Monday, July 28, 2008

Flying on a Boeing 747 is still remarkable and safe

While investigators continue to examine why the Qantas 747-400 from Hong Kong to Melbourne had to divert due to a hole in its fuselage, it's worth noting how remarkable and how safe the Boeing 747 really is.

ABTN notes
that three rather remarkable transport engineering achievements were unveiled in 1969. The QE2 was the largest, and it is about to be retired in September. The Concorde prototype was the fastest, and none of the 20 made have flown in five years. The 747 was meant to be a large military transport, then a cargo plane - and was built to be tough enough to handle those missions. Its life as a passenger jet design was expected to be short, as the Concorde (and the long defunct Boeing 2707 supersonic transport) were meant to be the future. Unfortunately for British, French and US taxpayers, they were wrong. Fortunately for Boeing, the 747 proved to be revolutionary.

Over 1,400 have been built. The QE2 by contrast was a one off, and instead of being the hallmark of a new generation of ocean liners, it became a cruise ship. A leisure vessel rather than transport, as the age of trans-oceanic travel came to an end in the 1970s. It wasn't the future, but the last gasp of the past.

Concorde whilst a remarkable technological achievement was more a national showcase than a commercial success. Whilst funded by taxpayers, it was politicians around the world, particularly in the USA and India, that stymied Concorde all because of - the environment. The sonic boom was hated by those living near airports where planes are half the noise today than they were in the 1970s. With supersonic flight banned over the continental USA (except, of course, for US military aircraft) and over India, most of the market for Concorde was kneecapped - with no chance of flights between Europe and the US West Coast, or with Asia at full supersonic speed. Its final years were profitable because BA got the debt for them written off, and could charge £13,000 (yes pounds) for a return trans-atlantic flight by Concorde.

So the 747, slow, and not altogether majestic, would be what would change travel. It carries 2.5 times what its predecessors carried, the Boeing 707 and DC-8. It would do it as fast as most subsonic airliners, would carry enormous loads of cargo, be two-thirds wider, and start making inflight movies (on the big screen for many years) easy for all. Most of all, it created most of the new capacity in economy class, and airlines had to fill these enormous planes, and the price of long haul air travel dropped - dropped not because of governments, not because of price control, but because airlines and a plane maker took risks, and it worked.

Consider the original 747 was designed in the 1960s:

"Some 4,500 people were involved in the original design with most of the work carried out on huge elephant-size drawing boards, not the amazing 3D CAD computers available today"

You see things have changed a lot, it's not just a longer upper deck, but engines have evolved, interiors have changed significantly, with entertainment systems, more luxurious seats in the front (and more in front), and less legroom in the back. However, bear in mind what the 747 represents. In less than a lifetime humanity went from the Wright Brothers to an airliner that can lift off with a maximum weight of nearly 334,000 kg (now 397,000), could fly non-stop up to 9,800 km with a full load (now 13,450 km), cruising at 895 km/h (now 913 km/h) with a maximum speed of 945 km/h (now 977 km/h).

Yes you take it for granted now, but consider that it was not long ago that the notion you could be sitting at 11km above the earth, breathing normally, eating a 3 course meal, able to choose between a couple of hundred movies to watch, travelling at just below the speed of sound for the price of anything of between 2-5% of the average annual income of a Western country, would be seen as fantasy. Now it is the norm.

The Boeing 747 wasn't the first plane, it wasn't the first jetliner, but it was the one that moved jet airline travel from being a luxury service to being a mass market service. 747s are built strong and the number of incidents as a result of aircraft failure have all, to date, been attributed to poor maintenance and in one instance flying with too little fuel. In the coming months the last of the second generation of 747s (a 747-400F freighter) will roll out of the factory, and the third generation (747-8) will emerge to ensure that the 747 will still be in our skies for another 15-20 years (albeit in passenger service less and less).

In recent years the airlines flying 747s into New Zealand have reduced to be only Air NZ and Qantas today, with Cathay Pacific occasionally dabbling with them. I don't doubt that within 5 years they will be the exception in NZ skies for passenger use, as smaller longer range more fuel efficient planes are better suited to the NZ market.

However, a winner it has been - and while Concordes and the QE2 both gather more attention, it is the 747 that has been the revolutionary, the strong, enormous workhorse of the skies. Qantas passengers on flight QF30 are alive today not because of luck, but because of a strong, robust design of 39 years (adapted and updated in the 1990s) that changed the world.

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