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The end of an era: Farewell to the 747

It was a marvel of American engineering and ingenuity in the late 1960s. Now, U.S. airlines are giving up flying the Boeing 747. (Video: Lee Powell/Washington Post)

It’s been more than 40 years, but Tamula Sawyer still remembers the soft emerald green dress and stylish high heels she wore on her first trip aboard a Boeing 747 from Boston to Honolulu.

Back then, said Sawyer, who lives in Worcester, Mass., people dressed to fly. The seats were huge and comfortable and the plane was nearly empty — so empty that passengers could choose their seats.

Dixie Deans was 18 when he immigrated with his family to the United States from Dublin. It was the first time he’d flown anywhere and the 747 was just about the biggest thing he’d ever seen. His mother, father and seven siblings took up two full rows of seats in the middle on the world’s first widebody jet.

“I remember thinking that the first plane I was on, going to America, was a 747 and how cool that was,” he recalled.

And so the announcement this year that two of the country’s biggest airlines, United and Delta, were retiring the iconic plane hit hard. While international carriers and freight companies will continue to use the 747, it will no longer be a sight.

“I feel sad that this wonderful plane that brought [me] to America is coming to an end,” said Deans, 55. “It will stay in my heart forever.”

The retirement announcement spurred a wave of nostalgia for a plane that for better or worse forever changed the way people traveled. Air travel was still considered a luxury when Boeing made its huge bet on a jet like no other. The company, still recouping the money it had invested in the 707, was already stretched thin and had to borrow money for the new airliner. It even shut down one of its divisions, which made turbines, to help finance the project.

“Oh, it was a huge gamble,” said Boeing’s historian Michael Lombardi.

“It was a very, very special airplane when it entered service,” said Bob van der Linden, curator of air transportation at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. “It was huge — it was so much larger than anything that had flown before.”

The 747 took international air travel to the next level, said Omar Idris, the station manager for United Airlines hub at Dulles International Airport, who remembers donning a suit for his first 747 trip — from New York to Cairo — when he was just five.

“It allowed more people to fly to far away places at a lower cost,” he said.

The nostalgia for the 747 is a rare warm and fuzzy for an industry more often under fire for its treatment of passengers.

For some, it was the spiral staircase to the plane’s upper deck. John van Dyke, who was 14 and terrified of flying, remembers being invited into the cockpit to sit with the pilots. Once the plane leveled off, he returned to his seat, his anxiety allayed.

Dhruva Gurushankar, just seven when he flew, remembers sneaking past the flight attendant to use the bathroom in the upstairs lounge and returning with a bowl of strawberry ice cream.

For Deans, his trip to America was the first and only time he’s ever flown in a 747.

“To this day I get goose bumps looking at the new planes being put together,” said Deans, who grew up to become a maintenance mechanic for Boeing based in Everett, Wash., where the 747s are built.

As evidence of that goodwill, United sent one of the last 747s in its fleet on a farewell tour of its major hubs this fall. The trip included a stop at Dulles where United used to fly the 747 direct to Beijing. Seats on the airline’s final 747 flight from San Francisco to Honolulu, which took place earlier this month, sold out within two hours of being announced. Delta’s last flight, scheduled for December, is likely to draw a similar outpouring.

“It just has a certain class, a certain panache,” said veteran pilot Jeff Greco, 65, of San Francisco, who spent much of his career flying the successor of the “Queen of the Skies” but made sure to take a run in the 747 before hanging up his wings this year.

Boeing’s 747 was, indeed, a game changer. It made its debut when people were just waking up to the possibilities that air travel offered. Its tail was taller than a six-story building and it carried enough fuel to power a small automobile around the globe 36 times. With its distinctive hump and double-deck, it quickly became the most recognizable plane in the world. A special version of the 747 has been used as the president’s Air Force One since 1990. Another version was used to carry Space Shuttles for NASA.

An oft-told tale is that the 747 was born on a golf course during a match between Juan Trippe, the chief executive of Pan American World Airways, and Bill Allen, the CEO of Boeing.

“That’s pretty close to the truth,” said Lombardi, Boeing’s historian. “In those days a lot of the leaders in the industry had very good relationships. They would often get together play golf, go on vacations together.”

Lombardi said gate space at airports was getting more crowded and Trippe thought bigger planes that could carry more passengers was one solution for the problem.

Boeing’s team of engineers, led by Joe Sutter, went to work. One idea — to stack two airplanes on top of each other — proved unworkable in part because it would be too difficult to evacuate passengers in case of an emergency, Lombardi said. But the second idea — a twin aisle airplane now known as the widebody — proved to be the winner.

And that famous hump? At the same time Boeing was working on the 747, it was also competing for a contract to design supersonic jets — planes that could get travelers to their destination three times faster than conventional jets. Because many thought those planes would quickly render the 747 obsolete, designers thought by adding cargo capacity, they could turn the 747 into a cargo plane and thus, add to its longevity. Putting the flight deck above the fuselage enabled cargo to be loaded quickly but it also gave the 747 its distinctive hump, Lombardi said.

Because it was such a massive undertaking, Boeing built a factory the size of 40 football fields to accommodate the project. In all, it took a little less than three years for the team of 4,500 people to build the jetliner. Since then there have been 18 different versions of the 747.

Joe Sutter, father of the 747, dies at 95

The plane took its first test flight in 1969 and began carrying passengers in 1970. Since then, it has carried more than 3.5 billion passengers.

First lady Patricia Nixon attended the plane’s christening, held at Dulles International Airport in 1970. There’s a black and white photo of Nixon, seated in the plane’s cockpit with Transportation Secretary John Volpe and Najeeb Halaby, the chairman of the board for Pan Am. Instead of champagne, red, white and blue water was sprayed on the plane. A week later, the first flight operated by Pan Am left New York bound for London.

With its four engines, the 747 represented a significant leap forward for air travel. It was faster and could travel further, using less fuel than any previous jet. But the plane’s real selling point was that it could carry more than 400 passengers — more than twice as many as the largest airliner previously in use.

Despite the excitement, it wasn’t an immediate success in part because of the economic downturn that began in 1969, Lombardi said. But as the economy recovered, it soon became a status symbol of airlines.

“Everyone had to have a 747,” said van der Linden, the Smithsonian curator. “It became the flagship for every major airline. If you didn’t have one, you weren’t a top notch airline.”

It wasn’t just passengers who loved the plane.

Pilot Melinda Cerisano flew 747s for United out of Los Angeles for 14 years before moving back to Northern Virginia a few years ago. She said the plane is surprisingly docile for its size, forgiving and easy to land.

“It’s a majestic bird,” she said. “It taxis out slow but it’s just gorgeous.”

She too, is sorry to see it leave the United fleet.

“I think it’s a great part of American history,” she said. “It’s one of the wonderful things one of our companies birthed.”

Added Lombardi, the Boeing historian: “It really represented America at the time — this feeling that we could do anything if we put our minds to it.”

Greco, the veteran pilot, still remembers when the first 747 came to Phoenix in early 1970.

“I remembered seeing it and being enthralled,” he said. “It was so big, but so graceful.”

He was determined to fly the 747 before he retired. And he wasn’t disappointed.

One of his very last assignments was to fly a 747 to the airline graveyard in Southern California. With no passengers and no luggage aboard, the plane “leapt off the ground,” he said.

“It had a lot of life in it,” he said. “You almost wish it wasn’t going to be retired.”

But despite its dominance, it came time for the plane to be phased out for lighter, more environmentally friendly, fuel efficient jets like Boeing’s 777 and 787.

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“For many of us, it’s very sad to see the aircraft go, even though we understand why,” said Idris, United’s station chief at Dulles. “There’s just a lot of nostalgia associated with that aircraft, a lot of fond memories — a lot of association with a different time in air travel. While we have a wonderful future ahead of us with these new aircraft — it’s very nostalgic to think about how the 747 changed us personally as well as the industry.”

Corrections: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified former transportation secretary John Volpe and former Pan Am chairman Najeeb Halaby. It also gave the wrong home town for Jeff Greco.  This version has been corrected.