40 years ago the first Boeing 747

The first commercial flight of the unmistakeable Boeing 747 was just 40 years ago, 21 January 1971. Nowadays we can still hear and see plenty of them.

I happened to hear about this anniversary on World Radio Switzerland, and my mind immediately went back to the times when we first saw them in Geneva. You could hardly miss them, as they made rather a lot of noise, though much less than Concord(e), which flew later (and which created an ear-splitting sound on the one time that it came to Geneva!).

The first 747s were especially noticeable because after takeoff, for those heading south over the Alps, they had to do a loop in order to gain sufficient height. Later ones were more powerful and climbed better, thus sparing us this extra noise nuisance. Of course, the infamous night flight of the Airbus A340-300 flight of Air Mauritius still sometimes has to make such a loop!

There were many developments of the 747. One of which I know something was the 747SP, which had a shortened fuselage and thus a longer range. These were much used by SAA (South African Airways), during the time of Apartheid, when SAA aircraft were forbidden to fly across most of Africa. The extra range allowed them to fly around the bulge of Africa: something from which we profited when taking our children to see their grandparents in Cape Town.

The SAA use of the 747SP aircraft began to be phased out in the 1980s when the new 747-400 aircraft became available, since these newer aircraft could offer the same range as the SPs but with a much lower cost per passenger mile. However, the SPs did continue to fly, often leased out to other airlines (including Air Mauritius!).

One event which people still remember was at the final of the rugby World Cup, at Ellis Park stadium on July 25, 1995, when a very experienced SAA pilot flew low over the stadium, went around and flew back over it again. The flight was so low that special permission had to be granted by the CAA. This did feature in the film "Invictus", and there is a good video on Utube, but to understand more of it, including the effect upon the spectators when the pilot put on full power directly over them, you should read the book, entitled "Playing the Enemy", by John Carlin. Even if you don't like rugby, read this book to know more about Nelson Mandela: it could make you cry!

The final flight of an SAA 747SP took place in 2006, when the aircraft ZS-SPC flew from Johannesburg to the nearby SAA museum at Rand airport. Apparently, the crew did not bother to raise the undercarriage!

In Geneva we still get quite a number of 747s, one of which is a 747SP, registered as HZ-AIF and belonging to the Saudi Arabian Royal Flight: it has already made 2 trips here this year. However, the most frequent visitors are aircraft of type 747-400. The most frequent of these are those of Jade Cargo International, for which the Geneva airport web site now indicates that they will soon operate on Mondays as well as Fridays (the same as the Air Mauritius flights!). During 2010 these flights were sometimes scheduled for the evening, causing protests when they left late. Now, however, they are normally scheduled much earlier in the day.

Despite the fact that some 747s are built relatively recently, they are still very noisy, being placed in noise category II, and thus may not be scheduled to operate after 10pm.

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