50 years of the Boeing 747: How the ‘queen of the skies’ reigned over air travel
September 28, 2018
Professor of History, University of Dayton
Janet Bednarek does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University Of Dayton provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
On Sept. 30, 1968, the first Boeing 747 rolled out of its custom-built assembly plant in Everett, Washington. From the beginning, everything about the plane once known as the “queen of the skies” was big.
It was the first wide-body “jumbo jet” ever built, involving about 50,000 construction workers, mechanics, engineers and others who took it from an idea to the air in just 16 months in the late 1960s. Until 2007 and the introduction of the Airbus A380, it was the largest civilian airplane in the world.
Versions of the 747 have been used in a variety of famous ways. In 1990, for example, a pair of 747-200s began operating as Air Force One, the plane that ferries around the U.S. president.
Just to produce the 747, Boeing first had to erect what was and still is the largest building by volume ever constructed – big enough to hold 75 football fields or all of Disneyland.
I’ve been researching and teaching the history of American aviation for more than a quarter-century. Even though all U.S. airlines have retired their 747s, marking the end of an era, I believe it’s worth remembering the amazing story of the airplane that helped make international air travel affordable.
The jumbo jet is born
The story of the 747, like those of many other aircraft, began with a military request.
In 1963, the U.S. Air Force issued a proposal for a very large transport aircraft to carry heavier loads and have a longer range than then-existing transport aircraft such as the C-141.
Although Boeing lost its bid for what is now known as the C5 Galaxy, the designs and studies that went into its proposal didn’t go to waste. That’s because around the same time, Juan Trippe, the hard-charging president of Pan American World Airways, wanted Boeing to build an airliner twice the size of the first-generation jet airliner, the 707.
It would be “a great weapon for peace, competing with intercontinental ballistic missiles for mankind’s destiny,” he insisted.
A big risk
But at the time, it was a very risky endeavor.
Many in the aviation industry – including at Boeing – believed that the future of air travel belonged to the fast, not the large. They envisioned new fleets of supersonic aircraft – such as the Concorde, which began flying in 1976 – that would make the existing subsonic flight obsolete, especially on the long routes the 747 was designed to fly. For comparison, the Concorde could make the trip from London to New York in about three hours, while a flight on a 747 (or any other subsonic commercial airliner) could take eight to 10 hours.
But Boeing plowed ahead with the project anyway. The new plane had its first test flight on Feb. 9, 1969, and debuted to a world audience at the Paris Air Show later that summer. By the end of the year, the Federal Aviation Administration declared it airworthy, and Pan Am took delivery of its first 747 on Jan. 15, 1970.
Although the 747-100 at full capacity promised the airlines cost efficiency, the plane rarely flew that way, with 400 passengers. In part, this was because the 747 had the misfortune of launching during a recession and the first oil crisis, both of which resulted in fewer passengers.
In addition, the project’s size itself almost threatened the aerospace company – and its banks – with bankruptcy because the aircraft’s development required Boeing to take on US$2 billion in debt, or about $20 billion in today’s dollars.
Fortunately for Boeing, it hedged its bets by designing the aircraft to function both as a passenger airliner and as an air freighter. It was the freighter variant that required the “hump” at the top of the fuselage to hold the cockpit so that the nose section could swing open.
Since then, Boeing has built over 1,500 747s, and about 500 still fly today.
The golden age of flight
The 747 was – and is – probably the most easily recognizable jet airliner. While most people would have a hard time distinguishing between a Boeing 707 and a DC-8 – or pretty much any other pair of jet airliners – the 747’s large size and distinctive “hump” at the front make it unmistakable.
It debuted at the end of the so-called golden age of flight, a time when air travel still was seen as glamorous and most airlines catered to an elite clientele. As such, early operators used the upper deck as a passenger lounge for first-class passengers, rather than filling the plane to its full capacity.
In the late 1970s, in an effort to entice more passengers, American Airlines went one step further, turning the lounge into a “piano bar” complete with a Wurlitzer organ and entertainer who led singalongs with the passengers.
Deregulation, however, soon made such glamorous amenities obsolete as airlines focused on cutting costs rather than offering high services. And over time, smaller and more efficient long-range twin-engine aircraft like the 777 and 787 diminished the need for a hulking jumbo jet.
Icon of aviation
Despite its problems, the 747 won a coveted place in American popular culture.
It “starred” in two disaster movies – “Airport 1975” and “Airport ‘77,” not to mention several films that involved hijackings, including “Air Force One.”
The 747 also gained further fame from certain specialty missions. NASA, for example, used a specially modified 747 to transport the space shuttle between landing and launch sites.
And, of course, a 747 continues to fly around the “leader of the free world” and his entourage. In 2024, the 747-8 – possibly painted red, white and blue at President Donald Trump’s request – will take over the job, with a longer range, slightly higher speed and a higher maximum takeoff weight.
But Boeing has no plans to assemble another for the airlines. U.S. airlines stopped flying 747s in 2017, and what looks to be the last passenger 747-8 went to Korean Airlines that same year.
The aircraft, however, may still have a long life as a carrier of freight – UPS, for example, recently ordered 14 of them – as well as the American president, which means these icons of aviation will still fly well into the 21st century.
Could an artificial intelligence be considered a person under the law?
Roman V. Yampolskiy
Associate Professor of Computer Engineering and Computer Science, University of Louisville
Roman V. Yampolskiy does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Humans aren’t the only people in society – at least according to the law. In the U.S., corporations have been given rights of free speech and religion. Some natural features also have person-like rights. But both of those required changes to the legal system. A new argument has laid a path for artificial intelligence systems to be recognized as people too – without any legislation, court rulings or other revisions to existing law.
Legal scholar Shawn Bayer has shown that anyone can confer legal person hood on a computer system, by putting it in control of a limited liability corporation in the U.S. If that maneuver is upheld in courts, artificial intelligence systems would be able to own property, sue, hire lawyers and enjoy freedom of speech and other protections under the law. In my view, human rights and dignity would suffer as a result.
The corporate loophole
Giving AIs rights similar to humans involves a technical lawyerly maneuver. It starts with one person setting up two limited liability companies and turning over control of each company to a separate autonomous or artificially intelligent system. Then the person would add each company as a member of the other LLC. In the last step, the person would withdraw from both LLCs, leaving each LLC – a corporate entity with legal person hood – governed only by the other’s AI system.
That process doesn’t require the computer system to have any particular level of intelligence or capability. It could just be a sequence of “if” statements looking, for example, at the stock market and making decisions to buy and sell based on prices falling or rising. It could even be an algorithm that makes decisions randomly, or an emulation of an amoeba.
Reducing human status
Granting human rights to a computer would degrade human dignity. For instance, when Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to a robot called Sophia, human women, including feminist scholars, objected, noting that the robot was given more rights than many Saudi women have.
In certain places, some people might have fewer rights than non-intelligent software and robots. In countries that limit citizens’ rights to free speech, free religious practice and expression of sexuality, corporations – potentially including AI-run companies – could have more rights. That would be an enormous indignity.
The risk doesn’t end there: If AI systems became more intelligent than people, humans could be relegated to an inferior role – as workers hired and fired by AI corporate overlords – or even challenged for social dominance.
Artificial intelligence systems could be tasked with law enforcement among human populations – acting as judges, jurors, jailers and even executioners. Warrior robots could similarly be assigned to the military and given power to decide on targets and acceptable collateral damage – even in violation of international humanitarian laws. Most legal systems are not set up to punish robots or otherwise hold them accountable for wrongdoing.
What about voting?
Granting voting rights to systems that can copy themselves would render humans’ votes meaningless. Even without taking that significant step, though, the possibility of AI-controlled corporations with basic human rights poses serious dangers. No current laws would prevent a malevolent AI from operating a corporation that worked to subjugate or exterminate humanity through legal means and political influence. Computer-controlled companies could turn out to be less responsive to public opinion or protests than human-run firms are.
Two other aspects of corporations make people even more vulnerable to AI systems with human legal rights: They don’t die, and they can give unlimited amounts of money to political candidates and groups.
Artificial intelligences could earn money by exploiting workers, using algorithms to price goods and manage investments, and find new ways to automate key business processes. Over long periods of time, that could add up to enormous earnings – which would never be split up among descendants. That wealth could easily be converted into political power.
Politicians financially backed by algorithmic entities would be able to take on legislative bodies, impeach presidents and help to get figureheads appointed to the Supreme Court. Those human figureheads could be used to expand corporate rights or even establish new rights specific to artificial intelligence systems – expanding the threats to humanity even more.