Monday, February 08, 2010

Grace and Power:747-8 First Flight

41 years ago, the world became much smaller when the first Boeing 747-100 took off from Paine Field in Everett, Washington on Feb 9, 1969. Just a day before the 41st anniversary, the latest iteration of the Queen of the Skies took off, ensuring that this great airplane will be flying 50 years after its debut.

Emerging from defeat, when Boeing lost the competition to build a large freighter for the USAF (the winner was Lockheed's C-5 Galaxy, but as the cliche goes, Lockheed won the battle and Boeing won the war), the 747 more than revolutionized air travel, it redefined it. More people could fly farther and in more comfort than ever before. Non stop was just not New York to London or Paris, or London to Cairo, but now non-stops New York to Tel Aviv, London to Tokyo or Sydney to Los Angeles, routes only dreamed about with the 707 or DC 8, planes 1/2 the size of the 747.

Over the years, the 747 grew in size, power and range, with the -400 series accounting for 695 of the over 1,500 built. The early 100, 200 and 300 series were quickly replaced with the newer twins, Boeing 767, 777 and Airbus 300, 310 and 330 series. Only the Airbus A340 challenged the Queen with four engines. Just in the last two years, the Airbus A380 double decker has surpassed the 747 as the biggest airliner in the skies.

As the twins and even the new Boeing 787 cut into the 747's market, the old girl found a new life as a freighter. It would probably be safe to say as many as or even more 747's fly as freighters than passenger airliners. Less glamorous, for sure, but still gracing the skies 41 years after the first one flew.

With the new 747-8 series, the Queen has been modernized, made more efficient, quieter and just a bit bigger. Most of the orders for the new model have been for freighters, and indeed today's first flight was of the freight version. Even as a work horse, she is still one of the most graceful machines ever. Like a big Duesenberg auto, the size does not hinder her graceful, elegant motions. IF anything, it makes her even more remarkable.

She is flying as I write, circling near her base of Everett, Washington, making history, continuing the lineage and still inspiring awe at her size, grace and power.

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