When British Airways (BA) retired Concorde from its fleet back on October 23, 2003, the ‘Pride of the fleet’ crown was immediately passed over to the iconic Boeing 747, of which the carrier was operating 49 at the time.
The “Queen of the Skies” was the first of the new generation of wide-body airliners when it took to the skies in 1969. This was the same year as Concorde’s maiden flight. But the two aircraft really couldn’t be any more different.
Despite Concorde’s grace and technological advances, it was the mighty 747 that was to change the face of air travel in the modern world. The larger aircraft’s incredible seat/mile costs meant that long-haul travel was instantly opened to masses, with cheaper airfares bringing passengers in their droves.
The Early Years
British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC), one of the forerunners to today’s British Airways, became the first airline to introduce a jet airliner into passenger service in May 1952, when it began flying the British built de Havilland Comet 1.
Sadly, the Comet was grounded due to a series of tragic accidents. During this time, American manufacturer Boeing was racing ahead with its jetliner, the 707. When the aircraft entered service on October 26, 1958, the British built aircraft were already deemed obsolete, and despite resistance from the UK government, BOAC ordered 15 of the new 707s.
By the 1960s, as demand for air travel increased, Boeing buoyed by pressure from Pan Am owner Juan Trippe, looked at developing a new ‘wide-body’ aircraft, twice the size of its 707.
The Boeing 747 was born, and in 1966 US giants Pan Am and Trans World Airlines (TWA) both placed orders for the new Jumbo. As there were no immediate plans for British aircraft manufacturers to build a rival to Boeing’s offering, it became apparent that if BOAC was to remain competitive on the lucrative North Atlantic routes, it too would have to order the 747.
So on September 2, 1966 the Corporation signed a deal for six Boeing 747-136s, at a total price of approximately $160 million.
The first aircraft arrived at London Heathrow on May 23, 1970. G-ANWA was the 23rd off the production line and joined the fleet just a few months after Pan Am had introduced the type on the flagship New York to London route. By September, the carrier had increased its order to sixteen.
However, a dispute with the airline’s pilots who were demanding a “wide-bodied pay-rise” to match flying these wide-bodied jets meant that the first 747s delivered G-ANWA, G-ANWB and G-ANWC stood idle on the ground for almost a year.
Thankfully reliability problems, which plagued some of the early engines on the new planes, meant that BOAC could recoup some of its lost revenue by leasing out its unused engines to other carriers.
The carriers first 747 service took place on April 14, 1971 between Heathrow and New York. Recently delivered G-AWNF was honoured with carrying BOAC’s first Jumbo Jet passengers when it took off at 12:03 GMT under the command of Captain D. Redrup. The initial frequency on the route was twice weekly, increasing to daily from May.
BOAC’s 747s were configured to carry 27 First Class and 335 Economy passengers on North Atlantic routes during the summer, altering to 36 First Class and 315 Economy in the winter.
The First Class seats were of 42″ pitch and passengers had access to the exquisite ‘Monarch Lounge’ on the upper deck, reached by a spiral staircase from the First Class cabin. It featured four ‘club-style’ swivel chairs plus settee seating for up to sixteen people.
Economy was divided into three sections, each with its own decor to provide a more intimate feel. The basic seat pitch was 34″, although some rows were at 33″ pitch.
Six galleys and two microwave ovens were fitted. In First, a special catering unit enabled unique dishes to be cooked to order, and in Economy, ovens could heat 288 meals simultaneously. The 747s also featured an inflight entertainment system, first introduced on the 707 fleet.
As well as the usual perfumes, tobacco and spirits for sale onboard, specially designed cuff-links, tie-tacks, ties and scarves were available from the cabin crew.
In 1969, a new range of cabin crew uniforms, designed by Britain’s top young couturier Clive Evans, had been unveiled to be introduced in May 1970, coinciding with the projected entry of the 747. For the first time in 25 years, radical new designs, new colours and new accessories were worn.
The primary colour was still navy blue, but tropical dresses in coral pink and turquoise blue were also. And for the first time female trousers could be worn, except when serving passengers on board the aircraft.
By May 1972, BOAC introduced 747 services from London to Chicago (daily) and Miami (thrice-weekly). They were also serving Bermuda, Montreal and Toronto, plus Boston and Detroit by the end of the year. A Manchester-Prestwick-New York service was also introduced for the summer 1972 schedule.
The last 747 delivered in BOAC colours was the thirteenth example G-AWNM in May 1973. The next machine G-AWNP arrived in the new British Airways ‘Negus’ livery to anticipate the forthcoming merger. This livery would be used between 1974 and 1984. By the merger with British European Airways (BEA) in 1974, 15 Jumbo Jets were in service.
The 747 had now stretched its wings East and by 1975, BOAC was operating the Jet on the ‘Kangaroo Route’ to five Australian cities: Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.
A total of 18 Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7 powered 747-136’s had been delivered by 1976 when the newly formed British Airways decided to place an order for the updated -236B variant. The first arrived on June 22, 1977 powered by the new Rolls Royce engines. The airline would operate 24 -200 series 747s, delivered between 1977 and 1988.
On December 4, 1984 the new and now iconic ‘Landor’ livery was unveiled to the world, as the carrier prepared itself for privatisation.
British Airways signed an order for 16 747-400s (plus options on a further 12) in 1986 and this order, valued at $4.3 billion, was the highest value aircraft order ever placed at the time. In 1990 and again in 1991 further orders and options were placed to bring the total up to 50 (88 including options). This indicated just how important the jet would become to the fleet entering the 21st century.
In 1987 BA took over independent carrier British Caledonian. It also inherited the carriers fleet of six 747s. However, these jets were powered by General Electric CF6 engines, increasing maintenance costs. The jets were subsequently sold, but in the process, BA became one of the few operators in the world to have flown all three available engine marquees.
The first -400 series arrived in June 1989. G-BNLA flew with the airline for almost 30 years until 2018, when it was scrapped in Victorville, California. By the end of 1992, no less than 23 were in service. In total, the airline would operate 57 -400 series models, making BA the largest operator of this variant and second only to Japan Airlines as the largest 747 operator in the world.
A New Look
In 1997 the airline had a bit of a mid-life crisis and changed its livery to the ‘World Images’ created by the London-based design agency Newell & Sorrell. Under the code name ‘Project Utopia’, the new look intended to ‘reflect the best of British values blended with the nation’s more modern attributes – its friendly, youthful, diverse and cosmopolitan outlook which is open to many cultures’. At the heart of the livery change were 50 images representing examples of ethnic art worldwide.
The total cost of the rebranding was estimated at £60 million, but the new look was a PR disaster. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher showed her displeasure at the designs by covering one of the new tailfins (Animals and Trees) on a model 747 with a handkerchief before declaring: “We fly the British flag, not these awful things.“
Half of its fleet had been repainted in the new look by April 1999 when the carrier received its final -400 series. After much debate, Chief Executive Robert Ayling announced that the airline would be dropping the ‘World Tails’ look favouring the more popular Union Flag/Chatham Dockyard scheme.
In the early days, BA named its 747s after British cities, the exceptions being the earlier -146s which were named after lakes and other inland waters. Initially, many of the ex-BOAC 747s were named after British personalities and explorers of the Tudor and Elizabethan periods but adopted city names after BA took over. However, these were changed again to release the names of larger cities for use on the new -400s.
A World Beater
The airline introduced the revolutionary fully-flat bed seat on its 747s in 1999, a time when British Airways was genuinely the leading global carrier.
The aircraft became one of the hardest working in the fleet, averaging around 4,600 hours utilisation per year. For years the Boeing 747 would ply British Airways’ global network, touching almost all of the long-haul destinations it served. It has also operated many Royal flights, including Prince Charles to Hong Kong, for the official handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. 747 charter flights for sports teams include “Sweet Chariot” for the England Rugby team to the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia, “Pride” for Team GB to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and “Air Force Scrum” for the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa in 2009.
More recently, one of BA’s 747s set a new aviation record. On the evening of February 8th, 2019, a new speed record was set for a transatlantic New York JFK – London flight, with an incredible flight time of 4 hours 56 minutes.
But as new, more fuel-efficient and cost-effective aircraft such as the Boeing 777 and 787 were delivered, the Jumbo Jets days were numbered. In March 2019, the airline signed an agreement with Boeing for up to 42 state-of-the-art 777X jets to replace the 747.
Speaking of the order IAG Chief Executive Willie Walsh said: “The new 777-9 is the world’s most fuel efficient longhaul aircraft and will bring many benefits to British Airways’ fleet. It’s the ideal replacement for the 747 and its size and range will be an excellent fit for the airline’s existing network. This aircraft will provide further cost efficiencies and environmental benefits with fuel cost per seat improvements of 30 per cent compared to the 747. It also provides an enhanced passenger experience.”
The first was mooted to arrive in 2022, with British Airways stating they would retire their last 747 a year later. In 2019, as part of the celebrations of a centenary of airline operations in the United Kingdom, the airline announced that three of its 747s would receive retro liveries. The first was G-BYGC which was repainted in the BOAC livery. Two more were also repainted with former ‘Landor’ (G-BNLY) and original ‘Negus’ (G-CIVB) livery.
And then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to cripple the aviation industry. Long time 747 operators KLM, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic all brought forward the retirement of their jumbo fleets, but BA remained silent.
That was until July 17 when the carrier announced that it was to permanently withdraw its 31 strong fleet. A spokesman for British Airways said: “It is unlikely our magnificent ‘queen of the skies’ will ever operate commercial services for British Airways again due to the downturn in travel caused by the Covid-19 global pandemic.”
Sadly the news had been expected, with a number of the aircraft seen being ferried to storage locations and the airline laying off thousands of staff as it returns with a network that is only a shadow of its former self. But expected or not, it remains a sad day for the aviation world.
Few aircraft spark affection like the ‘Jumbo Jet’, few aircraft warrant a name like the ‘Queen of the Skies’ and no aircraft could ever carry that title as well as the iconic Boeing 747. But for all her beauty, the plane is now sadly an inefficient beast, and in a world where never more so has cost-cutting been so important, we must face the sad future of British Airways without the pride of its fleet.
British Airways Flight 9 was BA’s scheduled service from London Heathrow to Auckland, New Zealand, via Bombay, Kuala Lumpur, Perth and Melbourne. On June 24, 1982 the Boeing 747-236 (G-BDXH) flew through a cloud of volcanic ash following the eruption of Mount Galunggung, approximately 110 miles south-east of Jakarta. The ash caused extensive damage to the aircraft and subsequently led to the failure of all four engines. The crew managed to glide the plane out of the ash and restart the engines. Despite the cockpit windows being impossible to see through due to scratches caused by the ash and debris, the pilots managed to make a safe emergency landing at Halim Perdanakusuma International Airport outside Jakarta. There were no fatalities or injuries to the 248 passengers and 15 crew members.
On August 2, 1990 British Airways Flight 149 bound for Kuala Lumpur landed at Kuwait International Airport, four hours after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Boeing 747-136 (G-AWND) was destroyed, and the 367 passengers and 18 crew were captured. Many of the hostages were subject to abuse and one passenger, a Kuwaiti national, was killed by Iraqi troops. It wasn’t until mid-December that the last of the remaining American and British hostages were released. Two of the aircraft’s landing gears were subsequently salvaged from the wreckage and are now displayed at BA’s HQ at Waterside. It remains the only hull-loss of a Boeing 747 in British Airways service.
British Airways Flight 2069 was a scheduled service from London Gatwick to Jomo Kenyatta Airport Nairobi, Kenya. On December 29, 2000 the Boeing 747-436 (G-BNLM) was at cruising altitude when a mentally unstable passenger Paul Mukonyi stormed the cockpit and attempted to hijack the aircraft. As the pilots struggled to remove the intruder, the plane stalled twice and banked to 94 degrees. Several passengers were injured by the violent manoeuvres, which briefly caused the aircraft to descend at 30,000 feet per minute. The man was finally restrained, the co-pilot regained control of the aircraft, and the flight landed safely in Nairobi.
On December 22, 2013 Boeing 747-436 G-BNLL was taxiing at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg when it missed a turn on a taxiway and struck a building. The right wing was severely damaged, but no injures were sustained amongst the crew or 189 passengers. Four ground crew members in the building received minor injuries. The aircraft was officially withdrawn from service in February 2014.
|G-AWNA||Boeing 747-136||Colliford Lake|
|G-AWNB||Boeing 747-136||Llangorse Lake|
|G-AWNC||Boeing 747-136||Lake Windemere|
|G-AWNE||Boeing 747-136||Derwent Water|
|G-AWNF||Boeing 747-136||Blagdon Lake|
|G-AWNG||Boeing 747-136||Rutland Water|
|G-AWNH||Boeing 747-136||Devoke Water|
|G-AWNJ||Boeing 747-136||Bassenthwaite Lake|
|G-AWNL||Boeing 747-136||Ennerdale Water|
|G-AWNO||Boeing 747-136||Grafham water|
|G-AWNP||Boeing 747-136||Hanningfield Water|
|G-BBPU||Boeing 747-136||Virginia Water|
|G-BDPV||Boeing 747-136||Blea Water|
|G-BDPZ||Boeing 747-148||Ex-British Caledonian|
|G-BDXA||Boeing 747-236B||City of Peterborough|
|G-BDXB||Boeing 747-236B||City of Liverpool|
|G-BDXC||Boeing 747-236B||City of Manchester|
|G-BDXD||Boeing 747-236B||City of Plymouth|
|G-BDXE||Boeing 747-236B||City of Glasgow|
|G-BDXF||Boeing 747-236B||City of York|
|G-BDXG||Boeing 747-236B||City of Oxford|
|G-BDXH||Boeing 747-236B||City of Elgin|
|G-BDXI||Boeing 747-236B||City of Cambridge|
|G-BDXJ||Boeing 747-236B||City of Birmingham|
|G-BDXK||Boeing 747-236B||City of Canterbury|
|G-BDXL||Boeing 747-236B||City of Winchester|
|G-BDXM||Boeing 747-236B||City of Derby|
|G-BDXN||Boeing 747-236B||City of Stoke on Trent|
|G-BDXO||Boeing 747-236B||City of Bath|
|G-BDXP||Boeing 747-236B||City of Salisbury|
|G-BJXN||Boeing 747-230B||Ex-British Caledonian|
|G-BVLF||Boeing 747-236B||City of Lancaster|
|G-CITB||Boeing 747-2D3B||Ex-British Caledonian|
|G-GLYN||Boeing 747-211B||City of Perth|
|G-HUGE||Boeing 747-2D3B||City of Exeter |
|G-NIGB||Boeing 747-211B||Ex-British Caledonian|
|G-BNLA||Boeing 747-436||City of London|
|G-BNLB||Boeing 747-436||City of Edinburgh|
|G-BNLC||Boeing 747-436||City of Cardiff|
|G-BNLD||Boeing 747-436||City of Belfast|
|G-BNLE||Boeing 747-436||City of Newcastle|
|G-BNLF||Boeing 747-436||City of Leeds|
|G-BNLG||Boeing 747-436||City of Southampton|
|G-BNLH||Boeing 747-436||City of Westminster|
|G-BNLI||Boeing 747-436||City of Sheffield Oneworld livery.|
|G-BNLJ||Boeing 747-436||City of Nottingham|
|G-BNLK||Boeing 747-436||City of Bristol|
|G-BNLL||Boeing 747-436||City of Leicester|
|G-BNLM||Boeing 747-436||City of Durham|
|G-BNLN||Boeing 747-436||City of Portsmouth|
|G-BNLO||Boeing 747-436||City of Dundee|
|G-BNLP||Boeing 747-436||City of Aberdeen|
|G-BNLR||Boeing 747-436||City of Hull|
|G-BNLS||Boeing 747-436||City of Chester|
|G-BNLT||Boeing 747-436||City of Lincoln|
|G-BNLU||Boeing 747-436||City of Bangor|
|G-BNLV||Boeing 747-436||City of Exeter|
|G-BNLW||Boeing 747-436||City of Norwich|
|G-BNLX||Boeing 747-436||City of Worcester|
|G-BNLY||Boeing 747-436||City of Swansea |
Landor Retro Livery
|G-BNLZ||Boeing 747-436||City of Perth |
British Asia Airways
|G-BYGC||Boeing 747-436||BOAC Retro Livery|
|G-CIVA||Boeing 747-436||City of St. Davids|
|G-CIVB||Boeing 747-436||City of Lichfield|
|G-CIVC||Boeing 747-436||City of St Andrews |
|G-CIVL||Boeing 747-436||Oneworld livery|
|G-CIVM||Boeing 747-436||Oneworld livery|
|G-CIVZ||Boeing 747-436||Oneworld livery|
N.B. The author does not own the rights to any of the images included in this article unless otherwise stated.
© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross