In praise of older aircraft

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British Airways 747-400

My flight back home was on one of the venerable British Airways 747-400s.  As we draw nearer to the first revenue flight of the  Airbus 380 on October 25th, the 747 will be relegated to the status of the second biggest commercial aircraft.

The chances of me ever flying the 380 are remote, Toronto just isn’t on anyone’s list of destinations for the flying whale.  Hopefully, I’ll still have plenty of opportunity to board the 747.

Boeing literally bet the company when it announced plans to build the world’s largest aircraft way back in 1965.  Five years later, PanAm flew the first passengers from New York to London Heathrow and the world of air travel was never the same.  The initial forecast of 400 planes produced has grown to over 1400 deliveries.

The very first 747 I ever flew on was a CP Air (Canadian Pacific Airlines) 100 series way back in 1982.  The Empress of China was a lovely bird – all orange and silver – and an incredible sight.  Huge and majestic.  The first thought upon seeing one was “How do they get this thing off the ground?”.  Four massive engines putting out over 63,000 pounds of thrust each lift almost 1 million pounds gracefully.  There’s still nothing like the sight of a 400 with wings flexed at a seemingly impossible angle rising slowly, almost too slowly, as it embarks on a long overseas journey.

Big Bird

Descriptions of the size of the 747 are hard to grasp so a picture like this one gives you some impression of just how big the bird really is.  A Qantas 747-400ER being pushed back at Heathrow Saturday afternoon as we prepared to leave.  A powerful tug and the ground communicator dwarfed by the immense aircraft.  Longreach indeed.

Qantas 747-400

Same aircraft, spooling up in preparation to taxi out to the active.

Wing Flex

Finally, shot along the wing as we cruise at 36,000 feet at .98 mach over the Atlantic. Compare the straight wing of the Qantas above with the flex shown here.  On the ground, you can’t even see the outboard engine but once she takes to the air, the wing tip rises until you swear it’s going to snap.

The future of the 747 is cloudy.  For sure, the existing airframes will continue in service for decades to come but there’s not much interest in Boeing’s next version, the 747-800i.  The “Intercontinental” is not seeing any orders though a lot of interest is being shown in a freighter version.  Airbus may rule the skies when it comes to VLCT (Very Large Commercial Transport) but airlines are unsure if 800 passenger aircraft are the wave of the future or whether smaller, more fuel efficient models like the Boeing 787 or the Airbus A350 make better sense.

Whatever the future, the 747 stands as a testament to the vision and ingenuity of Boeing’s designers.  A great aircraft that will always be my favorite.