The original ‘Jumbo Jet’ is retiring. Finally pushed into retirement by the pandemic, we will not see her like again. From the small boy I once was, this is my thank you to you.
I remember the day quite vividly. Living less than five miles away from Birmingham Airport, then known as Elmdon Airfield, planes had been a backdrop to my life so far. I was 12 years old and today was a big day. The Jumbo was coming to my local airport. Not just a fly past like I had been witness to before, it was actually coming in to land.
The reason this was a big thing was that the runway in 1985 was short. Too short for a fully loaded 747 to operate from. We had regional jets befitting of a smaller field. A few years earlier, my older brother had travelled all the way to the USA onboard a 747. On his own. To see family I hasten to add. He hadn’t just left home. That was the closest I’d been to so many large aircraft and to an 8 year old, plane infatuated boy, Heathrow was magical.
Since then, I’d been to airshows at Coventry where we were treated to a Concorde flypast, the Red Arrows as well as classic military Spitfires and Hurricanes. But seeing a 747 growing slowly larger, wheels down, defying gravity and hanging in the air as it simulated coming in to land and then powering away, left an indelible mark on my memory. Fast jets, aerobatics and simulated dog fights were fun but the engineering marvel from Boeing touched me.
Growing up a geek
It is a strange thing. Loving inanimate objects such as a car, knowing chassis and production numbers, engine specifications, speeds and feeds is cool. Allegedly. Being a plane spotter is just a slight step up from a train spotter. Possibly. In truth, my fascination with all modes of transport is in the engineering. But the 747 is deeper seated than that. I love it. I’ve loved it since I started trying to draw them as a child and it is a feeling that has never left me.
That day in 1985 we drove as a family to Marston Green, parked and waited on the station bridge which afforded us a slightly elevated view of part of the runway. We didn’t have time to get closer but it was close enough. Watching her land, I was in awe. Waiting until she took off, I was in awe again. One day, I would be onboard a 747, that much I knew.
I went home that day and sat at the dining table drawing the planes copied from my Airliners annual. All 747’s. The first plane I drew was from a memorable picture. A red striped plane with stickers of all the airlines who had ordered them, engulfed by people that were as small as ants in comparison. The last one I sketched was the 747 converted to carry the NASA Space Shuttle for flight tests. There was nothing this plane could not do in my eyes.
Pan-Am Airlines was the launch airline that wanted a plane 2.5 times larger than the 707. They wanted to reduce the cost of seats by 30% and on September 30, 1968, the first plane rolled out of the Everett plant in Washington. Even the size of the factory inspired my mind. The cost of building the plant had nearly bankrupted Boeing. It was so large that given the climate of the state, clouds had been known to form inside the building and even rained on occasion too. The plant, by volume, is still the largest building on the planet today.
The size difference to planes I knew was just as ginormous. The tail wings on the 747 had the same wingspan as the 737’s main wings that regularly flew out of my local airport. Inside, it had two aisles and 10 seats across in the economy section. There were 6 seats and one aisle on the 737. A cargo version was created of the 747 where the nose of the plane lifted up to allow front loading. The cargo it could swallow simply reinforced the moniker of Jumbo.
400 people could travel inside it but it was the first class that left yet another lasting impression. Large, swivel seats in the nose section, champagne and whisky, cigars and smiling people. In my world, I was travelling on cramped buses while these people were flying. Flying in a luxury room bigger than my lounge! You can see where my love of the finer things was forged. The 747, the airlines that flew her and the sheer engineering of the thing left me amazed.
Pilots had to learn how to manoeuvre the plane while sitting 30 feet in the air which was how high the cockpit is off the ground. With no computer simulations, a rudimentary scaled scaffold contraption was the training device. All of these groundbreaking, large scale solutions plus the plane itself was just making my imagination want to fly. The polished, bare metal versions reminded me of my favourite 1930s Bugatti cars. The ‘hump’ at the front gave it a signature that is still so recognisable today, even to non-plane people.
It came to pass that a couple of years later, I did get to take my first 747 flight. A British Airways trip across the Atlantic to visit family (following in my brothers wake). As wide-eyed as I had been staring through the departure gate glass at the plane I was about to board, the reality soon came to pass that once inside, the magic dipped slightly. Not due to the plane but due to the eight hours of sitting there not doing a lot. It was still an experience. It was slightly unreal, the size of it, the amount of people. But upon landing in America, the magic returned. In London, I had boarded through a jet bridge and couldn’t appreciate the size.
Here, I deplaned using traditional stairs. I stood in the sunlight unaware of anything other than this behemoth of engineering, engines clacking after taking us and our luggage effortlessly to a different continent. I loved it more than ever.
Since then, I have travelled in a 747 many times. As air travel has succumbed to being taken for granted, the shine has worn away. Revived by the likes of Virgin Atlantic with their Upper Class and a sociable bar, I was ecstatic on my honeymoon when I got to travel with them in the ‘hump’. It wasn’t Upper Class at the time, merely Premium Economy, but with such a small amount of seats and the height achieved by climbing the stairs, it felt more private plane than huge people transporter.
Beginning of the end
But no matter how many times airlines refitted the cabins, the underlying technology aged. A Commodore-64 made to look like a Playstation will soon be found out. As the economies of airlines took a beating and passengers were driven solely by price, the romance of aviation began to die a slow death.
It has not been wasted on my eyes that the A380 from Airbus is an engineering marvel in its own right. Boeing 747 original designs included an option to produce a double-decker but the 747 design won out. To redesign an A380 competitor wasn’t viable. Technology and production advances made the A380 a reality. Boeing refined their 747 engines, stretched out the mileage, added more seats but that iconic design was questioned long before the 2020 pandemic hit.
I was fortunate enough to finally have a visit to the Boeing factory in Everett, WA. To walk inside the gigantic factory that I’d seen in documentaries, was quite the experience. Having a tour in and around these planes in various stages of coming to life, rekindled the inner boy that had sketched these aircraft as a child. The wide-eyed wonder of it all returned. It was simply wonderful.
Today though, people want cheap travel. Airlines still need to turn a profit. I know from personal experience (my wife was cabin crew for many years) that the career it once was for many has also been slowly eroded. It means that today, a constant cycle of personnel is the norm which allows short term contract staff to be onboard. No need for them to make big pension investments. The new contracts cut out the perks and pay basic wage. They offer commission to the crew from anything you buy onboard. Scratch card anyone? How depressing.
The traditional carriers have had to go the same way in order to survive. I once travelled to the Scottish Islands across two flights and included in the ticket price was a breakfast on one and lunch on another with drinks. Today, I get offered a laminated card offering to sell me pre-packed sandwiches from Marks and Spencer.
And so, as the airline industry becomes just another mode of transport, the Boeing 747 will soon be no more. The Boeing company has now officially ended the production run and, once the last freighter versions have been completed, the line will close for good. While the factory remains, the once great icon it produced will become a memory. In a world of efficiency, she failed to make the grade. It is a shame that style is defeated by fiscal responsibility. I get it, I truly do. But for this small child she will forever remain the glorious girl that graced us travellers with her beautiful presence.
You will be missed.