I fell in love with the mighty 747 the very first time I flew in her in 1970 from New York to London. The spaciousness, comfort, and elegance of this great bird entranced me after having become used to the workmanlike Boeing 707 and DC-8s, both fine aircraft but ones with no romance. Compared to them, the 747 seemed like a flying palace.
But my biggest thrill was when the 747 set down at London Heathrow. It landed with the delicacy and poise of an elephant – gingerly feeling its way down to a gentle halt. I was amazed that anything so huge and weighty could land so gracefully.
The ‘47’ was indeed an ocean liner of the sky. Its upper deck housed premium seats. There was actually a first class cocktail lounge where passengers could congregate before crass commercial interests caused it to be removed in favor of more seats.
Though exciting, I had seen such a marvel once before: as a child, I flew in 1949 on a Boeing Stratocruiser from New York to Paris.
The Stratocruiser was a civilianized version of the famed WWII B-29 heavy bomber. It was lumbering – as I recall 16 hours to Paris – but it had a cocktail lounge with a piano player in its glassed-in the nose. I vividly recall watching the Atlantic Ocean pass beneath us. My father, Henry Margolis, got me one of the aircraft’s train-like sleeper bunks. I still remember my anguish at not being able to sleep in the bunk that cost $1,000 in 1947 dollars.
Back to the 747. It civilized air travel and made flying into an adventure. Those were still the days when passengers dressed up to fly, with suits and ties. Stewardesses were young and pretty and the food not bad. The 334,400 kg 747 would slice through the rough air and provided a sense of safety and tranquility.
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Equally important, the big bird had four engines. In earlier versions, the ‘47’ carried a flight engineer to monitor systems. Automation gradually eliminated the engineer from the cockpit. I have always protested this false economy. The engineer may not be essential for normal flight operation, but when something goes terribly wrong, a flight engineer can be a godsend.
Today, 747’s are being scrapped, or converted to cargo, because their four engines burn too much fuel. Twin-engine aircraft, like the fine Boeing 777 and Airbus A330 series, operate at lower cost. The four-engined Airbus A340, another excellent aircraft, is also meeting the same fate. The future of Boeing’s new lightweight 787 is so far uncertain. Its composite laminated skin could offer serious future problems.
Modern airline’s motto is cram as many passengers into their planes, skimp on maintenance, and treat passengers like convicts in maximum security prisons.
In fact, modern air travel recalls Dr. Johnson’s wonderful quip in the 18th century about travel by sailing ship: “is being in jail, with the chance of being drowned.”
Of course, passengers who expect to fly long distances for the equivalent of bus fares get what they deserve. The advent of low-cost air travel has made regular fliers miserable and causes increasing air pollution. Twin engine aircraft have mostly driven off safer four-engine aircraft from routes across the Atlantic and Pacific.
Aristocrats of the skies, like the 747, the lovely French Caravelle, the beautiful Lockheed Constellation, and the 990 km an hour Convair 990, could not compete. The new, jumbo Airbus A380 appears fated for the same unhappy end. I flew one of these big boys from Singapore to London two years ago. In a splurge-worthy of my generous father, I took a private cabin with a full bed. But again, I couldn’t sleep!
While on the subject of aircraft, one must give a 21-gun salute to Switzerland and its intrepid aviators, Bernard Piccard and Andre Borschberg. They recently completed the first round the globe flight of their entirely sun-powered Solar Impulse experimental aircraft, a feat that required great courage, high piloting skills and endurance worthy of a Charles Lindbergh.
At least Russia plans to buy the new 747-8 cargo version. The Ruskis prize robust, reliable aircraft, something our penny-pinching airline bean counters clearly do not.