Where have all the jumbo jets gone?

AVIATION: The long good-bye of the Jumbos

AVIATION: The long good-bye of the Jumbos

The aircraft manufacturer Boeing sold the first jumbo jets 50 years ago. This marked the beginning of the era of the wide-bodied aircraft: long-distance air travel was no longer just a luxury for the rich and beautiful, it was also affordable for ordinary people. The Boeing 747 is still flying today - but its end is looming.

Everyone knows this hump. Even people who are not at all interested in aviation can easily distinguish the jumbo jet from all other aircraft. Its silhouette - the imposing bow with upper deck, which flows further back into the normal tubular shape - is unique. The jumbo, the Boeing 747, has shaped air traffic and its public perception in such a way that airports can hardly be imagined without it.

"If you build it I'll buy it"
For almost 40 years, the 747 was the largest passenger aircraft in the world. It offers space for more than 600 passengers. It was not until 2007 that the two-story Airbus A380 overtook it. It is approved for the transport of over 800 passengers.

The idea of ​​the completely two-story passenger jet is not as modern as it may appear today thanks to the A380. When developing the 747 in the 1960s, Boeing engineers considered such a design. The company had lost the competition to build a transport aircraft for the US military to competitor Lockheed. But now there was an opportunity to build on these studies: Pan American Airways, the market leader in long-haul flights, wanted larger aircraft to keep pace with rising demand. Pan-Am founder Juan Trippe asked Boeing boss Bill Allen to design an airliner for at least 350 passengers - a machine that would be more than twice the size of all jet aircraft at the time.
The challenge was enormous. Bill Allen accepted it: "If you buy the plane, I'll build it," he said. Juan Trippe replied, "If you build it, I'll buy it."

Trippe was impressed by the continuous two-story design, which basically consisted of two stacked aircraft fuselages. However, this posed problems for the developers. For example, the rapid evacuation of the upper deck in an emergency seemed almost impossible. And 747 chief engineer Joe Sutter didn't like the double-decker anyway - he called the clumsy-looking models "turkeys". Instead of building upwards, he wanted to widen the hull massively so that more seats could fit next to each other, with two parallel aisles running through it. The basic form of the wide-body jet was born.

Stress in the world's largest factory
But how did the 747 get its famous hump? The aircraft should also make a quantum leap in freight transport, because Boeing anticipated that supersonic aircraft would soon take over the passenger business. So that the 747 freight container could swallow as easily as possible, Joe Sutter gave it a hinged nose. That in turn meant that the cockpit moved upwards - even with the passenger variant. So it made sense to add a short upper deck behind it. Sutter first thought of using the second floor as a kind of rest room and lumber room for the crews. Juan Trippe waved off: "The upper deck belongs to the passengers."

In April 1966, Trippe signed a contract for 25 units of the Boeing 747. The price seemed astronomical at the time: the aircraft cost a total of 525 million dollars. The dimensions of the 747 were so large in every respect that the press called it "Jumbo" - based on the name of a famous circus elephant. At Boeing it was thought to be moderately funny.

But now there was no turning back. In order to be able to build the air giants with a span of 60 meters and a length of 70 meters, the company needed more space. Boeing built the world's largest factory in Everett near Seattle. As soon as the halls were up, production of the 747 started - although countless technical problems were still unsolved. When the Jumbo rolled out of the hangar for the first time in September 1968 and was shown to the astonished world, it still had no functioning engines - and the pressure rose. In the meantime, another 25 airlines had ordered the 747. At the same time, many experts did not believe that the jumbo would ever fly. Boeing put its existence at risk with the project.

On February 9, 1969, the critics fell silent. The Boeing 747 flew for the first time - and it flew well. Although the teething troubles continued, the spell was broken: the Jumbo was preparing to revolutionize aviation. Wherever he appeared, enthusiastic spectators stood in line. The "Queen of the Skies" landed in Zurich for the first time on February 8, 1970; it was a Trans World Airlines (TWA) machine. The NZZ reported that over ten thousand visitors attended the spectacle. The authorities immediately attacked the newcomer with noise measuring devices. It turned out, however, that the Jumbo was not a loud aircraft by the standards of the time.

A flood of passengers
Zurich Airport was being expanded in those months to be ready for the large-capacity aircraft. It was high time: In 1970 Boeing delivered 92 jumbos - that is a record for the 747 to this day.
Swissair was also waiting for its first two jumbos; the decision to buy had already been made in 1967. The first example, a 747-257B with the registration HB-IGA and the name "Genève", landed on February 27, 1971 in Kloten. On March 20, she started regular service. A week later the second 747 arrived, the HB-IGB "Zurich". Initially, New York was the only destination for the Swissair Jumbos - and their crews had to put up with well-intentioned jokes from colleagues every now and then: "Where do you go?"

Initially, the airlines could hardly cope with the number of passengers on the 747. In a BBC documentary, former Pan-Am flight attendants recalled chaotic conditions in on-board service: "It was a nightmare. We didn't know where to start." However, Swissair had prepared itself carefully: a concept applied to the 747 that allocated a certain number of passengers to each crew member in the cabin. The check-in and boarding procedures at airports around the world also had to be revised.

The dark side of wide-body jets came to light in accidents. The number of victims could now be significantly higher than before. In 1977, for example, two jumbo jets collided on Tenerife, killing 583 people.

With the 747, long-haul flights became affordable even for ordinary people. At the same time, the first jumbos still had the glamor of early aviation. The first-class passengers reached the cocktail lounge on the upper deck via a spiral staircase. Swissair literally spread a scent of home up there - raclette was served at times. But the lounge had no chance against the forces of the market. In the early 1980s, Swissair bought five Jumbos of the new 747-357 version. The upper deck was now longer, and in future passengers would sit here in normal rows of chairs - sometimes in business class, sometimes in economy class.

"It could be controlled wonderfully with two fingers"
Peter Schauli from Münchwilen was a Swissair co-pilot on the Douglas DC-9 short-haul aircraft when he decided: "I want to fly jumbo." After eight years, his dream came true: he was allowed to switch to the 747-357. "The jump from the DC-9 to the Jumbo was big," says Schauli. It took him quite a while to get used to the dimensions of the plane. "Suddenly you were sitting much higher above the ground. That played an important role, especially when landing." At the same time, the flight simulators were not as realistic then as they are today. "It wasn't until my flight training in Shannon in Ireland that I was able to really develop a feeling for the 747," says Schauli. And this feeling was fabulous: "The Jumbo had great flight characteristics and could be controlled wonderfully by hand - with two fingers."

In addition to the pilots, a flight engineer was part of the cockpit crew on the jumbos. He was a specialist in all aspects of on-board technology and, for example, monitored the engines. "The three of me really appreciated this work," says Caro Stemmler from Schaffhausen, also a former jumbo captain of Swissair. "The flight engineer took a lot of work off our pilots." One of these flight engineers was Viktor Huber from Wiler. He also enjoyed working on the 747 - although it was slowly but surely one of the older aircraft in the 1990s. "The Jumbo, for example, had a very primitive fuel system," says Huber. "When refueling you had to be careful not to overflow." The navigation system and the autopilot were also less sophisticated compared to other types of aircraft. For many passengers, however, the 747 had a special status. "You enjoyed the Jumbo." Huber found it particularly nice when he was able to repair something in the cabin during the flight - and sometimes even received spontaneous applause for it.

A captain with ticket tongs
Whenever possible, Caro Stemmler stood at the aircraft door while the many jumbo passengers got on and off. "I liked being in contact with people," he says. He even had a pair of ticket pliers for children, which he used to snap boarding passes. It was also important to him that the jumbo crew - some of them over twelve - harmonized well. "During the briefing before the flight, for example, it wasn't decisive what I told you in detail - it was rather that the crew felt what kind of person their captain was. It was about everyone pulling in the same direction." But the working atmosphere at Swissair was generally very good. "It seldom happened that I had to speak a word of power as captain."

On his third last flight, Caro Stemmler was accompanied by a filmmaker with his camera. At first, the film was only intended as a private retirement gift. But then in 2002 it was shown on the big screen at the "Remember Swissair" exhibition in the State Museum - and is now available for posterity on the YouTube internet platform. It shows that the Swissair jumbos are still a long way from being forgotten: within three years the film has been viewed over 180,000 times.

Now come the two-pronged ones
The world's best-selling jumbo version is the 747-400. It flew for the first time in 1988. In the cockpit, screens replaced the round instruments, and the flight engineer’s workstation behind the two pilots was eliminated. This jumbo generation was no longer used at Swissair; the airline replaced its 747 with the Airbus A330 and A340.

Today Boeing is on the market with a radically revised version of the Jumbo. The 747-8 has a newly developed wing and should be able to compete with the Airbus A380 in terms of efficiency. One thing is certain: the air is getting thinner for the Jumbo, but also for the A380, there is a lack of orders. Gone are the days when three or four engines were a necessity over long distances. The twin-engine jets are cheaper and their range is increasing. You can also fly to destinations where the number of passengers is insufficient for a 747 or an A380. And so Boeing announced in July that it was "conceivable that we could decide to end production of the 747".

The best customer of the new jumbo passenger so far is Lufthansa, which also operates the A380. The 747 beats its competition in at least one point: At the presentation of the aircraft in 2012, the then Lufthansa boss Christoph Franz said: "The Boeing 747-8 clearly looks better than the Airbus A380." Later he even said: "This aircraft is so good that it will be a late bloomer on the market." This currently seems unlikely. But for now the jumbos will continue to fly - by the hundreds, around the globe. Even at 50 years of age.