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All new Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental completes maiden flight


March 22, 2011

The 747-8 Intercontinental began its flight test program on March 20, 2011 (Photo: Boeing)

The 747-8 Intercontinental began its flight test program on March 20, 2011 (Photo: Boeing)

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Boeing's 747 is now 42 years old, but only in name and shape. The aircraft that flew for the first time this month bears more in common with the high-tech 787 Dreamliner than its own venerable forebears.

The aircraft with one of the world's most recognizable silhouettes turned 40 a couple of years ago. That's getting long in the tooth even in an industry whose products use the grandpa's axe principle like no other – as in, it's had six new heads and four new handles, but grandpa still loves that axe.

But is Boeing's 747 looking towards the pasture? Not on Boeing's life. The company just this week announced the successful maiden flight of the 747-8 Intercontinental, the passenger version of a plane that takes the grandpa's axe principle to new extremes. (The first 747-8 freighters rolled out of the Everett, Washington factory in November 2009.) Over more than three decades, the 747 evolved from the original 100 series through 200, 300 and 400 series, integrating technological upgrades and spawning new variants along the way. NASA even uses one, the SR, to piggyback space shuttles into the air.

But come the 747-8, almost all that's left of 747s past is that beautiful silhouette. The new craft bears much more in common with the 787 Dreamliner, the carbon-fiber bodied technological Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental that's had so much trouble getting commercially airborne in recent years.

The big one is having much less difficulty. On March 20, the first Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental airborne took off from Paine Field in Everett for basic handling and performance testing, spending four hours and 25 minutes in the air before landing at Boeing Field in Seattle. Up there, it reached a cruising altitude of 19,000 feet (5,791m) at speeds of up to 250 knots (463km/h) – rather cautious all round for a craft capable of Mach 0.855 (913km/h) at its typical cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.

Dimensional differences alongside its most recent forebear, the 400ER, reveal just how divorced the 747-8 is from the past. It's 6m longer, 4m bigger in the wingspan and 5cm lower at the tip of its tail. The GEnx turbofans generate 2-3000 pounds more thrust each than the Pratt & Whitney and GE engines they replace, and one of the more immediately visible differences is that they're notably larger at the intake end.

Those engines, which it shares with the 787, combine with radical new upswept wing design to cut seat-mile costs by a claimed 12 per cent from the 747-400. (Seat-mile cost – the measure of success in putting bums on seats and flying them where they want at the lowest cost per kilometer – is what it's all about in the savagely competitive commercial airline industry. Competition in the industry rose dramatically when the 747 first arrived and flooded the world market with seats. No facet of the travel industry has played so important a role in opening up the world to ordinary people.)

Boeing also says it's 16 percent more fuel efficient, emitting 16 percent less carbon per passenger and making a 30 percent less noise. It will carry 51 more passengers and 26 percent more cargo (by volume) than the 400.

The 747-8 also shares the 787's flight deck, with near-identical cockpits helping minimize production and pilot training costs.

It's not a little ironic that much of the impetus to develop and make the plane came from none other than arch rival Airbus. It began in the early-mid 2000s, with the European maker approaching GE to modify its state-of-the-art GEnx engine for its A350 – the aircraft it was working on as a head-to-head competitor for the Dreamliner. Boeing recognized it saw it would be the perfect to combine with the technologies on which it was working for the 787 to revitalize the 747. Engines and wings consume a fair chunk of the billions its normally costs for clean-sheet development, and here was Boeing with much of those costs already covered.

And where does the 747-8 stand in the famed rivalry between Boeing and Airbus? Boeing has said it's not pitching its new craft as a direct competitor to Airbus's A380, but as complementary to it. It may have a point – the A380 remains substantially larger, with a three-class capacity of 525 passengers (and up to 853 single-class) against the Boeing's 467 (581 single-class).

Airbus thinks different. When Air China announced recently that it was going with Boeing in awarding its US$1.54bn five-plane supply contract, commercial director John Leahy told The Financial Times: "That was very disappointing. We did think we had a better offer with the A380 at that particular juncture. You win some, you lose some."

Oh, and by the way, that signature front-end hump wasn't put there to give it that graceful silhouette. It was actually the basis of a contingency plan – so worried was Boeing about failure as it developed the craft in the 1960s that it thought it a good idea to develop it without compromise as a freighter, in case no one wanted a passenger craft that big. The extra storey up front allowed the plane's architects to raise the flight deck, allowing the nose to open up the full width and height of the cargo space behind it.


Airplanes are designed around aerodynamic engineering principles and efficiency, not fashionable styling- if it worked 4 or 5 or more decades ago, it still works, and a clean, efficient design makes an aircraft very attractive, no matter how old.

Car companies, on the other hand, use annual styling changes, not efficiency or engineering principles, to enhance sales. If efficiency and cost-effective transportation motivated automobile sales, there would be far less styling changes, and far fewer consumers would buy SUVs and other light trucks.

William Lanteigne

I think the market for these type of planes will become much smaller in the coming decades due to train travel.

Back in 1994 statistically the most common way to cross the English channel was to fly. It took the channel tunnel train service literally months to become the most common way to cross the channel. Nowadays the Eurostar service tranports more people across the channel than every airline in the world combined.

It\'s not surprising really. No having to mess around with security checks or losing baggage. You get on and you get off. You also get a lot more room and a more pleasant experience overall at a fraction of the price of flying in a class that gives you comparable sitting room.

I lived in Asia for a while as well and spent a lot of time in South Korea, China and Japan. In those countries the only time people get on a plane is when they are travelling far away. Otherwise 99% of the journeys take place on train.

In 2 or 3 decades a lot of Eurasia will have high speed railway and when that happens I suspect most inter-European and inter-Asian and eventually inter-Eurasian travel will be on trains with people only opting for planes when travelling to continents not accessible by land. That is where the long haul planes with the space to transport a large amount of passengers will win out.

The truth is that at least in Asia and Europe train travel has been making strides and is only going to become more common. My personal feelings towards the matter are that I would always use train given the option and use planes only when necessary.


The 747 has been one of the best aircraft ever build, stable and durable and it\'s 40 year history is a testament to that, upgrades are an always, better avionics and pilot control systems, but why would anyone at Boeing want to radically change an otherwise very good aircraft? and obviously they didn\'t, they just tweaked and peaked a very good platform to make it even better. Another 40 years success to Boeing

Look at the DC-3, 400 still in operation in 98\' another good aircraft, that\'s over 50 years since production stopped, amazing

Facebook User

I\'m expecting that eventually the hump will be extended all the way to the rear of the aircraft. Seems like the logical way to increase capacity

Facebook User

A great plane gets better... the 747 truly revolutionized intercontinental travel. This newer plane\'s fuel efficiency should help hold prices, even with ballooning fuel prices...


Melvis NotElvis

Duct fan above wing, scaly skin mimicking shark, more backward-pointing wings?

Well I expected more for better fuel efficiency in 2011, the new decade, just like how computer technologies have evolved.

Akemai Olivia

@Bard - Trains? Seriously? Maybe in the rest of the world, but in the country that consumes 80% of the worlds resources, the United States, trains are less than a passing fancy! We have no trans continental trains in this country! NONE! And if you decide to take the Accella train between DC and NY, the train that boasts the fastest speed of any train in the USA, then you\'ll have a long trip because that train is only able to reach speeds of 90mph due to the track and the fact that it needs to stop every 20 minutes to take on and drop off passengers! No, trains will never become more than a romantic dream in the USA! Only as a commuter system, and a bad one at that! As for the 747, my dad worked for Pan-Am back in the day...the first airline to purchase the 747. I remember standing in a completly empty 747 as a child and remarking at how huge it is inside and how high off the ground we were even while standing still! I have memories of having the whole upper deck to ourselves on flights to europe and the conversion of the upper deck into a dining room with cloth tablecloths, real silverware and gold gilded plates...tons of foods and real waitresses, not stewardesses... Heck, they even had a piano up there!...a baby grand! Don\'t know how they got it in there, but those were the days!


Jeremy Bass waxes rhapsodic about the silhouette and its signature hump several times in the story, but that hump is almost gone. It\'s so much longer now that the fuselage looks rather tubular. I\'ve always rather liked the hump, not just on the 747, but on the bulbous cockpits of the F-15B/D/E as well.

Still, fairly disappointing that Boeing refuses to \"think different,\" as the old Apple slogan went. I\'d like to see a blended wing-body or at least some kind of joined wing, which is so much more efficient structurally and aerodynamically.


The Boeing 747 made intercontinental flights bearable, eliminating the intermittent stops and hence flight fatigue, etc. Intercontinental flights became enjoyable. These upgrades will enhance the icon and its ability to satisfy more users in the future. May it long grace our global skies!


Airlines generate profits. Passenger trains run on government subsidies. I\'ll fly.

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