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