The Unexpected Success of the Boeing 747 by Ed van Hinte (Works That Work magazine)

Ask anyone to name the first type of airplane that springs to mind,
and the answer is likely to be the Boeing 747 jumbo jet. From 1970 until
the 2007 introduction of Airbus’ A380, it was the largest passenger
carrier ever, and the remarkable image of its bulky head has become part
of our cultural consciousness. It may come as a surprise that this
unique shape was not a design choice, but rather the by-product of an
extremely complicated development process that involved gruelling
effort, interminable paperwork, vehement debate and little attention to
visual values.

Passenger airplanes are extraordinary machines. They are a crucial
element in a worldwide system that transfers millions of people safely
and efficiently through thin, icy air over vast distances in a very
short time. Day in, day out, they fly higher than the highest mountain
ranges and move faster than any other means of public transportation.
Yet there are surprisingly few of them: the total world fleet of all
passenger airplanes presently amounts to 25,000 at the most, including
almost 1,500 Boeing 747s. For comparison, over the past year 800,000
cars were sold in Beijing alone. Even a large airline such as British
Airways typically operates fewer than 250 planes (a quarter of which are
747s) that make an astonishing total of 200,000 flights a year.

The
latest version of the aircraft, the 747-8, is in production at the
Boeing Everett Factory. This variant has a maximum payload capacity of
154 tons of cargo (16 percent bigger than its predecessor), allowing it
to carry seven additional containers. Its body is more than twice as
long as the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. (Photo
courtesy of the Boeing Company)

The birth of the Boeing 747 in the late 1960s heralded modern
intercontinental mass transportation. It represents not only the
impressive result of an intensive engineering and design process, but
also the spirit of its era, a time when belief in progress, including
access to air travel, was a phenomenal force. So much so that
corporations and governments alike began to dream out loud about
supersonic travel, about moving more people across the earth through
sheer speed: more flights per day rather than more passengers per plane.

Boeing wanted a piece of that prospective market too and launched a
government-supported project to develop the 2707 SST, an aircraft
planned to carry 300 passengers at three times the speed of sound. (By
comparison the now obsolete Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde flew 100
passengers at twice the speed of sound.) The company considered the 747 a
less-important intermediate product: something for the lower-end
subsonic market. They expected to sell a couple of hundred units or so
and projected that it would find more use as a container-carrying
freight plane. It had to be developed within 28 months, which was 30%
faster than usual even for a normal-sized jet, let alone an entirely new
flying colossus. While the 747 was still in development, however, the
government cancelled the SST programme, finding it neither
cost-effective nor fuel-efficient.

The
historic Everett Factory. In 1966, having signed a US$525 million
contract with PanAm, Boeing purchased 780 acres of land in Everett,
Washington, 30 miles north of Seattle. No existing facility could
accommodate the 747’s unprecedented size, so to build the world’s
largest airplane, Boeing had to build the world’s largest factory. With a
floor area of 398,000m² (4.3 million sq. ft) and a volume of
13,385,378m³ (472 million cu. ft), the Boeing Everett Factory is still
the largest building in the world. (Photo courtesy of the Boeing
Company)

While it still existed the SST programme drained valuable resources,
leaving Joseph Sutter, engineering chief of the 747 project, grappling
with a lack of company support. Nevertheless, he and his 4,500-member
engineering department set out to develop a very large airplane suitable
for both freight and passengers. This group in turn became the core of
the 747 programme led by Malcolm Stamper, involving a staggering total
of 50,000 people committed to developing the market, negotiating
financing, training pilots, and safety testing each and every component.
Furthermore, PanAm Airlines, as Boeing’s most important customer, also
exerted an unprecedented influence on the design process.

Boeing
747, interior mockup. A full-scale mock-up of the interior of the 747’s
passenger model. Boeing initially expected to sell only about four
hundred 747 passenger planes and designed them for easy conversion into
cargo carriers. When the passenger seats are removed the fuselage can
accommodate containers stacked two units wide, two units high and two or
three ranks deep. Boeing has since sold more than one and a half
thousand 747s. (Photo courtesy of the Boeing Company)

(Photo courtesy of the Boeing Company)

In his autobiography 747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation
Sutter relates how he had to negotiate some pitched battles during the
design process. Many, if not most of them, concerned weight reduction,
how to balance the systems and components essential to safe, comfortable
flight with the profit-eating expense of transporting their combined
weight. Every aspect of the plane’s design was the subject of intense
discussion within an extensive community of people representing
different interests, objectives and opinions.

No doubt one of the most heated debates concerned the basic shape of
the fuselage. The general belief, one shared by many of Sutter’s
personnel as well as by PanAm CEO Juan Trippe, was that the design
process would inevitably produce a double-decker craft: a tall, narrow
airplane with two floors. This was mainly due to cues taken from ship
design and the general idea that the passenger airplane was a flying
ocean liner. Words like ‘crew’, ‘captain’ and ‘purser’ still bear
witness to this association.

(Photo courtesy of the Boeing Company)

Giant passenger ships are made larger by adding decks, and indeed
this was the idea that Sutter started with, but as he continued to draft
and design this model it began to present problems. In freight
applications, for example, the height of the fuselage would make it
difficult to load and unload containers. In passenger applications, the
height of the upper cabin would make completing an emergency evacuation
within the required 90 seconds dangerous, if not impossible. Searching
for alternatives, Sutter and his payload engineer Milton Heinemann
started to think along ‘heretical lines’ as they put it, developing the
idea of a wider, double-aisle fuselage. They started to explore this
novel concept and discovered that although it might be somewhat heavier,
the spacious cabin would be much more comfortable for passengers. And
loading freight into such a wide body would be much easier. The cockpit
would sit above the front loading door in the nose, trailed by a
fairing, a curved surface to reduce drag, creating a modest extra deck
and the 747’s characteristic bulge.

The engineers realised that they would have to work hard to convince
double-decker believers to accept this radical departure from the
traditional approach, and that it was possible that after the first
rumours of the wide-body solution started to circulate, Sutter could
suddenly find himself replaced by someone willing to pursue the
double-decker concept. Fortunately, by that time he had gained
sufficient authority to weather that conflict.

With Boeing finally more or less behind him, the next, even more
crucial, step was to gain the support of Juan Trippe. A meeting in New
York with PanAm representatives was arranged for this purpose, and
Heinemann, more diplomatic and less explosive than Sutter, was chosen to
present the new concept. Heinemann went about it cleverly, reserving a
conference room 6m (19.7 ft) wide, exactly the width of the proposed
cabin design, so that the executives present could experience it
directly. He let the space speak for itself, and it was a convincing
argument.

(Photo courtesy of the Boeing Company)

Before a final decision could be made, however, there had to be one
more meeting at the Everett facility where PanAm representatives could
compare full-scale mock-ups of the double-decker and wide-body models.
When Trippe enquired about the space inside the fairing atop the
wide-body fuselage, Sutter replied that it could be used by the crew as a
place to sleep or relax. When Trippe disagreed, saying that the space
would be used for passengers, Sutter realised that his wide-body concept
had won. But he probably still didn’t realise that his design would
become an icon of the airline industry for decades to come.

The Unexpected Success of the Boeing 747 by Ed van Hinte (Works That Work magazine)

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