Review: Boeing 747SP

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This isn’t a Photoshop edit, this was a real variant of the Boeing 747; an ambiguous little plane (when compared to the big plane it was based off) known as the Boeing 747SP or Special Performance. Today it has gone down in aviation history as among the strangest aircraft to ever hit the skies, but it wasn’t just a one-off joke as it would form the basis of many integral operations for some of the world’s larger and more prestigious airlines.

The concept for the SP originated thanks largely to Pan Am, who desired an aircraft that could carry a full payload of passengers non-stop on its longest route from New York to Tokyo. This interest was joined later by Iran Air who requested such an aircraft for their planned routes between Tehran and New York.

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The 747SP prototype and the original 747 prototype are seen side-by-side at the SP’s rollout ceremony; the differences in size being immediately apparent.

The main selling points and requirements for the SP were market competitiveness in terms of passenger capacity while being compatible with other Boeing 747 types and able to carry out ultra-long range flights so as to gain an edge over the Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011 Tristar. Boeing, however, could not afford to design a new and specific aircraft for this type of duty and thus chose to base these market requirements on the 747-100. The shorter fuselage allowed for the aircraft’s lighter weight and therefore increased the range.

Aside from the obviously shorter fuselage (48 feet 4 inches less than the 747-100), the 747SP differs from other 747 variants in having simplified flaps and a taller vertical tail to counteract the decrease in yaw moment-arm from the shortened fuselage. The 747SP uses single-piece flaps on the trailing edges rather than the smaller triple-slotted flaps of standard 747’s. The SP was also the first and, until the introduction of the Boeing 777-200LR, only Boeing wide-body with a wingspan greater than the length of the fuselage. The SP could accommodate 230 passengers in a 3-class cabin, 331 in a (303 economy, 28 business) 2-class cabin or a maximum of 400 passengers in one class.

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The 747SP prototype prepares for departure on an early test flight.

Originally designated 747SB for “short body”, it later was nicknamed “Sutter’s balloon” by employees after 747 chief engineer Joe Sutter. Boeing later changed the production designation to 747SP for “special performance”, reflecting the aircraft’s greater range and higher cruising speed. Production of the 747SP ran from 1976 to 1983, however a VIP order for the Royal Flight of Abu Dhabi led Boeing to produce one last SP in 1987. Pan Am was the launch customer for the 747SP, taking the first delivery, Clipper Freedom, on March 5th, 1976.

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The classic lines of Pan Am’s livery were well suited to the 747SP and its unconventional shape.

The 747SP held the distinction of longest-range airliner until the 747-400 entered service in 1989. It was even able to rake up some world records for flight distance and circumnavigated the globe several times.

During the mid-1970’s, Pan Am set two round-the-world records. Liberty Bell Express, a Boeing 747SP-21 named Clipper Liberty Bell, broke the commercial round-the-world record set by a Flying Tiger Line Boeing 707 with a new record of 46 hours and 50 seconds. The flight left New York’s JFK airport on May 1st, 1976, and returned on May 3rd. The flight stopped only in New Delhi and Tokyo; where a strike among the airport workers delayed it two hours. The flight beat the Flying Tiger Line’s record by 16 hours and 24 minutes.

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Clipper New Horizons had the distinction of flying around the globe both via the equator and the poles during its time with Pan Am.

To commemorate its 50th birthday, Pan Am organised a round-the-world flight from San Francisco to San Francisco; this time over the North Pole and the South Pole with stops in London Heathrow, Cape Town and Auckland. 747SP-21 Clipper New Horizons was the former Liberty Bell, making it the only plane to go around the globe over the equator and the poles. The flight made it in 54 hours, 7 minutes and 12 seconds; creating six new world records certified by the FAA. The captain who commanded the flight also commanded the Liberty Bell Express flight. Sadly, even with its record setting achievements, the aircraft, N143UA, was not preserved and became the first 747SP scrapped in 1995.

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United Airlines operated 747SP’s into the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, among the last major users of the type.

Between January 29–31st, 1988, a United Airlines Boeing 747SP, dubbed ‘Friendship One’, flew from Seattle to raise funds for Friendship Foundation. Two stopovers were made at Athens Airport and Taipei-Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. The record lasted less than a month, as it was beaten by a Gulfstream IV piloted in part by Gulfstream Aerospace CEO Al Paulson. The round-the-world flight took 35 hours and 54 minutes over 23,125 miles.

In spite of its technical achievements however, the SP failed to sell in any great numbers; largely due to a mixture of increased fuel prices, the aircraft’s heavy wings, expensive cost, reduced capacity and the increased ranges of forthcoming airliners. The result was only 45 examples built and even though many big-name carriers chose to use the SP, including Braniff, Pan Am and United Airlines, the aircraft’s specialist nature combined with extended-range aircraft such as the Boeing 767, 747-400 and 777 made the aircraft somewhat surplus to requirement.

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American Airlines reintroduced the use of Boeing 747’s with the SP during the early 1990’s, this one seen at London Heathrow. Note the British Airways Concorde in the background.

The SP’s did remain in the service of larger international operators such as South African Airways and Qantas, even having a spell with American Airlines during the 1990’s, before most were quietly phased out in the early 2000’s like many ageing aircraft during the period following September 11th, 2001. Mainline passenger operations for many years were primarily among Middle-Eastern carriers such as Iran Air, Syrian Air, Saudia and Royal Air Maroc. Iran Air became the last commercial operator of the type, retiring its last example in 2016.

It is reported that of the 45 originally built only 13 are still used, 20 have been scrapped and the remainder put in storage across the world; though one former South African Airways example has been preserved at Rand Airport, South Africa.

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Damage to the rear of China Airlines Flight 006 is evident after its precipitous plunge over the Pacific Ocean.

The 747SP has so far never suffered a fatal incident though it has come close. On February 19th, 1985, China Airlines Flight 006 plunged from 41,000ft to 9,000ft over the Pacific due to crew disorientation, but was thankfully recovered with only a few injuries among its 274 passengers and crew.

On October 5th, 1998, a South African Airways example suffered an uncontained failure to the #3 engine with debris striking the #4 engine and causing a fire. The aircraft and its 66 passengers and crew landed safely but the aircraft was written off.

Another notable loss took place in March 2015 when the Yemeni Government’s own VIP 747SP was caught in the crossfire at Aden Airport during a battle between rebel factions and Yemeni Government forces. The 747 took serious damage from gunfire before apparently being destroyed by a blaze; with only the engines and wings remaining.

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The SOFIA infrared telescope utilises an ex-United Airlines 747SP to provide the best astronomy opportunities.

However, as mentioned, 13 aircraft remain in the skies primarily as the private transport for many Middle Eastern governments. The governments of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and formerly Yemen all operate Boeing 747SP’s as VIP transports; though they are not often seen. Other airworthy examples have been put to work by either government agencies or aircraft manufacturers for the testing of new technology. Pratt & Whitney Canada operate two to help test engines, whilst Fry’s Electronics uses their SP to test new aviation electronics. An ex-United Airlines example was fitted with an infrared telescope for use in high-altitude astronomy, this aircraft being dubbed SOFIA or Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

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The same aircraft involved in China Airlines Flight 006, this 747SP now languishes under the hot desert sun at Tijuana in Mexico.

Today you’d be hard pressed to find active 747SP’s regularly unless you know where to look. Indeed some more remote locations may have one in store; such as one notable example being stored at Tijuana in Mexico (this same aircraft being involved in the China Airlines 006 incident). Aside from that they’re very rare birds but even today they hold their notoriety and novelty; the idea of a stubby Boeing 747 can still tickle people’s humorous side.

My advice: try following some of these government summits that take place. You may not give a monkey’s about the politics, but if you hold out at the airport you might be in with a chance of seeing some 747SP’s if the governments of the Middle East are invited!


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