back to article Why the Sun is setting on the Boeing 747

Guy Gratton, Brunel University London It’s difficult to imagine now, in the age of mass global travel, that building an aeroplane to carry hundreds of people at a time was once seen as a huge risk. But as the world’s first wide-body airliner, the Boeing 747 went on to change not only aviation but the entire tourism industry. …

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  1. sandman

    Awe inspiring

    I was quite young when I first saw one. I was lying in the grass just beyond the runway boundary fence at Düsseldorf airport and one took off right over me - wow! When I flew into Heathrow I saw one parked next to a Concord, which looked like the plane equivalent of a lifeboat in comparison. After the 707 it became my favourite plane to fly on (various dodgy Ilyushins operated by equally dodgy airlines being my least favourite)!

    1. Fihart

      Re: Awe inspiring

      Ditto. Saw my first Jumbo from upper deck of a bus in London. First time I flew one, the interior seemed like walking into a cinema.

      Such a contrast to my first ever flight in a passenger plane -- Vickers Vanguard, London to Glasgow in the late sixties. Whole damned thing vibrated from the turbo-prop engines and I spent the journey watching a rivet in the bulkhead turning in its socket, hoping that the plane's structure was better finished than the interior.

      But worst flight; from Frankfurt on a really old Boeing 707 of Kenya Airways. The only seat on a flight to London on a Friday evening. Had come in with a fairly full load from Mombasa and was quite ripe. The seat tray fell off when opened and the plane had to be diverted to Manchester as it lacked fog-landing tech.

      1. Chris Miller

        Re: Awe inspiring

        I was sitting next to the then Minister for Aviation at a dinner in the early 70s. He told me that the 747 had killed any hope of commercial success for Concorde. His explanation was that the 747 (-100 as it was then) required a certain number of passengers in First for the economics to work and running a Concorde fleet alongside meant all your First passengers would opt for supersonic. So it was an either/or choice and the airlines went for the 747.

        My first flight in a 747 wasn't until 1980, but in those far off days, best beloved, intercontinental air travel for the company was always in First. Spoils you for cattle class, I'm afraid.

      2. Steve Kerr

        Re: Awe inspiring

        "But worst flight; from Frankfurt on a really old Boeing 707 of Kenya Airways. The only seat on a flight to London on a Friday evening. Had come in with a fairly full load from Mombasa and was quite ripe. The seat tray fell off when opened and the plane had to be diverted to Manchester as it lacked fog-landing tech."

        Worst flight - Bosnia to Serbia on Jat airways, 50 seater prop plane

        Looked at the plane and thought "like F... am I getting on that, interior no better

        Seat was missing a couple of bolts and rocked backwards and forwards.

        Safety information in Russian, done a bit in English then gave up.

        Was on the taxiway when full power applied for takeoff

        Literally two wheeled turn onto runway for takeoff.

        Plane starts shaking badly, thought "that's a bad runway"

        Plane takes off, in air, still shaking badly.

        The next hour or so thinking "Wonder when the bolts holding the wings on were last checked or for that matter, anything holding the plane together".

        Landed with probably all of the plane intact.

        Following day flight back, plane switched to an airbus with the same number of people that would've fitted on the prop plane.

        Used to fly out to customers at least once a week, hate airplanes, hate flying,

        747's weren't bad to fly on.

        1. BebopWeBop Silver badge

          Re: Awe inspiring

          To some extent, it's a matter of who is maintaining the aircraft. I had a very worrying hour when looking out of the window of an Airbus flying from Nairobi to Mombassa 20 years ago, I saw the cowling loosen and then come away on the port engine. No cabin staff to speak of, so I kept schtum - and didn't mention it until later to my then girlfriend who had come over for a 7 day holiday while I was based in Kenya.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Awe inspiring

            " an Airbus flying from Nairobi to Mombassa 20 years ago, I saw the cowling loosen"

            That kind of thing was still a problem relatively recently, caused typically by cowling latches not being closed properly and the post-maintenance checks and pre-flight checks all failing to spot it.

            https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=cowling+latch+airworthiness

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    In the late 80's I flew from Sydney to HK and then HK to Heathrow on the upper deck (in those days the upper deck was cattle class and as there was only 6 or 7 of us sat up there we had 2 flight crew looking after us.

    The closest I will ever get to turning left as I get onto a flight!!

    1. Tweetiepooh

      When I was at growing up in South Africa we had a cub field trip to the local crisp factory (at a time when RSA had loads of flavours) and then to Jan Smuts (as was then) airport where we toured the airport hangers and were shown around a 747. The "upstairs" cabin on this model was more than the turn left on boarding. There were only about 4 or 5 seats, each big, luxurious and separate from the others. Had own toilets and washing facilities.

    2. GlenP Silver badge

      I flew back from Detroit upstairs in the 90s as there were still a couple of BA 747s with cattle class up there. Much better than the main cabin seating as the check in had only put adults up there and had left the middle seats of each set of 3 empty.

      I have subsequently turned left thanks to a more recent, slightly more generous, employer.

      1. ThomH Silver badge

        The Virgin 747s running from San Francisco to Heathrow still have 15 or 20 economy seats upstairs; it's well-worth getting one if you can. Quite apart from being quieter, window seats get a little shelf and, of course, you walk straight down to the exit, allowing you to get into the border control queue a couple of hundred people earlier than you otherwise might have done.

  3. Credas Silver badge

    Some dodgy facts in there

    But the fourth engine gave the plane a significant safety advantage in that it would retain much greater propulsion power if one of the engines failed.

    Wrong: 4-engine, 3-engine and 2-engine airliners all have to be able to climb with one engine failed on take-off, and have the same thrust margin available for that failure case. The only safety advantage of a 4-engine aircraft, in a period of relatively unreliable engines compared with today, was the two engine failed case!

    In fact most of the time a twin is so over-powered to allow for the engine failure case that it has much higher performance after take-off than a 4-engine aircraft - something you can observe at an airport any day of the week.

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: Some dodgy facts in there

      In fact most of the time a twin is so over-powered to allow for the engine failure case that it has much higher performance after take-off than a 4-engine aircraft -

      There are exceptions. I've watched a 747 take off at Heathrow, ambling down almost the whole runway so slowly and for such a long time that it seemed it was never going to get airborne. A minute or two later a Concorde entered the same runway. The usual earth-shaking roar, and what seemed like 1/4 of the runway later it pointed its nose into the sky and climbed effortlessly away. Hardly a fair comparison, I know, even though they did both have 4 engines.

      I won't miss 747's at all, they certainly put the "coach" into "coach class". Concorde, though... :(

      1. anothercynic Silver badge

        Re: Some dodgy facts in there

        The difference was the wing... the high-ogee delta that Concorde possessed was just phenomenal... If you've seen *any* Vulcan XH558 footage, you'll know what I mean... that thing *jumps* off the runway. :-)

    2. yoganmahew

      Re: Some dodgy facts in there

      @Credas

      Or indeed ETOPS...

      Had many an occasion to view the business cabin of a 747-400 upstairs as a haven at IGI Airport after a long stretch working in Delhi! BA in those days had the air of a flying gentleman's club where you could exchange relieved glances with your neighbour and then get on with the business of ignoring them until final approach the other side!

      1. Philip Lewis

        Re: Some dodgy facts in there

        ETOPS, aka. Engines Turning Or Passengers Swim

    3. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Some dodgy facts in there

      "But the fourth engine gave the plane a significant safety advantage in that it would retain much greater propulsion power if one of the engines failed."

      A more significant failure mode for the tail-mounted engine involves its somewhat-uncontained failure leading to damage to the tail control surfaces, or the systems that control them. There's a list of such incidents; most of which ended badly.

      In hindsight, putting an aircraft engine in the tail is about as bad a conceptual design error as bolting a spaceship *beside* its large External Fuel Tank.

      1. SkippyBing Silver badge

        Re: Some dodgy facts in there

        Although I think most cases of the tail engine failing and causing ‘difficulties’ were with the DC-10 the rather rapidly developed competitor to the L-1011 Tristar. It probably helped that the Tristar had 4 hydraulic systems versus the DC-10’s 3 as, in the only case I can find, of a Tristar having an uncontained engine failure it retained control with the one working system.

        Having said that statistically the DC-10 was more likely to kill you by having the cargo door fail and the control runs being crushed in the subsequent explosive decompression, than due to an uncontained failure of the tail engine. Or from one of the engines falling off. Or from one of the other engines having an uncontained failure dislodging a window and the passenger being sucked out.

        To be honest I think they were just badly designed rather than the three engine configuration being a bad idea…

        1. anothercynic Silver badge

          Re: Some dodgy facts in there

          @SkippyBing, correct. And yeah, that DC-10 cargo door issue... That cost McDonnell-Douglas a *lot* in reputation and sales (similar to de Havilland's *ahem* Comet issue).

        2. DaiKiwi

          Re: Some dodgy facts in there

          Or by flying into a volcano

  4. Matthew Taylor

    Aircraft as work of art

    As a young child, I adored the shape of the 747. I would try to draw its curves, and collect pictures of it. I remember being annoyed that an aeroplane book I had only contained a picture of the 747-SP , which was too short and stumpy. I didn't like the newer "stretched" models either, they spoiled its lines. :-)

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Aircraft as work of art

      > I didn't like the newer "stretched" models either, they spoiled its lines

      That's debateable. The hump was there as an artifact of the original USAF freighter design and elongating it turned out to make the aircraft more aerodyamically efficient (which to my mind means the lines were improved) to the tune of the fuselage generating 30% of the thing's lift.

  5. x 7 Silver badge

    "But the fourth engine gave the plane a significant safety advantage in that it would retain much greater propulsion power if one of the engines failed."

    not really true

    If you lose two engines on a three engined aircraft you're going to crash

    If you lose two engines on a four engined aircraft you are probably also going to crash

    the probability of losing two engines on a four engined craft is higher than that of losing two on a three engined craft. Now, which is safer?

    1. AceRimmer

      "the probability of losing two engines on a four engined craft is higher than that of losing two on a three engined craft. Now, which is safer?"

      A single engined aircraft.. it has 0 chance of losing two engines

    2. W3dge

      Where did you go to maths school?!

    3. Thesheep

      Really?

      Firstly it depends on when you lose the engines - takeoff becomes challenging (though not impossible). Landing becomes interesting - but actually we've seen 777s land without any engines. Cruise? Well we've seen engineless glides to safe landings...

      As for the probabilities of losing engines, well it looks like you're assuming that the probabilities are independent - I'd suggest that in most cases of multiple failure they aren't.

      1. x 7 Silver badge

        Re: Really?

        "As for the probabilities of losing engines, well it looks like you're assuming that the probabilities are independent - I'd suggest that in most cases of multiple failure they aren't."

        Correct - that is my assumption. But if you want to look at non-independent failure then the four-jet fares even worse because of the risk of uncontained turbine failure, or an engine fire, taking out the adjacent engine. That's not possible in a trijet

        1. Chris Miller

          Re: Really?

          Not so, there was the case of a BA 747 a few years back that suffered an engine failure at take-off from LAX (if memory serves - West Coast, anyway). After a professional assessment of the situation the flight crew opted to continue towards Heathrow, not a decision that would have been taken if losing another en route would have meant 'crash'. AFAIK losing two on a Jumbo limits altitude to 29,000 (no crossing the Himalayas, then) and makes landing trickier if they're both on the same side. The triple hydraulics are designed to cope safely with losing two engines.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Really?

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Airways_Flight_268

        2. hammarbtyp Silver badge

          Re: Really?

          Correct - that is my assumption. But if you want to look at non-independent failure then the four-jet fares even worse because of the risk of uncontained turbine failure, or an engine fire, taking out the adjacent engine. That's not possible in a trijet

          The way engines are place on a wing makes it unlikely that a a uncontained failure will take out another engine . Also on a 4 engine job it won't rip through your tail taking out all your hydralic lines

        3. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
          Pint

          Re: Really?

          x7 "...four-jet fares even worse because of the risk of uncontained turbine failure, or an engine fire, taking out the adjacent engine. That's not possible in a trijet."

          You've ignored the several tragic incidents where the failure of the tail-mounted engine took out the tail control surfaces or the systems that control them.

          As far as I know, that's one of the fundamental reasons that tri-jets are no longer a favoured design architecture.

          1. SkippyBing Silver badge

            Re: Really?

            I've only looked at the 727, DC-10 and the L-1011 but I can only find one example where the centre engine failed and caused damage to the controls, the Sioux City crash. That's not to say there weren't others but they don't seem to be as common as I thought.

            1. DougS Silver badge

              Tail mounted engine damage

              Which is worse, an uncontrolled failure of a tail mounted engine or uncontrolled failure of a wing mounted engine? I don't think the plane will fly well missing either the tail or the one of the wings...

    4. Astro Fruit

      A 747 can fly on one engine.

    5. anothercynic Silver badge

      *errrrr* No.

      Sorry x 7, you're wrong. Losing two engines on a four-engine airliner once airborne is fine. However, trying to *take off* with just two engines at MTOW is... dodgy(ish), i.e. not a recommended course of action. Preference is to abort take-off if possible.

      As for the loss of two engines in a 3-engine airliner, you won't crash (provided your controls are ok), but you *would* declare an emergency and request nearest runway to get the thing down.

      1. Down not across

        Re: *errrrr* No.

        That's not entirely true. If engine three falls off due to fatigue pin in the mount, and knocks engine 4 out of its mount as well (along with hydraulics in the wing) you have fairly uncontrollable plane. Especially if flaps (due to loss of hydraulics) only extend on your left wing.

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: *errrrr* No.

          The El Al crash, right. I was just about to reference it. Two failures on the same side does make things trickier, raises the risk of loss of control.

          And IIRC a tail engine failure did lead once to a crash because it managed to knock out ALL FOUR of the hydraulic systems, including the one on the opposite side, making it a Failsafe Failure.

      2. JimboSmith Silver badge

        Re: *errrrr* No.

        Speaking as someone who has been on a 747 when an engine died I would be happier on one of them than a two engined plane any day. There may be no basis for this in reality but that's my feeling

  6. Jemma Silver badge

    Losing engines

    Kinda reminds me of a film quote...

    Co-pilot "uh, how long can we fly on one engine?"

    Pilot "I guess we're about to find out... "

    Not a 747 but a Boeing type 299. Anyone know the film?

    - This comment is dedicated to all the Americans who fought in the Crusades -

    1. Velv Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Losing engines

      Pilot in log: "left engine missing"

      Maintenance in log: "left engine found under left wing after short search"

    2. annodomini2 Bronze badge

      Re: Losing engines

      Die hard 2?

      1. GavinC

        Re: Losing engines

        Reminds me of this old joke:

        A military pilot called for a priority landing because his single-engine jet fighter was running “a bit peaked.” Air Traffic Control told the fighter pilot that he was number two, behind a B-52 that had one engine shut down. “Ah,” the fighter pilot remarked, “The dreaded seven-engine approach.”

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

    4. Tikimon Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: Losing engines - Memphis Belle

      There may be more than one film with that situation, but I know that featured in "Memphis Belle" (1990). Near the end of the film they're coming in with two engines out, then lose a third. It was a Boeing too, B-17 bomber.

      1. Jemma Silver badge

        Re: Losing engines - Memphis Belle

        That's the one, the B-17 was known internally at Boeing as the type 299 and was an unrequested private design hence it's Y1 prefix when tested. Neither of the air forces asked for it, Boeing just went ahead and built the prototypes off the experience of the B-15 which if I remember was even bigger in some respects than the B-29 but built in 35/36.

  7. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    Ah the 747-100

    As an apprentice it was our job to pour over the cockpit drawings as supplied by Boeing and taking measurements so that we could produce our own drawings of the component parts. The drawings supplied from Seattle were twice full size and were dimensionless. i.e. no dimensions were in the drawing itself.

    This was so that we could build a flight Simulator.

    Them were the days.

    Oh, and it was all done on the floor of the 'new erection' shop (erection as in where things were put together and not the other meaning). This was at Redifon flight Simulation in Crawley.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Ah the 747-100

      Redifon Flight Simulation - now that is a name that takes me back to my childhood!

    2. Trevor Marshall

      Re: Ah the 747-100

      Ah Redifon, and the 'erection shop' - and tannoy messages for Richard Stiffener to go there. Yes - childish. But there's nothing like the fun of flying a full-flight simulator at 300 feet inverted over the old Kai Tak airport.

  8. IsJustabloke Silver badge
    Happy

    I lived under the flight path into heathrow when I was growing up I loved watching all the aircraft following the line of the A4 into the airport, Jumbo's used to feel so much lower than everything else because of their size.

    I'd never flownon a jumbo until a trip to Chicago about 15 years ago and I've not been on one since. I did how ever get to play a casualty and slide down the emergency chute while taking part in an emergency drill at Heathrow.

    I also got to play with the foam gun of a fire truck :D

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Greatest respect etc

    Didn't we already do this article a few days ago, when the reduced production rate for 747s was announced?

    1. BoldMan

      Re: Greatest respect etc

      But this is a reprint of an article from The Conversation, so its very very important!!!!

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