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How the Boeing 747 Changed the Way Airplanes Are Designed

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

On the anniversary of its first test flight in February 1969, GRK Design looks back on how the “Queen of the Skies” became the most famous plane in the world

If you ask Sir Norman Foster what his favorite building is, you’ll find that it’s not a building at all, but an airplane. And it’s not just any airplane, but the Boeing 747, the pinnacle of commercial aviation. “The fact that we call this an aeroplane rather than a building—or engineering rather than architecture—is really a historical hangover, because for me, much of what we have here is genuinely architectural both in its design and its thinking,” he once said in an episode of the BBC show Building Sights.

Known as the Queen of the Skies, the 747 revolutionized air travel when it made its commercial debut in 1970, allowing travelers to globe-trot farther than ever before, faster than ever before, and perhaps with more flair than ever before. And more than 50 years later, its design legacy lives on in contemporary aircraft—and in the hearts of aviation lovers around the world.

Between 1903 and 1939, aviation escalated from the Wright Brothers’ spruce plane to the very first jet, an astonishing engineering achievement. From there, commercial travel took off, entering the Golden Age of Flight, when passengers donned their finest suits and dresses to board a plane, then wined and dined on white tablecloths at cruising altitude. The era culminated in the largest, most impressive plane of them all: the 225-foot-long, 60-foot-tall 747, the world’s first jumbo jet.

“The main thing that really captured everybody’s attention and their imagination at the time that the airplane came out is its incredible size,” says Boeing’s senior corporate historian Michael J. Lombardi. “When you put it next to the 707, which was the biggest jetliner of its time in the 1960s, the 747 is twice the size.”

The aircraft had its roots not in commercial aviation, but in the military. In the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force sought to develop a large plane for cargo and troop transport, and it tapped into the expertise of aerospace companies, including Boeing, to develop one. While Boeing didn’t win the contract—it ultimately went to Lockheed Martin for the C-5 Galaxy—the company was able to take its technological research and transform it into the 747.

Under the leadership of engineer Joe Sutter, a team of “Incredibles,” as they became known, worked at lightning speed with a paltry budget to build the plane in 29 months. At the time, Boeing directed the majority of its resources to other crucial projects, including NASA’s Apollo missions and the development of a supersonic transport, or SST, which was supposed to be the future of passenger air travel. (Only two SSTs ever ended up entering service: the Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144, while Boeing’s funding was cut, thus ending the program.)

The 747 was originally designed to ferry passengers for just a few years, as Boeing’s SST was being finalized, before being converted into a cargo carrier. And it was that cargo purpose that led to the aircraft’s defining exterior design element: her hump. “The best way to load freight onto an airplane is straight down the length of the fuselage. They thought the best way to do this with the 747 is to have a nose that tilts up,” says Lombardi. “Well, if you do that on a conventional airplane, the flight deck is right there in the way. So the way to fix that is to put the flight deck up on top of the fuselage.”

And thus the hump came to be, which in itself led to another key design feature aboard the aircraft—this one on the interior. Due to aerodynamics, the hump had to be extended behind the cockpit, leaving an empty space. Pan Am founder and aviation giant Juan Trippe, who had ordered the first 25 747s for his airline in 1966, can be credited with defining that space. “Boeing said, ‘Well, we could use it as a crew rest area,’ and Juan Trippe immediately said, ‘Oh, no, that’ll be our first-class lounge,’” says commercial aviation historian Shea Oakley.

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