The Boeing 747 14.07.10

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The first 747 was constructed as the assembly building was built around it (image: The Boeing Company)

The longest single shot in Godfrey Reggio's astonishing 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi is of United Airlines Boeing 747s taxiing at an airport. The first plane appears as an abstract blob in the heat-haze, nose-on, wings invisible, but still immediately recognisable thanks to its unmistakeable egg-shape. By the time the wings appear over the horizon, it is enormous, shimmering in the liquid air. The haze suggests that the ground itself is sweating at carrying these behemoths. And they can actually fly.

The Boeing 747, which entered service 40 years ago, is an example of the particularly American brand of monster military-industrial teamwork that got things done from Pearl Harbour through the Cold War. It emerged – in true military-industrial fashion – from the Boeing Company's failed attempt to build the giant C-5 military transport for the US military (a competition that Lockheed won). 50,000 people, a team that called itself "the incredibles", worked to repurpose the technology developed for the C-5 to the civilian market. This was the mid-1960s. Commercial passenger jets had already been in service for more than a decade, inaugurating the "jet age" – a term that conjures images of technological glamour, Mad Men seersucker suits and Saks leisurewear, streamlined cars and typefaces and the googie modernism of William Pereira's Los Angeles International Airport and Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal in New York. Oil was cheap, and all the indicators for passenger air traffic ticked up, up, up.

Boeing wanted to build a plane that could accommodate the vast numbers of people expected to take to the skies, but they also wanted to transform the economics of flight to bring it within reach of even more millions of people. The 747 was far larger than any existing passenger jet, seating more than 400 people on two decks and creating for itself an entirely new class of vehicle: the "jumbo" jet. Pan Am took delivery of the first 747 in January 1970.

Too big, said its critics, a white elephant, millions of dollars of technological hubris – the same charges now levelled at the Airbus A380. But it was a huge success, even in the face of the oil crisis, global recession and the advent of the age of terrorism with the destruction of a hijacked 747 at an airstrip outside Amman, Jordan, in September 1970. 747s had already carried a million passengers by then, and Boeing had orders for hundreds more planes. More than a thousand are now in operation, carrying everything from the Space Shuttle to the American President.

Offered a choice between supersonic glamour (Concorde) and affordable mass transit (747), the world voted for the jumbo. People didn't give a toss about cocktail hour, they just wanted to fly. Airports and the experience of air travel changed forever. A completely new infrastructure was needed to accommodate the giant planes and the hordes they carried. Runways were lengthened, widened and toughened. Jewel-like terminal buildings in the Saarinen mould were suddenly jokes, utterly overwhelmed by traffic – it was the dawn of the terminal mega-shed.

"Something was lost," writes Alastair Gordon in Naked Airport, a cultural history of air buildings. "In the jumbo era passengers became oblivious to the outside world, moving through concourses that were double-glazed and super-insulated to muffle the roar of jet engines ... Departure lounges became shadowless holding tanks, saturated with Muzak and fluorescent lighting ... The experience was ersatz and vacuum-sealed from beginning to end."

"Ersatz" is too harsh. Air travel is still real enough – but it has grown up, lost the pretensions of the early "jet age" and become routine, part of life. The 747 was a powerful engine of globalisation, the hyperdeflation of distance, the blurring of national boundaries, distinction and timezones. It made the world smaller.

 

 

 Words

William Wiles

quotes story

The Boeing 747, which entered service 40 years ago, is an example of the particularly American brand of monster military-industrial teamwork that got things done from Pearl Harbour through the Cold War

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