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Boeing bids farewell to an icon and delivers the last 747 jumbo jet

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SEATTLE (AP) — Boeing bid farewell to an icon on Tuesday, delivering its latest 747 jumbo jet as thousands of workers who have helped build the planes for the past 55 years look on.

Since its first flight in 1969, the giant but graceful 747 has served as a cargo plane, a commercial aircraft capable of carrying nearly 500 passengers, a transport for NASA space shuttles and an Air Force One presidential plane. It revolutionized travel by connecting international cities that had never had direct routes before and helping to democratize passenger flying.

But over the past 15 years or so, Boeing and its European rival Airbus have introduced more cost-effective, fuel-efficient jumbo jets, with just two engines to maintain instead of the 747’s four. The latest plane is the 1,574th built by Boeing in Puget Sound, Washington.

Thousands of workers joined Boeing and other industry leaders from around the world – as well as actor and pilot John Travolta, who has flown 747s – on Tuesday for a ceremony at the company’s huge factory in north of Seattle, marking the delivery of the last to cargo carrier Atlas Air.

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“If you love this job, you dread this moment,” said longtime aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia. “No one wants a four-engine airliner anymore, but that doesn’t erase the aircraft’s tremendous contribution to the development of the industry or its remarkable heritage.”

Boeing set out to build the 747 after losing a contract for a huge military transport, the C-5A. The idea was to take advantage of new engines being developed for transport – high-flow turbofans, which burned less fuel by blowing air around the engine core, allowing longer flight range – and use them for a newly imagined civil aircraft.

It took more than 50,000 Boeing employees less than 16 months to produce the first 747 – a Herculean effort that earned them the nickname “The Incredibles”. Production of the jumbo jet required the construction of a massive factory in Everett, north of Seattle – the largest building in the world by volume. The factory wasn’t even finished when the first planes were finished.

Among those present was Desi Evans, 92, who joined Boeing at its factory in Renton, south of Seattle, in 1957 and spent 38 years with the company before retiring. One day in 1967, his boss told him he would be joining the 747 program in Everett the next morning.

“They told me, ‘Wear rubber boots, a helmet and dress warm, because it’s a sea of ​​mud,'” Evans recalled. “And it was – they were preparing for the erection of the factory.”

He was assigned as a supervisor to help figure out how the interior of the passenger cabin would be installed and later supervised the crews who worked on sealing and painting the aircraft.

“When that very first 747 came out, it was an amazing time,” he said as he stood in front of the last plane, parked outside the factory. “You felt elated – like you were writing history. You are part of something big, and it’s still big, even if it’s your last.

The plane’s fuselage was 225 feet (68.5 meters) long, and the tail was as tall as a six-story building. The aircraft’s design included a second deck extending from the cockpit over the first third of the aircraft, giving it a distinctive hump and inspiring a nickname, the Whale. More romantically, the 747 became known as the queen of the skies.

Some airlines turned the second deck into a first-class cocktail bar, while even the lower deck sometimes featured lounges or even a piano bar. A decommissioned 747, originally built for Singapore Airlines in 1976, has been converted into a 33-room hotel near Stockholm Airport.

“It was the first big carrier, the first widebody, so it set a new standard for airlines to know what to do with it and how to fill it,” said Guillaume de Syon, a history professor at the Albright College of Pennsylvania which specializes in aviation and mobility. “It’s become the essence of mass air travel: you can’t fill it with people paying full fare, so you have to lower the prices to get people on board. That’s contributed to what’s happened. passed in the late 1970s with the deregulation of air transport.

The first 747 entered service in 1970 on Pan Am’s New York-London route, and its timing was terrible, Aboulafia said. It debuted shortly before the 1973 oil crisis, amid a recession that saw Boeing’s employment decline from 100,800 employees in 1967 to a low of 38,690 in April 1971. The “bust of Boeing” was notoriously tagged by a billboard near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. which read, “Will the last person leaving SEATTLE — Turn off the lights.”

An updated model – the 747-400 series – arrived in the late 1980s and had much better timing, coinciding with the Asian economic boom of the early 1990s, Aboulafia said. He remembers taking a Cathay Pacific 747 from Los Angeles to Hong Kong as a backpacker in his twenties in 1991.

“Even people like me could go see Asia,” Aboulafia said. “Before, you had to stop to fill up in Alaska or Hawaii and it was much more expensive. It was a straight shot – and reasonably priced.

Delta was the last US airline to use the 747 for passenger flights, which ended in 2017, although some other international carriers continue to fly it, including German airline Lufthansa.

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr recalled traveling in a 747 as a young exchange student and said that when he realized he was going to the west coast of the United States United for Tuesday’s event, there was only one way to go: ride first class in the nose of a Lufthansa 747 from Frankfurt to San Francisco. He promised the crowd that Lufthansa would continue to fly the 747 for many years to come.

“We love the plane,” he said.

Atlas Air ordered four 747-8 freighters early last year, the last – sporting an image of Joe Sutter, the engineer who oversaw the original 747 design team – was delivered on Tuesday. Atlas CEO John Dietrich called the 747 the greatest air freighter, in part because of its unique ability to load through the nose cone.

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