By Jay Jamison
On February 9, 1969, the first Boeing 747 airliner flew its inaugural flight. Last week, on January 31, the last production 747 took off from Paine Field near Everett, Washington. I was surprised to see this news item because I thought production of the iconic jetliner had ceased years ago.
In an era when electronic devices are obsolete almost the moment they are removed from the box, the contrast with magnificent pieces of engineering like the 747 is striking.
Just imagine an American car model remaining in production and looking roughly the same over a span of 54 years. I’m sure there have been many improvements to the 747 over the more than half century of its production life, but anyone with an eye for aircraft should still be able to spot the outline of a jumbo jet from among its younger rivals.
I was 13 years old when the first 747 took to the air. The United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War, the previous year the country experienced the dreadful assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Protests and riots led the evening news.
On the other hand, NASA’s Apollo program was proceeding apace. America was in a space race with the Soviets. When the Boeing 747 first flew, we had yet to make it to the moon. Nixon was beginning his first term as president. The Watergate building in Washington, D.C. had yet to become famous for political scandal. The World Trade Center in lower Manhattan had yet to be built.
When I think of historic production pedigrees, the Ford Model T springs to mind, a design which was in continuous production from 1908 until 1927. Eventually, the Volkswagen Beetle surpassed the Ford Model T in production numbers and longevity. I owned a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle from 1977 until around 1980. The design was so simple that even a philosophy major could work on it.
Aircraft are different. The difference between the Wright Flyer and the aircraft of today is so radical, one could be forgiven for not thinking of them as being in the same category. An automobile remains an automobile, and I could probably quickly learn how to drive a Model T with the same finesse as driving a 1968 Beetle or a 2020 Hyundai.
In the history of innovative design and production, a few examples stand out, and among them is the Boeing 747. They got it right the first time and then continued to make improvements over the years.
I admit that I don’t retain the naïve optimism that I had as a youth, when the first 747 took to the sky. With all the astounding devices and comforts we now have at our disposal, you’d think I would be content, yet something seems to be missing. The rush of technological changes is mind-boggling, and the moment I finally master some new gadget, and express my delight in accomplishment, I’m looked upon as a relic of some by-gone age.
The realization that I’ve lived through the entire production life of the magnificent 747 caught me off guard. My grandparents lived through the entire production life of the Model T, but from my perspective they were old. And now, so am I. With all the bad things happening in the world today, I can at least take solace in my acquaintance with an iconic design that has stood the test of time.