by a surplus F-86 Sabre military jet to keep an eye on things, took off from Paine Field on Feb. 9, 1969.

Saturday marks the golden anniversary of the first test flight of Boeing’s iconic jumbo jet.

It had 4.5 million parts, weighed 358,000 pounds and spent 75 minutes aloft. A good start.

Boeing risked a huge portion of its net worth on the 747 program, and a miss could have spelled bankruptcy.

Since then, Boeing has produced more than 1,500, all of them built at the big factory in Everett. But the heady days of its youth as a commercial passenger jet have dissipated like yesterday’s contrail. The last 747 in passenger service with a U.S. airline was sent to pasture a year ago.

Today, the handful of 747s Boeing builds each year are freighters, destined to haul cargo.

That might be among the reasons the company has elected to hold a “digital” celebration to commemorate the milestone.

“From now beyond the anniversary, we’ll be using our digital channels to share content,” company spokesman Nathan Hulingssaid. Boeing is asking fans to sing the 747’s praises on Twitter with the hashtag #WhyILoveThe747.

The low-key approach is reminiscent of the “non-celebration” for the 737’s 50th anniversary, said Richard Aboulafia, a prominent aerospace analyst and vice president of the Teal Group.

It seems to reflect “the company leadership’s preference for future technologies over history,” Aboulafia said. “Sometimes that involves good ideas, like the 777X carbon-fiber wing. Sometimes it involves somewhat absurd ideas, like urban air mobility.

“But the past is the past, particularly since the 747 is clearly a sunsetting program, and the last passenger model has already likely been built,” Aboulafia concluded.

Could the non-celebration also indicate Chicago-based Boeing has bigger things on its mind this year than throwing a nostalgic party?

There are at least two major events on the 2019 calendar. Boeing plans to test-fly the 777X this year, with commercial deliveries to start in 2020.

And the big question Washington and other aerospace states are asking: Will Boeing build a new “mid-market” airplane, the so-called 797 — and where?

The first Boeing 747 during its first flight on Feb. 9, 1969. (Boeing Co.)

The first Boeing 747 during its first flight on Feb. 9, 1969. (Boeing Co.)

So far, Boeing hasn’t publicly revealed what’s on the drawing board. But analysts, who describe development of the 797 as a $10 billion to $15 billion project, expect a decision this year.

At that level of investment, it’s no wonder everyone wants Boeing to build it in their back yard.

But back to that cold, February day. The 747 had missed a deadline, wrote Joe Sutter in his 2006 book “747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation.”

Company higher-ups had wanted the test flight to take place Dec. 17, coinciding with the 65th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, said Sutter, who led the team of 4,500 engineers who created, in Everett, the world’s first jumbo jet.

“There was no doubt in my mind that the 747 would fly; the only question was how well,” said Sutter, who died in 2016.

The “City of Everett,” as the first 747 was named, did not disappoint.

Sutter wrote that when Jack Waddell, one of two test pilots, returned to Earth, he declared it a “a flying arrow … a pilot’s airplane!”

The first 747 today is on display at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle.

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods.

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