The largest and latest in the fantastic and beautiful Boeing 747 range, the 747-8 continues to maintain that winning style of the 1970’s and deliver on the power. But, unlike its predecessors, this 747 hasn’t exactly been the world beater everyone thought it would be.
To trace the 747-8, you need to go back to the previous outing of the 747, the -400. The -400, introduced in 1989, became an instant classic with its mixture of size, performance and fly-by-wire technology, a true testament to the advances made in aviation. Such was the popularity of the 747-400, Boeing immediately considered sizing up the old bird with the 747-500X and -600X of 1996. These two proposed aircraft blended a mixture of the 747’s profile, but with the highly efficient wing design of the then new Boeing 777, with blended technology. Upon the launch of the rival Airbus A3XX project in 2000 (later to become the A380), Boeing brought forward the 747X, which would have had an increased wingspan, a range of 7,800nmi and a fuselage a whopping 263ft long. However, following the fallout of September 11th, 2001, demand for the 747X disappeared, not that enthusiasm was high to begin with. Eventually, the technology behind such an aircraft was passed on to the 747-400ER.
Boeing didn’t give up though, and in 2002, they proposed the 747-400XQLR (Quiet Long Range) a highly efficient, stretched version of the 747-400 with a range of 7,980nmi, reduced noise and better fuel consumption. The design called for raked wingtips like those on the 767-400, which would reduce the need for conventional winglets, as well as being fitted with sawtooth engine nacelles for noise reduction, like those on the 787. In 2004, Boeing formally announced the plane for the 747 Advanced, which would in essence be a Boeing 787 in a 747 body, with the project being officially launched on November 14th, 2005, going under the name 747-8.
The 747-8 would be the first 747 design to be stretched, and the first 747 not to maintain the same fuselage dimensions since the 747SP of the 1970’s. The 747-8 uses the same cockpit layout and engines as the 787, these being four General Electric GEnx turbofan engines. However, for all its differences, the 747-8 was intended to share a commonality with the previous 747-400 for simplicity of training crews to manage both aircraft. This also included interchangeable parts to reduce costs.
However, unlike previous 747’s, the 747-8 would be going head-to-head with the only other jumbo-jet ever created, the Airbus A380, which, by 2005, was already in production and not far from the testing stage. The A380 had an edge over the 747 this time as well, in that it sported full double-deck accommodation while flying at a competitive range. As such, Boeing had to be clever with its advertising, and decided to get in touch with the environmental sensitivities of the post-9/11 airline industry. They argued that the 747-8 was more than 10% lighter and consumed 11% less than the Airbus A380, which constituted a trip-cost reduction of 21%, that’s a seat-mile cost reduction of 6%. The reduced costs meant that the revenue lost from the number of seats lacking compared to the A380, were made up for in the reduced cost of the flight. At around this time as well, Boeing revealed a Freight configuration, which resulted in two options for the aircraft, the 747-8I (Intercontinental) and the 747-8 Freighter.
In terms of overall design, the 747-8 is the world’s longest passenger airliner, beating the Airbus A340-600 by 3ft. It is also the heaviest aircraft ever produced by the United States, regardless of Military or Commercial aviation. The largest alterations between the 747-8 and the previous 747-400 have been the wings, which, as mentioned, take technology from the 767 and upcoming 787 by way of blended or racked wings. Unlike the more rigid and heavier structure of the -400’s wings, the 747-8’s wings are more aerodynamic due to their long, sweeping upward curve, increasing the lift without the need for a winglet. The wings also contain extra fuel tanks, thereby removing the need to store fuel at the rear of the aircraft and thereby have to alter the structure of the horizontal stabilisers, as is the case on the 747-400. The 747-8 is only available with the General Electric GEnx engine, which is only one of the two options for the 787. The 747 engine variant has been adapted to provide bleed air for conventional airplane systems and feature a smaller diameter to fit on the 747 wing.
The 747-8’s construction began in August 2008 with a prototypical 747-8 Freighter, but,
much like with the 787’s development, delays were quick to rear their ugly head. In November 2008, Boeing announced a delay on the 747-8 program due to insufficient engineering resources and industrial action by factory workers. There were also problems with demand as well, as by early 2009, only one customer, Lufthansa, had placed a solid order for the 747-8I, Boeing were in the process of producing a massively expensive jet airliner that apparently no one wanted. On the other hand, Cargolux placed a firm order for 13 747-8 Freighter’s, which did give the cargo configuration something of a purpose. Eventually, interest was gathered by Korean Air, but that made only two airlines interested in the 747-8I, people weren’t exactly climbing over each other to get their hands on one.
Eventually, after much delay, the 747-8 Freighter was rolled out in December 2009, and on February 8th, 2010, the test aircraft made its maiden flight. For FAA certification, extensive tests of more than 1,600 hours flying time were required, and thus multiple 747-8 test aircraft, mostly Freighters, were put to work. Because of the fact that the 747-8 and the 787 were being tested simultaneously, the 747-8 was flown to Palmdale, California for testing rather than from the home base at Paine Field, this being so it couldn’t interfere with the testing of the 787. During the flight tests, Boeing discovered a buffet problem with the aircraft, involving turbulence coming off the landing gear doors interfering with the inboard flaps. Boeing undertook an evaluation of the issue, which included devoting the third test aircraft to investigating the problem. The issue was resolved by a design change to the outboard main landing gear doors. In early April 2010, Boeing identified a possible defect in a part at the top of the fuselage called a longeron. According to Boeing, the parts, manufactured by subcontractor Vought Aircraft Industries, are, under certain loads, susceptible to cracking. Boeing said that the issue would not affect flight testing, but other sources stated that the problem could impact the operating envelope of the aircraft until it is fully repaired. Two other problems have been found, with oscillation in the inboard aileron, and a structural flutter, and have not yet been resolved as of 2010. Combined, these problems have slowed flight testing and used up almost all the margin in Boeing’s development schedule.
By June 2010, despite rigorous testing by 3 aircraft, Boeing simply weren’t able to wrack up
the appropriate flying hours for the FAA, and thus a fourth aircraft was put to work. This delay resulted in launch customer, Cargolux’s, delivery date to be pushed back to mid-2011. Meanwhile, the 747-8 Intercontinental made its first flight on March 20th, 2011, and by December of that year there were 3 747-8I’s on test at Palmdale. Eventually, the FAA allowed the 747-8F its airworthiness certification on August 19th, 2011, and the first aircraft were delivered to Cargolux throughout early September. On September 17th however, Cargolux announced that it would not accept the first two 747-8Fs scheduled for delivery on September 19th and 21st, 2011, due to “unresolved contractual issues between Boeing and Cargolux” with the aircraft. The aircraft eventually entered commercial service in October that year. The 747-8I eventually received its FAA certification on December 14th, 2011, and was delivered to launch customer Lufthansa in May 2012, working its first revenue earning flight from Frankfurt to Washington D.C. on June 1st.
However, even though the 747-8 was now tested and delivered, we still haven’t arrived at the biggest problem of them all, the aircraft simply hasn’t sold. The biggest problem with the 747-8 is that it is no longer alone in this world of wide-body commercial jetliners. When the 747-100 made its first flight way back in 1969, most airlines were still using turboprops, and the closest thing that came to the 747 in terms of size and passenger capacity were narrow-bodied 707’s, DC-8’s and VC-10’s. While the 1970’s brought a slew of wide-body competitors, such as the DC-10 and the L-1011 Tristar, the 747 still led the way due to its size and its performance, still vastly outdoing its rivals in terms of sales. When the 747-400 was launched in 1989, the playing field was still very much the same, the L-1011 was long since dead, the DC-10 had been replaced by the similarly sized MD-11, and Airbus’ proposed A340 was still an idea in someone’s head.
However, when the 747-8 took to the skies in 2010, the world of wide-body airliners had long since caught up with it. At that point in time, wide-body aircraft of similar size, range and efficiency included the Airbus A330-300, the Airbus A340-600, the Boeing 767-400, the Boeing 777-300ER, the Boeing 787 and, of course, the Airbus A380. The aircraft was also introduced during the middle of a massive recession, which meant that cash was tight for all airlines no matter how big or important they were. As such, the far more efficient but equally as large wide-body twinjets were now the stars of the show. While the 747, and indeed the A380, had exuberant style and a wonderful charm to them (more so the 747, not to sound biased or anything!), they aren’t selling because four expensive, fuel thirsty turbofans are being easily outdone by two. While the A380 has sold largely for the sake of image, as something of a flying palace rather than a commercial airliner, the 747-8 has only truly sold as a freight aircraft, especially since the proposed A380-800F never came to fruition.
As such, despite multiple claims of 747-8 production increasing, the company has only
produced between 0.5 and 2 aircraft per month. In late 2016, the demand for the 747-8F dropped due to a stagnation in the air freight market, which means production is currently at a rate of 0.5 aircraft per month. While prospects for the 747-8F are expected to turn for the better by about 2019, it’s still not good, especially for the 747-8I. At the same time, Boeing have proposed a new variant of the 777, the 777X range, including the 375 seat 777-8, and the 425 seat 777-9, both of which have garnered a slew of solid orders from airlines globally. As such, Boeing has expressed doubts in the future of 747 production, and while there are currently 138 orders on the cards, a majority are for the freight version, with 88 747-8F’s being ordered against 50 747-8I’s. This isn’t bad, but only 110 aircraft having been sold since 2008, it’s not exactly good. Today, only 6 airlines operate the 747-8I, while 10 operate the -8F, and even then the airlines with the highest numbers on their books are the launch customers. Boeing couldn’t even get British Airways on board, and they’ve been avid 747 buyers since the days of BOAC in the early 70’s, instead opting for 787’s on the long distance routes, and using the A380 as a fashion statement everywhere else.
Personally, I feel that the 747-8 may find its way back into the limelight of aviation, but I do have my doubts. The design, though wonderful, is very dated; the technology, while advanced, can be found on a slew of its peers; it’s performance and size makes it highly competitive, but this again is replicated on many of its rivals as well as its brothers. As such, the 747-8 is something of a throwback to the 1970’s, it has nostalgia, it has cemented itself as a classic, but the concept of the Jumbo-Jet, especially in this world of modern day environmental considerations and efficiency, makes it very much an 8-track badge, in an iPod world.