Boeing gave its iconic 747 jumbo jet a grand sendoff today, marking the end of a 55-year era for airplane manufacturing but vowing that the “Queen of the Skies” will continue its reign for decades to come.
Thousands of onlookers — including past and present Boeing employees, customers, suppliers and VIPs — gathered at the company’s factory in Everett, Wash., for a ceremony marking the handover of Boeing’s last 747 to Atlas Air.
“We do not close this book,” Stan Deal, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told the crowd as the jet stood on the tarmac behind him. “It’s just a chapter. We’ll have another chapter of the 747. This airplane will be supported for decades to come, I promise you.”
Atlas Air will operate the 747-8 cargo freighter on behalf of Apex Logistics, a freight forwarder majority-owned by Switzerland’s Kuehne+Nagel Group.
Due to the evolution of the aviation industry, Boeing’s 747 jets have primarily been sold to cargo carriers in recent years. Smaller, more fuel-efficient jets such as the single-aisle 737 and the wide-body 777 and 787 Dreamliner are typically preferred nowadays for passenger service.
But back in 1968, when the first 747 rolled off Boeing’s assembly line, the jumbo design revolutionized airline service. “We’re talking about one of the most important airplanes in all of history,” Mike Lombardi, senior corporate historian at Boeing, said in a video preview for today’s handover.
Nonstop routes that were previously impossible came within reach. Because the 747’s passenger capacity could be boosted to more than 400, economies of scale made airline trips more affordable.
“This airplane democratized flight, because of its size, because of its range, because of the economy of this airplane,” Lombardi said. “Everyday people around the world were able to buy a ticket and fly on a 747.”
Boeing produced 1,574 of the planes. And as the world’s first wide-body jetliner, the 747 “provided the blueprint, the groundwork for every airplane that followed,” Lombardi said.
Over the decades, Boeing’s “Queen of the Skies” was immortalized in movies ranging from “Airport ’77” and “Air Force One” to the 2020 sci-fi movie “Tenet.”
During today’s ceremony, a succession of Boeing executives and representatives of 747 suppliers and customers traced the history of the plane. One of the speakers was an honest-to-goodness movie star and aviator, John Travolta, who is trained to fly the 747 as well as the Boeing 707 and 737.
Travolta recalled that Qantas Airways wouldn’t formalize his contract to pilot a VIP tour for the company unless he learned to fly the jumbo jet. “I can assure you that it was the toughest program any commercial pilot will have ever had to endure,” he said. “But after a month of training in Seattle and Australia, I earned my wings, and I experienced the most well thought-out and safest aircraft ever built.”
The Atlas Air plane is emblazoned with a portrait of the 747’s late designer, Joe Sutter, and the label “Forever Incredible” — which pays tribute to the engineering team that created the 747 and was nicknamed “the Incredibles.” Some of the Incredibles attended today’s ceremony.
Toward the end of the event, Atlas Air Worldwide CEO John Dietrich praised the 747 as the “biggest, baddest commercial aircraft that’s flying out there.” And the tributes will continue: He pointed out that the flight plan for the plane’s scheduled departure from Everett on Wednesday will trace the numerals “7-4-7” on the map.
Dietrich was followed on the stage by Boeing’s CEO and president, David Calhoun, who noted that the innovations introduced by the 747 have laid the foundation for the 777, “the next airplane to dominate this space in the sky.” He vowed that Boeing would keep moving forward with further innovations in the decades to come.
“Our commitment as a leadership team at Boeing is to maintain this innovation culture forever,” Calhoun said. “And in the roughest of moments, we did. We didn’t stop funding the future for a minute. Not for a minute. The hangars are full of innovation. They are full. We have airplanes that will displace the ’47 in the sky on delivery, and they will compete with it for 15 more years in service.”
Update for 1:30 p.m. PT Feb. 1: As planned, the Atlas Air 747 took off from Everett’s Paine Field today, heading for Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, and flew a flight pattern over Washington state that paid tribute to the crown of the Queen of the Skies: