When we thought Boeing couldn’t do it again, they did it again! The original Boeing 747 was lapped up like warm milk by pretty much every major airline in the world, but Boeing would strike back with the same mixture of style and performance with this, the 747-400, an aircraft that soon made its way into the hearts and minds of the pilots and passengers who enjoyed this beautiful and elegant aircraft, the true Queen of the Skies!
To find the roots of the 747-400 you need to go back to the original 747 of 1969. This beautiful aircraft which brought the highest levels of capacity to the aviation industry revolutionised air travel as we knew it, and it couldn’t be touched by anyone. The closest rivals to the 747 at the time were Boeing’s own 707, the Douglas DC-8 and the Vickers VC10. While Douglas and Lockheed would attempt to take on the 747 with their wide-body trijets the DC-10 and the L-1011 Tristar, the 747 would continue to remain top-dog thanks to its performance and image. The 747 screamed size with its distinctive two-deck hump, beautiful style and amazing performance, and Boeing desired to keep this ball rolling as long as possible.
As the development of the 747’s life went on, a variety of options became available to the existing 747-100 and -200 series, including stretched upper decks and improved engines. These were culminated in 1983’s Boeing 747-300, a stretched upper-deck model with modified Rolls Royce engines for improved performance. However, the -300 would be merely a stop-gap for what would be Boeing’s idea of perfection. In 1982 the company unveiled the Boeing 767 and Boeing 757, two aircraft that pioneered the concept of the Glass Cockpit and computer controlled flight. The -300 however continued to maintain a more analogue flight panel, this having been largely carried over from the -200. As such, Boeing desired to marry the hardware of the 747-300 with the software of the 757/767, and thus in 1984 the project was launched under the name Boeing 747 Advanced Series 300, with an initial order of 10 aircraft for Cathay Pacific, KLM, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, and British Airways also announced orders several months later, followed by United Airlines, Air France, and Japan Airlines.
In order to make an aircraft that suited everyone, Boeing setup direct consultation with its customers, forming a committee with 7 airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, KLM,
Lufthansa, Northwest, Qantas, and Singapore Airlines. While the aircraft was planned as a new-technology upgrade, Boeing originally proposed minimal design changes in order to reduce development cost and retain commonality with existing models. The airline consultative group sought more advanced changes, including a two-crew glass cockpit. As a result of airline input, the 747-400’s new digital cockpit design featured a hybrid of the cathode-ray tube (CRT) display technologies first employed on the 757 and 767, along with carry-over 747 systems such as its autopilot.
The 747-400’s wingspan was stretched by 17 feet (5.2 metres) over the Classic 747 through wingtip extensions. For reduced aerodynamic drag, the wings were fitted with 6 feet (1.8 metres)-tall Winglets. The horizontal tail was also redesigned to fit a 3,300 US gallons (12,000 l) fuel tank, resulting in a 350 nautical miles range increase, and the rudder travel was increased to 30 degrees. The landing gear was redesigned with larger wheels and carbon brakes. Internal changes further included a restyled cabin with new materials and updated fittings.
New engines offered on the 747-400 included the Pratt & Whitney PW4056, the General Electric CF6-80C2B1F, and the Rolls-Royce RB211-524G/H. The engines offered lower fuel consumption and greater thrust, along with a full-authority digital engine control (FADEC) which adjusted engine performance for improved efficiency compared with the Classic 747’s. A new auxiliary power unit (APU) manufactured by Pratt & Whitney Canada was also selected to provide on-ground power for the 747-400, with a 40 percent reduction in fuel consumption compared to previous APU designs.
The 747-400 was built alongside the -300 and -200 at the giant Everett factory near Seattle, with the first rollout of the type taking place on January 26th, 1988, simultaneously with the new Boeing 737-400 at the company’s factory at Renton, marking the first double jetliner rollout in the manufacturer’s history. By the time the aircraft left the factory it had already amassed over 100 orders. The maiden flight of the 747-400 took place on April 29th, 1988, and flew for 2 hours and 26 minutes without incident. The aircraft was tested rigorously over the next 8 months before FAA certification was given in January 1989.
Northwest Airlines took delivery of the first 747-400 on January 26th, 1989, and put it into revenue service on February 9th with a short flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix. In May 1989, one week before the initial delivery to the 747-400’s first European customer, KLM, the Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA) shocked Boeing by refusing to grant regulatory certification for the aircraft, citing the upper deck cabin floor’s resistance to collapse in the event of a sudden decompression. While the manufacturer asserted that the 747-400’s cabin floor was no different from the already-certified and in-service 747-300, the JAA maintained that the newer model would have a service life into 2020 and beyond and was thus subject to a newer, more stringent standard which had been updated to reflect the risk of explosive devices. In the days leading up to the first delivery to KLM, negotiations between Boeing, the FAA, and the JAA resulted in a compromise: a temporary operating certificate would be issued for the 747-400, provided that the manufacturer develop a structural retrofit for the aircraft within two years. The last-minute deal allowed KLM and Lufthansa to take delivery of their 747-400s without further delays.
After the first 747-400 deliveries, Boeing began production on more variants of the
aircraft. The first 747-400 Combi, able to carry both passengers and freight, was rolled out in June 1989. The 747-400 Domestic, a short-range variant of the aircraft designed for Japanese intra-island services, first flew on March 18th, 1991 and entered service with Japan Airlines on October 22nd, 1991. A cargo variant, the 747-400F, was first delivered in May 1993 to Cargolux. By the end of the 1990’s, Boeing was producing four versions of the 747-400.
Immediately, the 747-400 was lauded as one of the best aircraft ever built, a true mixture of modern-day technology and spacious performance. Eventually the aircraft found its way into pretty much every major airline on earth, and soon saw off many of Boeing’s older generation aircraft such as the earlier 747-100, -200 and -300, as well as rival constructs like the DC-10 and the L-1011. For the 1990’s, Boeing was unbeatable in terms of providing sophisticated aviation technology to the masses, complimented in 1995 with the Boeing 777, which remains today a popular buy for long-haul airlines.
However, like all good things the 747-400 had to be moved along some day, that day being April 2005, when in light of internal competition from the Boeing 777 and the proposed 747-8, the last passenger 747-400 was delivered to China Airlines after 510 examples built. This was followed in 2009 by the conclusion of the Boeing 747-400F. However, 2009 also saw the creation of the 747-400LCF or Large Cargo Freighter, a version that took a leaf out of Airbus’ book by having an aircraft with an oversized hull carrying parts for aircraft to the company’s factory rather than by marine shipping as done before. As a result of this, delivery of parts was reduced to as little as a day rather than up to 30 by sea. In all, four of these aircraft were built by January 2010, bringing the overall construction number for the 747-400 to 694 in its 21 year production life.
The 747-400’s direct replacement is a bit of a mixed bag, including the Boeing 777, the Boeing 787 and the Boeing 747-8. The 747-8 however has had something of a poor start, and may indeed be heralding the end to the 747 range overall. As the operation of jumbo-jets such as the 747-8 and rival A380 becomes more uneconomical, especially in the face of competition from twin-jets of equal capacity such as the 777, the 787, the A330 and A350, jumbo-jets such as these are starting to lose their market and their reason for even existing. As such, sales of the 747-8 have reduced spectacularly, dropping to as little as 2 orders in 2014 and 2015, and only 3 deliveries for the first-half of 2016. Overall, the 747-8F has proven more popular, with 63 examples built compared to the passenger 747-8I. This, combined with a cancellation of many initial orders by airlines seeking to replace their older 747-400’s with 747-8’s, is a sad sign that the 747’s reign as Queen of the Skies may be up.
This is sadly coupled with the fact that the 747-400 itself is slowly being consigned to the history books in regular revenue service. As the older -400’s start to reach their 20th birthdays, their economic value compared to newer models is now becoming diminished and thus airlines have been selling them en masse, mostly to the scrapper. As production of the 777 and 787 continues, the 747-400 is slowly being pushed out of front-line service, with a majority of customers intending to retire their examples by 2020. Virgin Atlantic, a company that was brought to the forefront of aviation by the 747-400, intends to see theirs off by 2017, while United Airlines plan to retire theirs by 2018. Delta Airlines inherited Northwest Airlines’ fleet upon their merger in 2009, and hopes to retire them in the near future, while a mixture of 777’s, 787’s and A380’s are hoped to bring an end to British Airways’ fleet of these mighty aircraft.
Of course, this isn’t including those that have already been lost.
The first 747-400 to be lost was on November 4th, 1993, when China Airlines Flight 605
crashed on landing at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport during a Monsoon. Combined with the disengagement of auto brakes and retracted speed brakes, manual braking and thrust reversal were not enough to prevent the aircraft from sliding into Victoria Harbour. No one was seriously injured, but the aircraft was written off.
The type’s second hull loss occurred on October 31st, 2000, when Singapore Airlines Flight 006, a 747-400 flying on a Singapore to Los Angeles route via Taipei, rammed into construction equipment while attempting to take off from a closed runway at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport. The aircraft caught fire and was destroyed, killing 79 passengers and four crew members. The cause was attributed to the flight crew navigating to the wrong runway.
The 747-400F has recorded 3 hull-loss accidents. On September 3rd, 2010, UPS Airlines Flight 6 from Dubai International Airport to Cologne Bonn Airport, a 747-400F with two crew members on board, crashed roughly 25 minutes after departure. The crew declared an emergency, apparently due to an in-flight fire, and after abandoning one attempt at landing were unable to see their instruments. The aircraft impacted with the ground at high speed, killing both crew members. On July 28th, 2011, Asiana Airlines Flight 991, a Boeing 747-400F flying from Incheon Airport to Shanghai Pudong Airport, crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Jeju Island, South Korea, after reportedly suffering mechanical problems due to a possible on-board fire. Two crew members on board were killed. A National Air Cargo 747-400BCF crashed April 29th, 2013 (the 25th anniversary of the type’s first flight) at Bagram Air Base Afghanistan killing 7 crew members. The crash was attributed to a cargo shift of military vehicles to the back of the hold during take-off.
Today the 747-400 remains a popular aircraft with the airlines it still works for. While many have been scrapped, some former mainline airline aircraft have found their way into smaller carriers such as holiday and military charters, while others have been converted for freight use. In a way, it’s rather sad for me personally to see the 747-400’s being retired, seeing as they were built around the same time as I was born in the early 1990’s. Growing up, the 747-400 was still a brand new aircraft and it was spectacular to see them at Heathrow and Gatwick, their mixture of elegance and human innovation was breathtaking, and even today when I do occasionally go planespotting, I will always keep my eyes peeled for the grand old 747-400. Long may these beautiful aircraft continue to reign!