Share this story
- Queen of the Skies, Delta Airlines‘ last 747-400. It went on a tour at the end of December, and on Wednesday made its final flight to a boneyard in Arizona. Mike Kane/Bloomberg/Getty Images
- Boeing President Bill Allen (left) and Pan Am CEO Juan Trippe (right) celebrate the launch of the Boeing 747 in 1968. Boeing
- The first Boeing 747 rolls off the production line with Pan Am markings and dwarfs a Pan Am Boeing 707-321B sitting in the foreground, Everett, Washington, March 5, 1969. Underwood Archives/Getty Images
- 747s weren‘t just for passengers. An early cargo model, operated by Lufthansa. Lufthansa AG/ullstein bild via Getty Images
- Attendees gather to view a Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental, the company‘s newest and largest passenger plane, during an unveiling ceremony February 13, 2011 at the company‘s factory in Everett, Washington. The new plane features quieter, more fuel-efficient engines, more seating, and a redesigned interior. The first plane also featured a red paint job, a departure from the traditional Boeing blue. Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
- These days, most new 747-8s are the freighter variant, seen here making its first test flight February 8, 2009 at Paine Field in Everett, Washington. Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
- From the biggest 747 to the smallest, the 747-SP. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty Images
- One of the better-known jumbos. Fresh from the STS-126 mission space shuttle Endeavour, mounted atop its modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, flew over California‘s Mojave Desert on its way back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on December 10, 2008. NASA/Carla Thomas
- A Boeing VC-25 on the tarmac in Belfast, Northern Ireland. You may know this plane as Air Force One, although that‘s only its callsign if the US president is onboard. John Giles/PA Images/Getty Images
- The VC-25 has a scarier sibling, the E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Post.
- One of the stranger 747 spinoffs, the YAL-1A Airborne Laser. United States Missile Defense Agency
- Some 747s spend their time putting out fires. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
- The 747-400 production line in 1997. Etienne DE MALGLAIVE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
- A 747 at Boeing‘s factory in Everett, Washington. Boeing
- A British Airways 747 aircraft landing at Heathrow Airport in London. AFP/AFP/Getty Images
- The flight deck of a Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental airliner that was delivered to Lufthansa in 2012. The glass cockpit is a far cry from the ones early 747 crews would be used to. Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
- United Continental‘s new 747 takes off from San Francisco‘s International Airport in San Francisco, California, on Wednesday, February 23, 2011. Kim White/Bloomberg News/Getty Images.
- Four years later, United retired its last 747. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
- A commercial plane, a Boeing 747 flying in front of the moon on September 30, 2010 is seen from Martigues, close to Marseille, southern France, September 30, 2010. What a great photo! GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images
- Regular 747 not big enough for you? How about this large cargo freighter variant used by Boeing to move around 787 Dreamliner parts. Kevin Casey/Bloomberg News
On Wednesday, Delta Airlines flight 9771 flew from Atlanta to Pinal Airpark in Arizona. It wasn‘t a full flight—just 48 people on board. But it was a milestone—and not just for the mid-flight—for it marked the very last flight of a Boeing 747 being operated by a US airline. Delta‘s last scheduled passenger service with the jumbo was actually late in December, at which point it conducted a farewell tour and then some charter flights. But as of today, after 51 long years in service, if you want to ride a 747 you‘ll need to be traveling abroad.
Way back in the 1960s, when the white heat of technological progress was burning bright, it looked for a while as if supersonic air travel was going to be the next big thing. France and Britain were collaborating on a new kind of airliner that would fly at twice the speed of sound and shrink the globe. But there was just one thing they hadn‘t counted on: Boeing and its gargantuan 747 jumbo jet. The double-decker airliner wouldn‘t break the sound barrier, but its vast size compared to anything else in the skies helped drop the cost of long-haul air travel, opening it up to the people in a way Concorde could never hope to do.
Boeing was already having a pretty good time selling its 707 jetliner, but Pan American Airlines boss Juan Trippe wanted something special for his passengers, and he approached the aircraft manufacturer with a request for a plane that could carry twice as many passengers as its bread-and-butter long-haul model. In 1966, Trippe signed an order for 25 of the new passenger airliners. The first of these entered service in 1970, and the world would never be the same again.
Since then, more than 1,500 747s have left Boeing‘s factory in Everett, Washington. Most spent their lives carrying passengers for airlines or carrying freight around the world. But some special variants have lived more exciting lives, fighting forest fires, carrying presidents—. The US Air Force uses a small fleet of E-4Bs as airborne doomsday control centers, and it even tried using one for ballistic missile defense, complete with a giant laser poking out its nose. More outrageous (stillborn) proposals even wanted to use 747s as mobile cruise missile launchers or as airborne aircraft carriers for little jet fighters.
- Now that every US carrier has retired its 747s, if you want to fly one, your best bet is with British Airways, which still operates 36 of them, many on routes to the US. Here are 11, seen at Heathrow‘s Terminal 5 in 2013. Grzegorz Bajor/Getty IMages
- In 2017 I flew on BA 747s twice, from Heathrow to Dulles. Elle Cayabyab Gitlin
- On one of those flights, I had the lucky privilege of sitting in 1A, right up in the nose. Air miles and reward flights are a wonderful thing. Elle Cayabyab Gitlin
- BOAC (a predecessor of British Airways) was one of the first airlines to really transform first-class flight. Fox Photos/Getty Images
- But flying commercial is for scrubs. If you‘re Iron Maiden, you can have your own 747-400. The band‘s lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, also serves as the plane‘s pilot. WOLFGANG KUMM/AFP/Getty Images
- Then again, Iron Maiden‘s 747 probably can‘t hold a candle to this, the interior of Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal‘s private Boeing 747 airplane. Waseem Obaidi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
- Yes, that is a throne. Waseem Obaidi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
- I think our former colleague Andrew Cunningham would appreciate this All Nippon Airways “Pokemon Jet US version” 747-400. ANA has painted more than one 747 up in Pokemon colors. TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images
- Andrew would probably also dig this one, an Air New Zealand 747 painted up for Lord of the Rings. Robert Mora/Getty Images
- All good things come to an end. Scraps of metal sit about as Air Salvage International dismantles a Boeing 747 aircraft on April 12, 2010 at Kemble airfield, Cotswolds, England. The dormant airplanes are collected in one of the largest graveyards for aircrafts. The Boeings are reduced to a pile of sheet metal by an excavator on wheels and then moved to a recycling plant. Mark Clifford/Barcroft Media/Getty Images
- Come on in, the water‘s fine! Alain BUU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
- Oops—anyone have any superglue? A damaged Kalitta Air cargo plane lies by the runway at Zaventem, Brussels International Airport, on May 25, 2008 in Zaventem, Belgium. Four people were slightly injured when the Boeing 747 slid off the runway at take off and split in half. Mark Renders/Getty Images
- Part of the wreckage of the two Boeing 747s, KLM 4805 and Pan Am 1736, which collided on the runway of Los Rodeos Airport, killing 583 people, the deadliest collision in aviation history. PA Images via Getty Images
- Some of the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 after it crashed onto the town of Lockerbie in Scotland, 22nd December 1988. On 21st December 1988, the Boeing 747 Clipper Maid of the Seas was destroyed en route from Heathrow to JFK airport in New York, when a bomb was detonated in its forward cargo hold. All 259 people on board were killed, as well as 11 people in the town of Lockerbie. Tom Stoddart/Getty Images
The 747‘s long career has seen it fly billions of miles, carrying billions of passengers, but it also had its share of tragedies. In 1977, a pair of 747s (one KLM, one Pan Am) crashed into each other on the runway at Tenerife‘s airport. In 1983, the USSR shot down a Korean Air Lines 747 after mistaking it for a US spy plane. Terrorist bombs destroyed two 747s mid-flight—an Air India 747 in 1985 and a Pan Am 747 in 1988—and several more had been hijacked in the 1970s. Other disasters resulted from poor maintenance or human error. Terrible as those incidents were, they should be seen in context: 61 747s (out of 1,540) have been lost since 1970, more than half of which came without any loss of life—jumbos are estimated to have carried more than 3.5 billion passengers since 1970.
On a personal note, the 747 has been a pretty important aircraft in my life. When my family moved from South Africa to the UK in the late 1970s, it was onboard a jumbo jet. And I‘m pretty sure the same is true for my move to the US back in 2002. This past summer I crossed the Atlantic in 747s twice, most memorably sitting in seat 1A on one occasion.
If this post has you hankering to spend some time airborne in a jumbo, fret not; although no US passenger carriers still operate the big bird, several hundred remain in service with other airlines, most notably British Airways and Lufthansa. And if you happen to be an oligarch or Saudi prince, Boeing will happily —but don‘t expect it to be cheap!
Listing image by Mike Kane/Bloomberg/Getty Images