Boeing's Last 747 Just Rolled Off the Production Room Floor, Cue the Waterworks

Four howling engines, two split levels of seats, and at least 385 passengers per flight. Those are just the highlights of the accolades of the most successful quad-jet airliner ever to jump from blueprints to our mortal reality. But even the undisputed queen of the skies for decades needs to have its swansong eventually.
Last Boeing 747 8 photos
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With that said, the announcement that Boeing's final ever production 747 had just left the factory floor is as bitter-sweet of a moment in the history of aviation as ever did take place. The lucky recipients of this historic airplane are the cargo transport and passenger charter airline Atlas Air. At the present date, the company based out of Westchester County, New York, flies the largest fleet of 747s in North America.

With delivery from Boeing's Washington State-based production facility scheduled for early 2023, the event marks the end of a five-decade-long saga in aviation that fundamentally changed how people worldwide fly. In the days when the 747 was just a pile of blueprints on Boeing's desk, the pinnacle of passenger jet airliners was the smaller 707.

The 707 was a landmark aircraft in its own right. But all you need to do to understand why the 747 was a profound leap over its predecessor is look at a photo of the two side by side. The "Seven-Four" makes the not-at-all-small "Seven-Zero" look like a Cessna by comparison.

America's flagship airline, Pan American Airways, was chosen as the Seven-Four's first customer. it was a tell-tale sign the airplane was destined to have an especially illustrious career. Over the years, over 1,500 Seven-Four airframes left Boeing production facilities bound for passenger, cargo, and military service across every continent with dozens of different airlines and Air Forces.

Final Boeing 747
From the positively blobby Dreamlifter, wide-body cargo hauler to the specialized Space Shuttle Transports and even a shortened 747SP, which looked like a regular 747 with the middle fuselage Photoshopped out. The Seven-Four metamorphosized about as many times as the average flock of butterflies over the last five to six decades. That doesn't even include the military variants, of which, yes, the YAL-1 Airborne Laser and the VC-25 incarnation of Air Force One are members.

Over the years, Boeing and its contracted airlines employed famous jet engine makers like Pratt & Whitney, General Electric, and even Rolls-Rolls Royce to supply sets of engines for their vast fleet of Seven-Fours. The result is a jet with a theoretical maximum range of a scarcely believable 6,650 nautical miles (12,320 km) in the 747SP. So to say, if you wanted to travel across vast oceans with relatively decent legroom and creature comforts, you pick a 747 and not much else.

Though orders for Seven-Fours fizzled into little more than a trickle by the 2010s, the type continues to be the go-to airframe for heavy load-specialist air cargo operators. That's in spite of major passenger air services like Delta Air Lines and British Airways already putting their fleet of Seven-Fours out to pasture between 2017 and 2020. Knowing this, we're led to an unfortunate question. Are the Seven-Four's days in the skies numbered?

Well, in short, yes. But to elaborate further, we can't say for certain when that day will come. That said, we can derive some clues about the 747's future fate by looking once again at its 707 older cousins. Believe it or not, 707s from the mid-1950s were operating in commercial service until as late as 2013. As far as we can tell, the last operator of a Seven-Zero was the Iranian Saha Airlines, of which they had as many as four until April of that fateful year.

Atlas Air Boeing 747
Even in 2022, a handful of 707s are still in service in a military capacity with a handful of ill-equipped nations across the world; and who knows when those will ever be replaced? With this in mind, it's safe to say the entire fleet of larger 747s isn't going to disappear from global airspace before this decade is out. Far from it, in fact. For one thing, the specialized Boeing E-4 Advanced Airborne Command Post (AACP) is still a valuable asset for the Pentagon, even 48 years after the type's first flight.

Keep in mind cargo airlines like to get the most out of their airframes. Where passenger jets are often prematurely discarded as newer ones make their technology obsolete. But a complete lack of needing to please anybody means cargo liners tend to fly their air fleet until the FAA tells them they can't anymore. To put it in petrolhead terms, they'll drive them till the wheels fall off.

In regards to the 747, that means they'll be around at least a little bit longer. Oh, and if you think the Airbus A380 is a superior airplane, just watch how that plane's inevitable retirement comes even quicker than the old Seven-Fours when the maintenance bills start to get heavy.

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Editor's note: This article was not sponsored or supported by a third-party.


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