Boeing 747 takeoff
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When US airlines began flying jet airliners around 1960, they were greeted with mixed emotions. The British Comet was the first and grabbed headlines in the 1950s as it suffered a series of tragic, catastrophic in-flight breakups that caused considerable suspicion and reluctance about the public’s acceptance of “jetliners.” But the American jetliners did come of age in the ’60s and quickly took over.

When the next big innovation, the so-called “jumbo jets,” came on the scene in 1970, there was an eager, worldwide explosion of enthusiasm. Although I was too junior to even sneak a feel of a Boeing 747 yoke, I dreamed of the day I would take command of one. I had to wait 20 years.

Boeing 747 takeoff

The “seven four” was a new class of jet.

Pan Am flew its first 747 flight from New York to London in January 1970 and TWA first flew it on our “trans-con” (Los Angeles to New York) in February of the same year. TWA featured and promoted the heck out of the 747 until the L-1011 came along. Then we promoted the “wide-bodies,” which soon took charge of all our long-range and international flights.

Checking out on the seven four was not a radical transition as I had already been flying a wide-body (the L-1011) for four or five years. Nothing could take the place of flying the 1011 but the pay difference and better flight pairings compelled me to do so when senior enough.

In some ways it was a step backwards, as our seven fours were among the very first off the production line and their avionics and automatic flight systems were already antiquated. (Some of my other airline buddies called our dash 100s the “rope start seven four.”) It was Cat II capable, but Cat III was way out of its league.

And the cockpit: wouldn’t one expect big plane = big cockpit? Sorry, it was about the same as the 707, only longer to accommodate a crew rest bunk.

The more senior types had told me over the years that flying the seven four was just like flying a great big 707 and it was true. So, what’s it like to fly a great big 707? There are some interesting differences and they mostly had to do with the geometry of the airplane and its relation to Mother Earth. When we land a Piper Cub, we are only inches above and forward of the main landing gear. In a 747, the pilot is about 30 feet above the ground (the height of a three-story building) and over 20 feet forward of the nose landing gear. In a 90-degree turn, the cockpit will be nearly twenty feet beyond the pavement—out over the grass. We were not allowed to attempt more than a 90-degree turn on intersecting taxiways and runways. The diagram below shows what was needed for a 180.

Taxi dimensions for 747

One also had to make certain that the aircraft did not attempt taxiing on any airport surface not stressed for wide-body aircraft. There were taxiways, some runways, and ramp areas not stressed for it. Not a big problem at places like ORD and JFK, but one had to use caution at secondary airports and many of our alternate airports. The tower would know but sometimes you had to check to make sure.

The landing touchdown target for wide-bodies flying a 3-degree glideslope is the 1,500-foot mark (second three stripes on either side of the runway centerline). Now, when we land our light planes on the 500-foot mark, we expect that most of the airplane is at that point—not so with a wide-body. If the pilot used the 1000-foot mark in the 747, the main gear would clear the runway threshold by only 4 feet! Using the 1500-foot mark, the main gear would clear the threshold by 72 feet and if one used the 500-foot aiming point it would be a case of first-class cabin arriving well before economy class.

Runway diagram

It was surprisingly easy to make consistently good landings. The pilot not flying would call out 50 feet on the radio altimeter, at which point the flare was initiated, then 40, 30, 20 and 10. The airplane was so heavy that it did not bounce easily, and the main landing gear was so beefy it could usually absorb a hard landing without a crunch. We used to say it had a “screw-up factor” of about ten; of course every now and then, someone used it all…

When taxiing, the pilot was so far away from fixed ground references, it was easy to get going way too fast. To a newbie, what looked about right might turn out to be 40 or 50 mph (not kidding) and there was more than one 747 put in the mud by attempting a turn at too high a speed. The fix was to select ground speed on one of the Inertial Navigation System (INS) and using it to check the speed when taxiing. Thirty mph was TWA’s max.

My first (really) good look at the airplane was during training in New York, on our walk-around in our JFK Hangar 12. A seven four was in for heavy maintenance so it was well torn apart and we could see just about everything. They were cleaning the center (fuselage) fuel tank, which had a capacity of 86,000 pounds in the dash 100 (over 12,800 gallons), and it was big enough to sleep six comfortably if it were a cabin in the woods.

The cargo holds were big enough for several of those large igloos used. Our instructor had us sit in the cockpit while he walked ahead of the plane and told us to signal when we first saw him. Then come down and have a look. I was amazed to see that he was about 100 ft. in front of the cockpit!

I’m not sure what our longest flight was in the 747, but it was probably JFK – TLV, at 5677 statute miles. It was the flight I flew the most in my last couple of years and it was also my final flight. It was scheduled to leave JFK at 6 pm local and arrive TLV at 2:20pm local the following day. Then we’d have a nice long layover and leave TLV 2:15am local and arrive JFK at 11:15am. Scheduled block time was 22:05 and trip credit was 24 hrs. We were flying 75 hr. months, so 75/24 = only about three hours short of a full month. Work nine days! A pretty good month, I’d say.

And a little secret: it was almost more fun to taxi it than to fly it.

Quick facts about the 747-100:

  • Typical cruise speed at 35,000 ft.— Mach 0.84 or 555 mph
  • Maximum taxi weight (MTW)—738,000 lbs
  • Maximum takeoff weight (MTOW)—735,000 lbs
  • Maximum fuel capacity—48,445 US gal
Jeff Hill
25 replies
  1. Dale C Hill
    Dale C Hill says:

    Jeff, thanks for an intersting view of flying the 747. My uncle was a Boeing employee and I NEARLY got to fly a brand new one with the chief pilot, but had a port call to make on my way to Vietnam, so I missed that opportunity. My parents were on that initial Pan Am 747 flight NY to London. They said the cabin lights failed at some point causiing my Mom a great deal of consternation, i.e. “What’s next?’. My Mom had crossed the Atlantic numerous times via ship (HMS Queen Mary, SS United States, etc.) and preferred that mode of travel over flying but she saw her oldest (my brother) and middle (me) sons become USMC (him) and USAF (me) pilots.

  2. TomC
    TomC says:

    Great article. My Dad worked for TWA from 59 to 82, but he wasn’t a pilot. But the benefits were great with Space A travel. As kids my parents would drop us off with the sitter, our neighbor, and go for dinner. LA for Japanese, Chicago for steak, New Orleans for seafood.
    We traveled a lot, and flew a 747 from JFK to Paris. Dad knew the crew, and got us seated at the absolute pointy end, my sister and I right up front. To this day I travel frequently and still favor the Queen, and for any long haul travel, if there’s a 747 flying that route, I try to be on it. Getting harder now, but I still need an upper deck seat on a -8.

  3. Frank Merrill
    Frank Merrill says:

    I lived in Moses Lake, Washington in 1969, and loved to watch the Japan Airlines planes flying the pattern doing touch and goes, but the highlight was seeing the very first seven four, covered with airline emblems, flying the pattern as they worked out the flight and taxi characteristics.

  4. Drew Kemp
    Drew Kemp says:

    Great article, Jeff! I was always fascinated by the 747. At age 16, when I was a student pilot, my family and I flew on United Airlines inaugural 747 Flight from Honolulu to San Francisco. I was allowed a cockpit visit prior to departure, and like you, I was surprised how small it was. On a Paris/SFO hop on Air France, the Captain invited me up to the cockpit while we were over the Canadian Arctic. I sat in the jump seat for a couple hours, shooting the breeze with the boys.
    The Queen never disappointed. Even on rough flights, she flew with a certain stateliness. I loved being able to sit up front in the pointy end and have an almost straight forward view. I also loved having an entire center row to myself on long overnight flights.
    Over my life, I’ve flown on 747’s on many airlines: United, Pan Am, TWA, Northwest Orient, Air France, KLM, Virgin Atlantic, Korean, Asiana, and Cathay Pacific.

    You’re a lucky guy! What a wonderful office!

    Cheers, Drew Kemp

  5. Raymond N.
    Raymond N. says:

    Nice piece of writing, Jeff. I flew from LAX to Heathrow on a Pan Am 747 in 1970 on my way to spend my sophomore year of high school in Switzerland. During the flight I wandered upstairs to the first class lounge, where the Captain was having a cup of coffee while chatting with the passengers. Returning to my seat, I told my mother, “I think I know what I want to do.” Fast forward 25 years and I was a first officer on the 747 “classic” with Northwest Airlines, and many years later did some time as a 747-400 captain just before Delta finally retired the fleet. It truly was an amazing airplane, and a testament to the engineering quality of Boeing, at least before the bean counters trashed the company. I am, however, possibly the only 747 pilot you will ever meet who did not particularly enjoy flying the “Queen of the Skys.” Despite its undeniable greatness, to me it was “like flying a building!”

  6. John Scherer
    John Scherer says:

    Hi Jeff, great article. I’m a native of Waukesha and grew up there. I flew C-5’s in the USAF for three different tours. We could do a 180 degree turn on a a150 foot wide runway minimum. In the right seat, you would put the runway edge tangent to the curve of the fuselage. That would put the right aft truck 3 feet from the runway edge. Then 60 nosewheel steering (the max) and a touch of outboard thrust and inboard brake. We had to manually caster the aft trucks during the turn. Could be tricky with a far aft CG, as the nosewheel steering would be a bit light. We taxied at 25 knots, but you could get going pretty fast if you didn’t watch the INS ground speed!! The C-5 landed like a Cessna 150. It came down the glide path at about 3 to 5 degrees noseup on the attitude indicator, depending on weight. You could walk the throttles to idle and grease it on. Hardest thing for new pilots was landing on the centerline with no crab.

  7. Paul Havis
    Paul Havis says:

    Hey Jeff, excellent article; how I miss that aircraft. I became the youngest 747 Captain in the world (31) in 1983 at People Express in Newark Nj. Although I had been a captain with them on the 727 and 737 for two years prior to that (and flown as 727 F/O for three “overseas airlines” before that) NOTHING really prepared me for how HUGE it was. People Express grew fast, too fast, and in the beginning NONE OF US in the cockpit had over 100 flying hours in the 747 itself… such was the reality of getting hired and being very senior at a new airline. I LUGGED my video camera (camera and VHS recording deck) on many of my flights and produced a VHS called “A 747 PILOTS EYE VIEW” which was sold in SPORTYS, and was the FIRST of its kind Airline Cockpit Video that inspired the many airline YouTube channels of today. Somebody loaded my VHS to YouTube but it’s boring and crude compared to todays videos. I’ve promised to edit the original 60 minutes down to 10 minutes and publish it to YouTube as its 40 year anniversary nears. As strange as it may seem, the video had a BIG fan club, and I corresponded by SNAIL MAIL letter with each and every person and potential pilot who wrote me, giving ramp tours to those in the NYC area. Many have kept in touch through the years, and I count at least 20 that I know of that became airline pilots and credit my video with it, because it was a MYSTERY before that exactly what went on behind that cockpit door! So PEX merged with CAL, and CAL with UAL. My last twenty years were as a 777 Captain flying super long-hauls over the North Pole… LOVED it… but once upon a time long ago, in an alternate universe, I was lucky enough to fly a 747. Great airplane. PH

    • Raymond N
      Raymond N says:

      Hi Paul,
      Way back in about 1986 I was a 727 F/O with Northwest. One day we had a new-hire second officer, and as was always the case, we asked what his last job was. “747 captain at People Express,” was the reply, just like you. So the next thing we had to ask was, “Okay, in the interview, what did you tell them when they asked how you would feel going from 747 captain to 727 wrench?” “I told them,” he said, “that I would tear those pages out of my logbook and staple them in the back where they belonged.” Best answer ever!

    • Jim
      Jim says:

      Hey Paul as a kid one of my favorite movies ever was How they fly the Concorde and Airport 1975. Still have my copy on VHS from when it first came out. Needless to say I became a pilot my self because of inspiration that you gave have us. Wanted to say thank you. And save a window seat for me.

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      Hi Paul – I was obsessed with your videos and emailing / messaging you on AOL back in the late 90s! You even have me a shout out once on Boston Center when you were arriving back from FCO to EWR on the DC-10! I never got past my PPL due to mental health issues but let me tell you, I am still a huge aviation buff and was inspired by those early years.

  8. John Marshall
    John Marshall says:

    I flew the 747 first as a copilot in the mid ’70s, then as captain on the 707 and L1011. By the tike I checked out as captain on the Queen, I was pretty familiar with Boeing airplanes. One of the major things I learned early on (in addition to the foibles noted by previous correspondents) was how to manage the mass. At approach speeds, with all the stuff hanging out, you definitely didn’t want to let the airplane get slow. If the speed drifted back and the nose started to rise, it took an incredible amount of power to overcome the huge mass and get her to accelerate. But with over 10,000 hours in the left seat, I never ceased to marvel at that wonderful airplane.

  9. Alan Murgatroyd
    Alan Murgatroyd says:

    Quote .. “One also had to make certain that the aircraft did not attempt taxiing on any airport surface not stressed for wide-body aircraft. ” Although flying 747-200’s and 300’s for 18 years, I had previously gained my command on the 707. Taxying a 707 out for JFK Rwy 31L one night we were vectored via runway 22 and after a fairly lengthy stop the handling co-pilot applied power to keep up with the preceeding aircraft, but complained that our aircraft wasn’t moving. Release the brakes, I said. They are off he replied. Let me have a go I said and applied a lot of power still with no effect. The tower were by now getting upset at our holding up following traffic, and the Flt. Eng. offered to climb out via our Lower 41 access and see if there was indeed a brake problem. He returned and advised that the brakes were fully released, but we appeared to have sunk into the runway, creating a hole, the edge of which was now acting as a chock in front of the left hand wheel assembly. By now the tower was getting quite irate, and said that if we had a problem we should at least clear the flow of traffic making its way for take off. I replied that we would if we could but we were in a hole in the runway and couldn’t move. There’s no hole in our Real Estate, replied the tower. There is now, I said, and we’re in it. Long story, involving our Company engineers, but subsequently I was shown a report that said that ‘The Captain had taxied off the side of the runway’, blocking the taxy route. No comment !

  10. Capt. "Johnny" Sadiq retd
    Capt. "Johnny" Sadiq retd says:

    Jeff’s career almost parallel’s mine in that I flew a 3 engine airliner (DC-10 as captain) before coming on the B747 -200. I flew it as captain for 7500 hours–included in my 19600 hours total on DC-3, F27, L1049, Trident, B 707/720, DC-10, and (finally) B747. Giong from the DC 10 to 747-200 was like a step back in automation and avionics, but the 747 was my favorite. When one of my trainees on the 747 asked me how I would compoare them, I told him that the DC-10 was a Ferrari and the 747, a Rolls Royce. or another way: the DC 10 was an exciting mistress and the 747, a beautiful , reliable, wife. You could love both of them! I retired in 1998.

  11. Mac McLauchlan
    Mac McLauchlan says:

    After years flying for BA Boeing 737-236 B757/767-236 both as line Captain & TRI/TRE was selected for Training Captain on our new B747-436. One small problem, we didn’t have any, stillawaiting delivery from strike hit Boeing @ Everett. So converted to the classic 747-136 (P&W) & -236 (RR } My first experience flying with Flight Engineers, one of whom saved me one snowy night at JFK. The Port of New York stalwarts swept the runways but took less care of the taxi ways. A lightly loaded -136 on a long left turn started to go to the right, bad news. The 747 body gear steering moved the main 16 wheels opposite to the nose gear controlled by the tiller in my sticky hand. Not a good sensation on an icy slippery night. My F/E then suggested Stop-Centre the tiller-switch off Body gear stern, switch just above me on the overhead panel. This advice was followed to the letter and we continued safely & slowly on our way until reaching the entrance to the BA terminal area. This had not been cleared and was snowbound. Our brave ground staff stood in a frozen line holding torches indicating the way to my gate. OK by me, but big snowbank between P of NY taxiway and BA gate, however was marked by a set of tracks made by an airplane ahead of us. So adding a bit of P&W thrust taxied thru the bank and made it to the gate. Only to discover later, much later, in our hotel bar from their captain that the preceding traffic was not a 747 but a DC10 somewhat smaller and not as wide track as my 747. We survived once again unscathed. The -400 was much better in all respects.

    • Chuck Stone
      Chuck Stone says:

      Michael, I laughed when I read your comment about what your favorite airplane was.
      I speak to middle school kids about aviation careers. One day after telling my story about flying the L-1011 and other airliners, one young girl asked Captain Stone what was your favorite airplane. I said it was the Piper J3 Cub!
      Semper fi

  12. Satender Singh Rawat
    Satender Singh Rawat says:

    C/O Dhan Singh, House No-47 , Krishna Kunj, Chhapraula, Gautam Buddha Nagar, Uttar Pradesh – 201009:- 7417852042,9818828530,7351315519,8052564930,7827123544,9718441275,9250810552,8448351013,9506174705

  13. Judson Brandt
    Judson Brandt says:

    My Grandfather, Jay Brandt, flew Connie’s for TWA. He never flew the 74. I was lucky enough to fly the 747-400 and the new -8F at Atlas, before the ACMI schedule and management drove me back to the 135 realm. Great story! Thanks for sharing.

  14. Gerald JerryCollier
    Gerald JerryCollier says:

    Thanks for a wonderful article. 1959 was the start of my non commercial flying and I remember the prop and turbo prop airplanes at Port Columbus Ohio where I sololed and the congratulations from a airliner crew member on the tower frequency.
    I watched the progression of airliners you write about from my office window overlooking LAX as an aerospace engineer and flew many of them as a passenger. My last ride in a 747 was from Heathrow to LAX in Summer 2013 not long thereafter airlines removed the 747 from service.

  15. George Johnson
    George Johnson says:

    Hi Jeff,
    We had similar careers, you at TWA and I at United.
    I instructed at a flight school owned by Norm Hortman, who was one of the first to fly the big bird for TWA. Have many friends from TWA. I was lucky to fly the classic and the 400.

  16. William Hunt
    William Hunt says:

    I may very well have been one of your passengers. I flew from JFK to Tel Aviv on TWA several times over the years. Seems like the westbound leg sometimes had to stop in Shannon sometimes.

    Many thanks!!!


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