A review of the Development of Boeing 747 (Jumbo Jet)

1. Overview

On January 22, 1970, Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) flew the first commercial flight on a brand-new airliner – Boeing 747. With that flight and the decades of operations to follow, this airliner redefines the whole airline industry. In this report, we’ll study the project that was undertaken to build the Boeing 747.

In this sheet, we review the key points related to this challenging and historically significant project.

Photo:  Boeing 747 (Jumbo Jet) on taxi

Photo: Boeing 747 (Jumbo Jet) on taxi

2. Timeline

The development of the 747 started as a client-requested product development project. The project went through many ups and downs during its life, and ended up not only being successful, but making history for the whole of the aviation industry. Below are some of the most significant events during this project.

  • 1963

    • Spring Boeing forms engineering group to develop large airplane to meet passenger and cargo growth predicted for the 1970s.

  • 1965

    • Summer: Airliner proposed by Pan Am head

    • August: Joe Sutter handed the Program

  • 1966

    • Mar: Boeing board of directors decides to proceed with the 747 Program.

    • Apr 13: Pan Am order - 25 Boeing 747's for $525 million ($3.7 billion today)

    • Summer: Initial Design started

    • June: Boeing purchases 780 acres, adjacent to Paine Field, Everett, Wash., to build the 747 production plant. Factory Setup/Railroad setup - Ready in 6 months

  • 1967

    • Jan 3: First production workers arrive at the Everett plant.

    • Summer: Schedule was finalized at 28 months – to be delivered by end of 1969

    • This schedule was considered impossible

    • Prototype built

    • Late Summer/Early Fall: RESOURCE: Boeing 747 workforce cut proposed – 1/4th (1000 engineers) – PM refused. 4500 people were working on the 747.

    • Testing began before first model was assembled - Period – 11 months

  • 1968

    • Jun: Boeing tests the new Pratt & Whitney JT9D engine, developed for the 747, on the wings of a Boeing B-52.

    • Sep 30: Rollout (First Press Display) - Airplane ready 2 days before | 60 engines burned in testing

  • 1969

    • Feb 9: First flight - Was delayed by over 2 months (supposed to be 54 days after display) | Infrastructure changes at airports

    • Dec 30: The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration certifies the 747-100 for commercial service.

  • 1970

    • Jan 21: First commercial flight - Engine issues | Switched to a standby airplane | Flied the next morning

    • Jul 16: Million passengers flown in the first 6 months | Became the cash cow for airlines

3. Industry Context

The Boeing 747 was envisioned in the 1960’s, when the aviation industry was witnessing many interesting trends including increasing number of passengers, longer travel distances, high pressure in overcrowded small/mid-size aircraft segment and comparatively high cost of airline travel.

There were a few key factors effecting the airline industry in the 1960’s:

  • Increasing number of passengers: Air travel was increasing as more and more people were starting to travel. Trust in air-travel was also building.

  • Longer travel distances: Jet engines were making it possible to cover longer distances in shorter time.

  • High pressure in overcrowded small/mid-size aircraft segment: Due to mostly smaller aircrafts flying people, airport infrastructure was starting to come under pressure.

  • High cost: Cost of flying was still very high.

4. Business Case

The basic business case behind the aircraft was economies of scale – more passengers on a single plane leads to better fuel consumption per seat, leads to lower cost of operation, leads to higher profits and cheaper cost of flying, leads to even more passengers (and thus even higher economies of scale).

A bigger airplane could address these issues:

  • More people to fly per flight.

  • More fuel on board meant even longer range.

  • Larger aircrafts flying more people at a time would also reduce pressure on the airport infrastructure.

  • Larger aircraft would gain from economies of scale – cheaper tickets/more profits.

5. Scope

The core objective of the project was to build an aircraft that could fly more than double the number of people that could be flown on any existing aircraft. The project was developed almost as a partnership between Boeing and Pan-Am, and thus a lot of initial requirements also came from Pan-Am.


  • Safety

    • Design Objectives and Criteria book was one approach to meeting safety

    • Boeing's safe-design philosophy (no single-failure modes, no uninspectable limited life parts) was a support structure that helped meet this requirement as well

    • Redundancy in design

  • Air-worthyness

  • Speed

  • Operating Economy

  • Maintainability

  • Passenger Comfort

Delivery Scope: From a pure deliverable point-of-view, following is what was being delivered at a high level.

  • Core Product: Aircraft – New design with upper deck cockpit – hump

    • Fuselage – Front/Mid-section/Tail

    • Engine

    • Wings/Winglets

    • Slats/Flaps

    • Spoilers/Ailerons

    • Vertical/Horizontal Stabilizers

    • Rudder/Elevator

    • Landing Gear

    • Hydraulic System

    • Avionics

    • Electrical Wirings/Plumbing/Air Conditioning

    • Doors/Windows

    • Interiors/Seating/Entertainment Systems

    • Others - The list of components identified above only consists of the highly visible and evident components. There are many components which may not be that visible – like screws and bolts, tapes etc.

  • Product Support Structure:

    • Manufacturing Plants (changes to existing ones)

    • Final Assembly Facility

    • Transport Infrastructure for bringing parts to final assembly location

    • Airport structural changes to allow the aircraft to operate

6. Budget

Based on publicly available information, the budget of the project lies within the range of $1 Billion to $2 Billion (1965).

  • Baseline: $1 billion - $2 billion (NOT confirmed) - Based on our understanding of the project, we're not sure if a strict baseline was established.

  • Variance: Overrun (not sure by how much) - It may also be not possible to measure variance if a baseline was not defined. What we know is that the spend on the project was huge, at one point the project was burning 5 million dollars a day.

7. Schedule

The schedule for the project was set publicly by Boeing’s then CEO, Bill Allen, at 28 months, from the day of its announcement. This was considered a highly aggressive schedule, since per convention those days aircraft development was supposed to take double that amount of time. And as a testament to project execution, the aircraft’s delivery was delayed by only two months.

Key points to note are:

  • Baseline: 28 months - At the time of declaration of the program, Boeing's then CEO, Bill Allen, promised a very aggressive schedule for the aircraft's delivery - he set the delivery date for the airliner for end of 1969. That meant that the team had 28 months to deliver the airliner. This schedule was considered 30% faster than any other commercial airliner delivery.

  • Variance: 2 months - From all accounts we have, the project only had a 2 month delay as compared to Bill Allen's original promise. Considering the amount of novelty in this airliner, its aggressive schedule and the track record of other airliner deliveries (with similar amount of changes) throughout history, this can be considered quite a remarkable performance.

8. People

The development of the 747 was a stretigic project for Boeing. At the time of its inception, it was supposed to be a product that filled the company's line of both passenger offerring until Boeing's supersonic aircraft was ready. The aircraft was envisioned for the longer run as a cargo transporter. However, a couple of years into its development, the market scenario changed and Boeing's supersonic jet program was thrown out of the window. By this time Boeing had already amassed a large debt to get these programs going. Thus the 747 became the only hope the company had of making it out of this dire situation. Thus, the project gained top-level attention from Boeing's upper management. Boeing's CEO, Bill Allen, as well as Pan-Am's CEO, Juan Trippe, were heavily involved in the project.

Notable people involved in the project includes:

  • Juan Trippe (President, Pan Am) – Key Client/User

  • Bill Allen (CEO, Boeing) – Sponsor

  • Joe Sutter – Program Manager

  • Jack Woodel (Test Pilot for First Public Flight)

  • Brien Wygle (Test Co-Pilot for First Public Flight)

8. Suppliers

As opposed to recent aircraft development projects (at Boeing as well as around the world), most of the components were developed in-house at Boeing for the 747. However, Boeing realized that the aircraft and its development is too big even for a company like Boeing to handle on its own. Thus, it ended up involving some suppliers to deliver key components. The processes set up to establish this suppply chain would later be expanded to be used for the development of its aircrafts in the future.

Following are the major suppliers who were involved in building the 747:

  • Northrop - Body sections

  • Grumman - Trailing-edge flaps

  • Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) - Tail sections

9. Risks

For the 747 project there were many risks:

  • Finance: On the financial front Boeing was not doing well. Boeing had to amass the largest debt in history to carry on with this project. As the project was in progress, a recession hit the market. That combined with the fact that the industry operates on a model where the customer (Airlines) pay majority of the price upon delivery (thus needing the manufacturer to bear the development cost till that time), obviously did not ease the situation for Boeing. To add to that, any changes identified later in the game could have driven cost up exponentially – potentially even making the company bankrupt.

    • Mitigation - Press rollout helped to alleviate the issue

  • Schedule: In accordance to it's client's (Pan Am's) request, Boeing had agreed to a very aggressive schedule that required the company to build the aircraft 30% faster than its contemporaries.

  • Technology: Complex product and many technical solutions did not exist or were not proven.

    • Engine was not ready on rollout – Plane was not ready to fly – Outsourced to Pratt & Whitney

  • Mechanical: failure in operation: With a high-risk/high-complexity technical product like an airliner, the possibility of a mechanical failure in operation is a scary, but still probable proposition.

    • Mitigation: The typical mitigation approach goes towards building redundancy. That is exactly what Boeing did.

  • Size: Noteworthy to mention in this section is that, never prior to this project had anything of this size flown (with passengers) in the skies. Boeing certainly had never taken off, flown or landed an aircraft of this size.

  • Training Risk: No simulators to test-fly the airplane

10. Issues

The project was technically challenging, and it definitely did see technical issues during the development phase, primarily with issues related to its engines and wings. However, the project was even more challenging from the point of view of its financial needs as well as its scale. This required Boeing to throw almost everything it had got at the project in order to get it done.

Below are the key issues encountered:

  • Conflict of Interest Issue: One of the Pan Am Borad of Directors was also on the board of GE, one of the contenders for the supply contract for the Engines. Thus Pan Am (Boeing's customer) pushed for the GE engine in spite of the fact that the engine from the other contender (Pratt & Whitney) was a better fit for the aircraft's requirements.

  • Flutter issues

    • Swept wings – based on Nazi designs

    • Flutter testing – enter danger area/get out with more information

  • Engine Issues

    • The engine was having lots of issues, which were being encountered during the testing phase.

    • The supplier (Pratt & Whitney) was however not taking it seriously. They were mostly dismissing the issue.

    • The test pilots took a very innovative approach to bring this issue to the vendor's attention. They took the supplier's CEO for one of the test flights, knowing very well that they'd be able to recreate the scenario that results in engine issues during a flight. And in fact that is exactly what happened during the flight. Only after the supplier's CEO agreed on the direness of the situation did the test pilots initiate the recovery procedures. Could there have been a better demonstration?

11. Conclusion

All in all, the development of the Boeing 747 was a monumental undertaking for its time, and this project definitely had a share in how it changed the course of modern history. The project was executed on an aggressive schedule and was delivered almost flawlessly, close to the expected delivery timeline. If examined in detail and, in comparison to other similar initiatives, I believe there is a lot to learn from this project.

12. References