Flight Plan

Boeing 747 agoing! As farewells go, this is a Jumbo-sized one

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on August 04, 2020 Published on August 04, 2020

People watch the last Qantas 747 jet depart Sydney Airport as Qantas retires its remaining Boeing 747 planes early due to the coronavirus disease Reuters   -  REUTERS

Joseph Sutter in front of the first Boeing 747. Sutter, born in 1921, was an engineer for the Boeing Airplane Company and chief engineer for the Boeing 747. Sutter is often referred to as the “father of the 747” Bloomberg   -  Bloomberg News

People watch the last Qantas 747 jet depart Sydney Airport as Qantas retires its remaining Boeing 747 planes early due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Reuters   -  REUTERS

A still frame obtained via social media animation video from Flightradar24 shows Qantas’ final Boeing 747 flight flying in the shape of a kangaroo off the Australian coast. Flightradar24 via Reuters   -  via REUTERS

Signing off the skies: The Boeing 747 is flying into memory as airlines opt for smaller aircraft that are more environment friendly. Ashwini Phadnis recounts a larger-than-life story in aviation history

Is it perhaps the end of an era?

On July 17, when British Airways announced that it will be retiring the 31 Boeing 747 aircraft in its fleet, rumours that had been around gained credence — that this was the beginning of the end for the Jumbo, which has been used by airlines across the globe during the 50 years that it has been flying.

A few days later, Australian airline Qantas flew its last Boeing 747 over the Australian sky and drew a Kangaroo tail (the official sign of Qantas) before flying on to Utah desert in the US to be decommissioned.

The double-decker Boeing 747 made its global debut in 1969. It was the largest aircraft before the Airbus A380 came on the scene in October 2007. Singapore Airlines operated a 747 between Singapore and Sydney — its size gave it the name Jumbo. Over the five decades of its flying, the 747 has been flown by almost all international airlines, including Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Qantas, Thai Airways and Air India. Virgin Atlantic’s first flight between Gatwick and Newark (New York) was also on a 747.

Covid factor

Officially, the 747’s manufacturer Boeing maintains that it is not the end of the line for the aircraft. “At a build rate of half an airplane per month, the 747-8 programme has more than two years of production ahead of it in order to fulfil our current customer commitments. We will continue to make the right decisions to keep the production line healthy and meet customer needs,” Boeing said in a statement.

However, airlines like British Airways, which has been flying the Jumbo for decades, think differently. A statement from BA says the fuel-hungry aircraft was slowly being phased out by British Airways as the aircraft reached the end of its working life, to help meet the company’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The airline has invested heavily in new, modern, long-haul aircraft, including six A350s and 32 787s, which are around 25 per cent more fuel-efficient than the 747.

Fifty years is a long time and with aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus working at technologically-superior aircraft, it is time for the older technology using aircraft like the 747 to fly into memory. Further, the world has become very environment-conscious during these decades and older aircraft like the 747 are fuel guzzlers and not as environment friendly as the newer ones.

Perhaps the final push towards retiring the Boeing 747 came with the global pandemic Covid-19 forcing airlines globally to opt for smaller aircraft with seating ranging from the Boeing 787, which can seat anything between 250 and 330 passengers, or the Airbus A 350, which can seat 300 to 350 passengers. The Boeing 747 was developed to seat 400 or more people.

Pilot’s best friend

Of course, all this does not take away from the many qualities and the many stories attached to the Boeing 747, particularly among the pilots who flew the Jumbo.

Captain Bosco Xavier, Chief Pilot and Vice-President, Flight Operations, Vistara, calls the 747 an absolute technological marvel, adding that what made the 747 so unique was that despite the technology of its time it was a very reliable aircraft.

“I will not say (it is) easy to operate but it came at a time when things were not so computer-driven and there was still some basic equipment on the aircraft. This gave a sense that you were really connected to the aircraft, the hydraulic systems, the flight controls. The modern aircraft have a lot of computers, which are doing a lot of flying. But on the 747 there was still a lot of old technology, supplemented by the technologies that were coming of age at that time,” he says.

For Captain Bosco, the 747 still remains the best aircraft to handle turbulence. “Its huge wing size absorbs a lot of turbulence and the wheels are very large so they ride out turbulence very well. You have very large flight controls on the aircraft. On modern aircraft, they tend to make the flight control slightly smaller using the aid of computers to help fly the plane,” he says.

Former Air India pilot Captain Minoo Wadia remembers the Boeing 747 as being a very solid and stable aircraft. “One of the few aircraft on which you were not even aware when you landed,” he says.

Captain Wadia says that even if the aircraft made a hard landing, the pilot was able to handle it smoothly.

Air India is the only airline in India to operate this aircraft, with its first Boeing 747-200 coming in 1971, while in 1988 it received delivery of Boeing 747-300 and in 1991 it received the Boeing 747-400 aircraft.

Currently, the 747 aircraft in AI’s fleet are not used much apart from carrying the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister on their trips abroad. But the aircraft is worthy of proving itself even today. AI used the aircraft to operate to Wuhan to bring back Indians from the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic in January and February.

Incidentally, the final mission of Qantas’s Boeing 747 was also to fly back Australians stranded in Wuhan and Tokyo due to the Covid-19 pandemic in February this year.

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Published on August 04, 2020
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