Ah...the 747. What can we say.

An awful lot, actually. Let's start with what it is. The 747 is a commercial transport aircraft designed and built by the Boeing aircraft company, until recently of Seattle. It is perhaps the most 'recognizable' airliner in the world, due to its enormous size and distinctive 'hump' atop the fuselage. If you fly internationally, you've probably flown on a 747 at least once.

It was (and continues to be) manufactured in many variants. There are four 'families' of 747; the 747-100 series, the 747-200, 747-300 and now 747-400. Only the 747-400 is in production at present. Boeing has termed the -100, -200 and -300 series collectively the '747 Classics.' One of the two original 'Jumbo Jets' (the other was the McDonnell Douglass DC-10), the 747 has caused awe, comfort, discomfort, relief, and chaos at airports unable to handle its passenger load for several decades. With this in mind, a quick look at the history is probably in order.

Boeing began to develop the 747 in 1966, upon receiving a firm order from Pan American Airways. The first airplane was delivered in 1970, and things took off (sorry) from there. There are more than 1,100 747s in service around the world today; Boeing is proud to note that much of its 747 sales (79%) have been to foreign customers, contributing over $98 billion to the U.S. balance of trade - an enormous amount for a single product. When production ramped up in the early 1970s, Boeing built a factory to produce the 747 near Seattle, at a cost of $200 million. This, actually, is roughly what a modern 747-400 with all the bells and whistles will cost you today, not allowing for inflation.

Since early days of the program, there have been multipurpose 747s. Freighter variants of the airplane have served alongside their passenger-toting brethren; for smaller airlines or those with diverse needs, Boeing makes the 747-400 Combi. This version of the airplane has both a passenger seating area forward as well as cargo holds aft of the wing line. Newer versions are slightly reconfigurable, allowing the carrier to repurpose the airplane relatively easily.

The 747 has managed, like its older sibling the Boeing 707, to make it into military service with the United States. In addition to various 'flying laboratory' modes, there is currently a project underway to pack a large airborne laser into a 747 airframe for theater ballistic missile defense. In the early 1990s, the Executive Branch took delivery of two VC-25 aircraft (government modified 747s) for use as Air Force One, in which role it also relieved the 707.

The airplane is used for all manner of purposes. Recent models finally have the range to fly nonstop from Atlantic ports (New York, London) to Sydney, Australia1! In contrast, several 747s have been modified for domestic use in Japan in which they serve as 'commuter buses,' ferrying many hundreds of people at a time between major Japanese cities in 20 to 50 minute flights. In addition to carrying cargo, the 747 is also a familiar sight in the U.S. as it ferries U.S. Space Shuttle Orbiters from coast to coast. This is not very common anymore, as most Shuttle landings take place at KSC, but when a Shuttle is forced to land at Edwards due to weather, it is ferried back atop the Shuttle Transporter, a modified 747.

The 400 series marked a major redesign of the airplane. In addition to the usual capacity increases and concomitant size increases, the 400 series featured a completely redesigned wing structure for improved aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. Winglets (vertical stabilizers at the wingtips) were added for improved control and flight stability. The 400 cockpit has become completely digital, with programmable flat-panel displays and electronic gauges replacing the traditional analog versions. According to Boeing, the transition reduced the number of switches, controls and indicators in the cockpit from 971 to 365. This allowed the crew size to drop by one, from three to two cockpit crew, as the 'flight engineer/navigator's' functions were absorbed into the pilot/copilot station systems. For long flights (such as the aforementioned New York to Sydney hop) the airplane typically carries two flight crews, with beds and lounge areas available for the 'off' flight and cabin crew.

Stats time! There are four production variants of the 747-400: The 747-400 Passenger, the 747-400 Domestic, the 747-400 Combi, and 747-400 Cargo freighter. These stats are for the Passenger variant unless noted as different.

Note: Kawika informs me there is a short-field variant of the airplane called the 747SP. It is a shortened version produced in the early 1980s; the Japanese commuter versions mentioned above are no doubt this model. Thanks Kawika!

Note Note: sekicho chimes in that there are -D models of both the 100 and 400 series 747; these are the Japanese mods (D for Domestic?) and that they achieve higher passenger capacity at the expense of both legroom and fuel load. The SP, according to sekicho, is an extended range variant. That would make sense; a shortened, lighter airplane for greater range (the fuel tanks are in the wings and center fuselage; you probably wouldn't lost much - or even any - fuel cap, but would lighten the load.

Note Note Note: sekicho has given up on my slowness of mind and simply noded the myriad varieties of this excellent airplane elsewhere in this node. See it, read it, ching it.

1: snaund notes that there aren't presently any nonstops from NY/London to Sydney, and that the longest is LAX-Sydney. I think that although the Long Range variant can make this flight, it isn't economically viable (especially presently).

Note Note Note Note: Achromatic informs me that in the late '90s, Qantas did have weekly nonstop Sydney<->London service. In addition, 'LR' may have been taken not from the aircraft designation, but from the Australian town 'Longreach!' The longest route flown would have been Chicago O'Hare<->Sydney, which would have to have been the -ER variant. Economics may or may not have been the reason the route was discontinued; passenger discomfort (today including liability to Deep-vein Thrombosis) would have also been a factor. Thanks to Achromatic for this info.

  • Passenger Capacity: 3-class- 416 / 2-class 524
  • Cargo: 6,025 cubic feet
  • Max. Range: 7,325 nautical miles (not the Long Range variant)
  • Cruising speed: 0.85 Mach (565 mph)
  • Max. Takeoff Weight: 875,000 lb (437.5 tons U.S.)
  • Max. Fuel capacity: 57,285 U.S. Gallons / 216,840 Liters
  • Wingspan: 211 ft. 5 in. (64.4 meters)
  • Length: Nose to tail, 231 ft 10 in. (70.6 meters)
  • Tail height: 63 feet 8 in. (19.4 meters)
  • Engines: Four engines in under-wing nacelles; one of three types- Note that all of these are high-bypass turbofans.
  • Unit cost: between $150 million and $200 million, depending on configuration

After a dialogue with The Ubiquitous Custodian, I have only realized my own failure to grasp the wide range of 747 variants out there. So far, these appear to be all of them:

  • 747-100: The original version of the 747, seating 330 passengers in 3 classes, and flying up to 5,100 miles. It entered service with Pan American World Airways in 1970. Production ended in 1986: most 100's remaining nowadays have been converted to freighters. The oldest -100's can be easily identified by their hump, which has only three windows from back in the days when the hump contained a lounge; after airlines began sticking business class seats upstairs, Boeing offered a ten-window hump, which quickly became the norm.
  • 747-100B: An improved version with a stronger undercarriage and structural design. Saudi Arabian Airlines still flies many of these.
  • 747-100SR: Domestic variant, seating 505 to 550 passengers. Entered service with Japan Airlines in 1973. All Nippon Airways operates most of the remaining models.
  • Shuttle Carrier Aircraft: A 747-100 refitted to carry the Space Shuttle from Florida to California and vice versa. Until the Challenger disaster, this was a surplus American Airlines 747-100; it was replaced by a former JAL 747-100SR in 1991.

  • 747-200: Same capacity as the -100, but with a longer operating range of 6,800 miles. The hump has eight windows. Entered service with KLM in 1971, and production ended in 1990 with the rollout of Air Force One (see below).
  • 747-200C: Convertible aircraft capable of carrying either passengers or freight. First flew for World Airways in 1973.
  • 747-200F: All-freight version. First flew for Lufthansa in 1972: production ended in 1991.
  • 747-200M: The first Combi 747, with a main deck that accommodates both passengers and freight, and can be adjusted between the two. Entered service with Air Canada in 1975.

  • 747-300: Has an extended hump with a door in the middle. Longer range (7,120 miles) and higher capacity than the -200. Entered service with Swissair in 1983: production ended in 1988.
  • 747-300M: Combi variant. Entered service with Swissair in 1983: production ended in 1990.
  • 747-300SR: Domestic variant. Only four were built, all for Japan Airlines.

  • 747-400: Carries 416 passengers up to 7,890 miles. Has an extended hump like the -300, as well as winglets. Entered service with Northwest Airlines in 1989.
  • 747-400D: All-coach domestic version, carrying 568 passengers. Entered service with Japan Airlines in 1991.
  • 747-400ER: Extended range version (up to 8,060 miles). Entered service with Qantas in 2002.
  • 747-400ERF: Extended range all-freight version. Entered service with Air France in 2002.
  • 747-400F: All-freight version. Entered service with Cargolux in 1993.
  • 747-400M: Combi variant. Entered service with KLM in 1989.

  • 747-8 Intercontinental: Announced in 2005. Will use the super-efficient General Electric engines developed for the Boeing 787, and a redesigned wing that curves upward, also like the 787. 3.6m longer than the 747-400.
  • 747-8 Freighter: Launched alongside the passenger version. Scheduled to enter service with Cargolux in 2009.

  • 747SP: A shortened 747 with a higher airspeed (610 mph vs. 570 mph) and a much higher range (up to 10,200 miles). First flew for Pan Am in 1976: they were mainly used by airlines in the South Pacific, such as Qantas and American Airlines, and are now mostly found in the Middle East flying for Iran Air and Syrianair. 220 passengers in 3-class configuration, and 280 in 2-class. 44 were built: production ended in 1989.

  • 747SUD: Not a model, but rather a modification to -100 and -200 series 747's to give them stretched upper decks like the -300 and -400 series. JAL has a lot of SUD-modified 100SR's.

  • 747X: A larger 747-400 designed to compete with the Airbus A380. Currently shelved. Concept art is available at http://www.boeingchina.com/images/tu/747/4_b.jpg .

  • E-4 NAOC/NEACP: A heavily modded 747-200 designed to allow U.S. government officials to run a nuclear war from the safety of the air (see The Sum of All Fears). Deployed in 1974 and upgraded in 1980. Four were built, and are currently stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
  • VC-25 Air Force One: A heavily modded 747-200 used to transport the President of the United States of America. Deployed in 1990. Two are currently operational, stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The E-4 and VC-25 look very similar: the only obvious distinguishing feature is a small radome on top of the E-4. (Incidentally, other countries also use the 747 as a state transport: Bahrain, Iran, Japan, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates.)
  • YAL-1 Airborne Laser: Missile defense system consisting of a large chemical laser mounted in the fuselage of a 747. Still in development but has already shot stuff in flight as of 2008.

The largest 747 fleets belong to:

  1. Japan Airlines (81)
  2. British Airways (57)
  3. Singapore Airlines (52)
  4. Northwest Airlines (48)
  5. United Airlines (47)
  6. Korean Air (46)
  7. Air France (40)
    Lufthansa (40)
  8. Atlas Air (39)
  9. KLM (34)
    Qantas (34)
  10. Cathay Pacific Airways (31)
  11. China Airlines (19)

Finally, a complete list of all the fatal 747 crashes to date:

Lufthansa flight 540, Nairobi, 1974
Tenerife Airport Disaster, 1977
Air-India flight 855, Arabian Sea, 1978
Korean Air flight 007, Sea of Okhotsk, 1983
Avianca flight 011, Madrid, 1983
Air-India flight 182, Atlantic Ocean, 1985
Japan Airlines flight 123, Tokyo, 1985
South African Airways flight 295, Indian Ocean, 1987
Pan Am flight 103, Lockerbie, 1988
China Airlines flight 358, Taiwan, 1991
TWA Flight 800, Long Island, 1996
Saudia flight 763, Delhi, 1996
Korean Air flight 801, Guam, 1997
Singapore Airlines flight 006, Taipei, 2000
China Airlines flight 611, Penghu Islands, 2002


sources: boeing.com, globalsecurity.org, jetphotos.net, aviation-safety.net, and aerospaceweb.org

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