February 14, 2009

Things I didn't know last week - February 14th 2009

Qantas Boeing 747-400 descending near London H...Image via Wikipedia

This is a post in a regular weekly series about things I've learned or come to realise during the previous week.

This week "The 747 is 40 years old"

I first had the occasion to fly on a 747 back in 1977. My family had decided to emigrate to Australia and I had to go with them by virtue of the fact that I wasn't old enough to live on my own.

We arrived at Heathrow on a cold December morning to jump onto one of the state-of-the art Boeing 747-200's that Qantas ran. We were, of course, in economy/coach class for the flight which seemed to last for ever. In actual fact it was 8 hours to Bombay, a further 8 hours to Perth and another 4 or so hours to Sydney where we stayed for a couple of days before heading. up to our final stop in Brisbane.

I remember walking up and down the twin aisles of the plane amazed that such a huge thing could even move under it's own power let alone fly - and fly for so long. Having said that, this was my first flight and having nothing else to compare it with the bar was set fairly high to begin with.

The highlight of the flight was when I asked one of the cabin crew if I could go up to the cockpit, and - somewhere between Bombay and Perth - I was allowed access to the inner sanctum. This was great for two reasons: 1) It was on the upper deck so I would have to climb the stairs and 2) I would have to go through First Class to get there. This was in the days when 747's still had a cocktail bar on the upper deck and not business or economy seating. It was also the time when the stairs to the upper deck were still circular.

I sat with the captain and his flight crew for about 30 minutes asking them about all the controls and getting them to demonstrate whatever they could. The Captain even turned the heading switch on the autopilot so that I could see how the plane turned by itself (Apparently my mother in the economy cabin muttered "I bet that's our Gary doing that..."). For a child it was magical and a great introduction to commercial aviation.

I couldn't wait to get back on a plane!

Unfortunately it wasn't something I was able to do for a while after that. But I have made up for it since.

And now the 747 is 40 years old.

The initial flight of this 'Jumbo' jet took place in the skies above Everett, Washington 4 decades ago. The plane itself was built in a factory that had not even been completed when the first parts started arriving (and which is still the largest manufacturing building on the face of the planet). It was a plane of superlatives. The largest commercial plane ever built. The longest commercial plane ever built. The quietest plane ever built. With it's new turbofan engines it was smooth, fast and efficient (by the standards of the day) and it even had an upper deck where the pilots sat. Airports had to be redesigned to handle them, new equipment had to be built to tow them and pilots needed additional training to deal with the fact that when the rears wheels touched down the cockpit was still over 90 feet off the ground! This thing had twice as many wheels in it's undercarriage as any other plane, for goodness sake!!

It was truly the plane that ushered in the era of mass travel. Thanks to it's huge size, capacious cabin, and efficient engines it brought the price of long distance aviation down to the point where today some airlines are offering free tickets on flights.

Since that initial flight I have flown many hundreds (almost thousands) of times. I am now even qualified to fly an airplane on my own (but not a 747), but the Jumbo is still my favourite plane and I have a number of special memories of that aircraft:

1) Sitting between the Captain and First Officer on the flight deck as we approached Sydney's Kingsford Smith airport at dusk. We approached over the water. It was light enough to see everything but dark enough that all the lights were on. Fabulous!
2) Sitting at the back of a 747 on a return flight from Australia watching an old lady slowly negotiate her way down the aisle to the toilet only for the whole plane to drop suddenly in turbulence as soon as she locked the door and sat down. I swear she must have hit the ceiling!
3) Being upgraded to seat A1 on a British Airways 747 shortly after they had recently upgraded all First Class to individual cabins. A fully flat bed, personal service and gourmet food on a 13 hour flight to Hong Kong. Luxury!
4) Sitting upstairs in business class on a 747 right behind the cockpit bulkhead. As we stood at the end of the runway the pilot said "Ladies and gentlemen tonight's flight to Cape Town will take a little over 12 hours. Once we start rolling we will be on the runway for about a full minute before we lift off. Enjoy your flight". The plane started rolling. I timed the run. We rolled for exactly 58 seconds before the rear wheels lifted up. I shook my head in disbelief. The olderly lady seated next to me asked why. I told her "I've been flying for many years now and it never ceases to amaze me how 300 tons of metal fuel and cargo can fly. But then again as long as the Captain knows how it all happens we're fine". She looked at me and smiled "Oh, he knows how it all works" she said, "He's my husband"

Happy 40th Birthday 747. May you have many more.

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