Boeing 747: forever young

The famous song by the German rock group, Alphaville, is appropriate for the long and continuing history of the enormously successful Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet family. The new 747-8 is the continuation.

When the Alphaville group issued their first album in 1984 (the title of George Orwell's famous novel), the Boeing 747 had already been flying commercially for 13 years. It was the inspiration for an earlier blog of mine. Whether it in any way influenced the group is doubtful, but the second line of their song is appropriate :

Heaven can wait, we're only watching the skies.

One of the variations on the original aircraft was the 747SP, with a shorter body but a longer range. In the time of apartheid this was in use by South African Airways, who were not allowed to fly over other African countries (so they flew "around the bulge"). It was exactly 16 years ago last Friday (June 24, 1995) that one of their aircraft frightened the life out of the spectators at the Rugby World Cup final, when it flew very low over the Ellis Park stadium and then turned on full power to climb. Even more impressive that day was the embrace between President Nelson Mandela and the Afrikaaner captain of the Springboks, François Pienaar, when the Springboks unexpectedly beat New Zealand.

Now, at the air show at Le Bourget, Boeing is presenting a competitor to the Airbus A380, in the form of a stretched version of their Jumbo, called the 747-8. This will be available as a passenger or a cargo aircraft. It is said to have the same cockpit technology as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a fuselage longer by 5.6 metres than the 747-400  and wings redesigned to reduce turbulence and consume less carburant.

A report in the Sunday Times of today, June 26, states that the 747-8 flew from Washington to Le Bourget using a fuel consisting of 85% standard kerosene and 15% biofuel. The company believes that it will very shortly get approval for the use of a 50-50 blend, as has already been succesfully tried in a F-18 fighter aircraft of the US Navy a few months ago. It is hoped that within a couple of years the use of 100% biofuel will be possible.

This use of biofuel could be vital in reducing the carbon footprint of the aviation industry. Although the current, perhaps optimistic, estimate is that aviation accounts only for 2% of global carbon emissions, studies suggest that this could rise to between 15% and 20% unless there are radical changes. Also, the emissions at high altitude can be more harmful (to the ozone layer, perhaps) than those at sea level.

Of course, one has to be careful that the manufacture of biofuels does not take place at the expense of other crops which are needed to feed people, especially in places in the world where people are starving. In this respect, it was interesting to see a plan of the Dutch airline KLM to use recycled cooking oil in flights between Paris and Amsterdam from September.This cooking oil is to be collected from hotels, restaurants and factories, refined in the US, then used in a 50-50 blend with normal kerosene. However, they will only have enough for 200 flights: perhaps they could get more from Belgian restaurants which serve lots of chips!

Thus, to come back to the original subject, the Boeing 747 is a perfect illustration of what is known in the computing field, and perhaps in other fields, as "the persistence of the established technology". According to this theory, we cannot know what aircraft will be flying in 2050, but we can know that some of them will be a variety of the 747 Jumbo.


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