The final 747—a 747-8 model—left the production line for its inaugural flight on February 1 this year. The crew traced a unique pattern in the sky: a queen’s crown underlaid by the numbers “7-4-7.”
Pilots have long held a deep connection to the airplane that Joe Sutter and his team built. I for one devoured the legendary engineer’s book, 747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures, and witnessed from afar the genius woven into that airplane. I would have loved to have talked with Sutter, or Jack Waddell, Boeing’s chief test pilot who took the first 747 on its initial flight on February 9, 1969.
Sutter and Waddell are no longer with us, though their legacy lives on in Boeing’s engineering corps. On the event of the final production unit’s departure from the factory at Everett, I sought out two of the pilots who know the airplane intimately from a more recent viewpoint within flight test operations. I spoke with them about one of the greatest airplanes of all time—and one that will still ply the airways for decades to come.
The first flight of the freighter version of the Boeing 747-8F. [Courtesy of Boeing]
The Hands of Fate
Curt Gottshall, current engineering chief pilot for Boeing’s 747-8 program, and Kirk Vining, a former engineering project pilot on the 747-8 freighter and intercontinental passenger programs, both had an early connection with the airplane that would play out in in- credible ways over their careers.
For Vining, it was on his first flight lesson, just after takeoff with an instructor out of Anchorage International (PANC), seeing the 747 on climbout come under the wing as he tried his first left turn. For Gottshall, it was during his freshman year at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, when he set the lock code to his briefcase to “7-4-7.”
Vining took the desire to become an airline pilot with him to Wichita State University in Kansas, where he studied aeronautical engineering in pursuit of the four-year degree required to fly for the airlines at the time. But that degree led him to an internship and then a full-time role with local OEM Learjet as an engineering flight test pilot. There he had his first con- tact with FLYING too: “I hold a world record with Mac McClellan. He and I and Pete Reynolds flew the Lear- jet 31A from Aspen, Colorado, to Washington, D.C., [featured] in the November 1994 FLYING magazine. I have a little cameo in there—you can see my picture in the flight deck leaning forward trying to get my face in the photo.”
The experience in Part 25 certification testing set him up well to join Boeing in 2005. “The Learjet, though it’s small, the performance isn’t all that different than a 747,” says Vining, who noted that a couple of airlines have flown Learjets in the past with flight decks set up like that of the 747 to use in training their pilots.
First Contact with the Queen
Vining recalls well his first flight in any 747 model: “[It was] actually in the Large Cargo Freighter (LCF, also known as the Dreamlifter), the one that carries around parts for the 787. The pilot mentoring me on my first takeoff said, “Don’t worry, the LCF flies just like a 747”—but at that point, I hadn’t even flown a 747, so how was I supposed to know? After gaining more experience, I found the Large Cargo Freighter did fly like a 747-400. When we built the 747-8, we dialed it in to fly like the models before it as well.” Vining conducted the first flight of the second 747-8 to roll out of the factory.
Gottshall came to the 747 Classic models from the operations side before coming to Boeing. As a con- tract pilot for Japan Airlines, he transitioned from the McDonnell Douglas DC-10-40 as a captain, noting the differences between the DC-10 and the -100s, -200s, and -300s that JAL was flying at the time. “With the implementation of body gear steering [in the 747], the oversteer required—even though it’s longer, bigger, and with a higher stature—wasn’t quite as much as that required on the DC-10” to line up accurately on the runway centerline.
During his tenure with JAL, he also operated the 747 into airports that required a circling approach, such as Fukuoka International (RJFF), which at the time only had an ILS to one runway end. “Most folks with trans- port category type ratings have a ‘no circling’ limita- tion,” says Gottshall. “That wasn’t good enough for the [Japanese Civil Aviation Board] because they actually used [the circling approach]. So we had to go set up a syllabus to do the training. I believe it was in Wash- ington Dulles where we could actually do an approach, keep it in sight, and do the whole FAA demonstration so that we didn’t have that limitation on our license when we went back to Japan.” Gottshall recalls that the 747 handled the approaches quite well.
The Dreamlifter is a special version of the Boeing 747 created to haul fuselage sections. [Courtesy of Boeing]
Graceful Flight Characteristics
Indeed, pilots who have flown the 747 relate that she’s a gentle giant, with relatively benign handling characteristics at low speeds, as well as surprising maneuver- ability for an aircraft with such mass and such a long wingspan—225 feet for the 747-8.
“I tested high speed and low speed in the 747-8, and demonstrated full aerodynamic stalls,” recalls Vining. “It stalls at full aft stick even better than a Cessna 172. It’s an amazingly light and flexible airplane for its size, so we designed the fly-by-wire ailerons [in the 747-8] to automatically help dampen out any vibrations and smooth out the ride.”
Gottshall agrees. “The 747—even at that large of a mass—is very maneuverable, so you have quite a large operational window. People think that you have to plan hundreds of miles in advance—it is true that if you want to have a perfect, steady trajectory, you need to think ahead. But it does have the capability and the maneuverability to make corrections and make them fairly aggressively. With the exception of the last thousand feet on the approach; you don’t want to be aggressive—you want to stay in that stabilized approach criteria.”
The primary difference between the flying that test pilots do against what pilots flying the line experience lies in the exploration of the flight envelope—on purpose. Gottshall compares it directly to his operational flight time. “When we go out and do things with flight test—especially post-production—we test to make sure that everything works, all of the relief systems work, all of the indication systems work, and things like that, which are [procedures] that we try very hard to stay away from in operations. [In normal ops] you don’t want to hear the overspeed warning come on, or you don’t want to see the load relief on the flaps. You plan and operate in a manner to try and stay away from all those things.
The most recent iterations of Air Force One, the U.S. presidential aircraft, have been Boeing 747/VC-25s. [Courtesy of ]
Truly Fond Memories
Gottshall notes that while the 747 is no longer in production, his role on the program continues, with work on continuous improvements to the 747-400 and 747-8, including a checklist of updates on the horizon.
The first jumbo jet will continue to fly on with the regular work made by the engineering teams to improve it.
As to what stands out to him the most about the 747, Vining sums it up well. “There’s so many things,” he says, “but whether it’s the feeling that you’re taxiing around in a three-story apartment building, or just the stall characteristics. It’s just such amazing performance, gentle behavior—and what a capable machine.
The first Boeing 747 delivered to a customer went to Pan Am. [Courtesy of Boeing]
The 747 and the Last Flight Engineers
The lack of a globally connected, extensively reaching supply chain during the height of the 747’s operation in the 1980s and ‘90s meant that the flight crew’s navigator/engineer was an engineer in the British sense—a maintenance chief critical to keeping the aircraft engines and other systems healthy during its long-haul trips to Asia, Africa, and Australia.
Capt. Stephen Yeates, who flew the Classic -100, -200, and -300, and the -400 for British Airways during that period, recalls regular instances when the engineer truly enabled the show to go on.
“We lost a windshield piece to a bird strike over Pakistan and made an emergency landing in Karachi, which was an outstation at the time with little on-site maintenance capability. If we didn’t have the engineer on board, we would have been waiting far longer to get back underway.” Advances in technology also have played a significant role. “Nowadays, you have Rolls-Royce or GE monitoring engine performance from the ground, as opposed to the engineer along with you, always fiddling with the engines to keep them running perfectly,” says Yeates with a fondness for the incredible knowledge those engineers possessed.
Indeed, respect for the engineer runs across the board of those pilots we interviewed. Something’s lost, says Gottshall, in not having the deep knowledge that the engineer provided, and the extra mind to put to the task in the event of a complex abnormal or emergency situation. As it was with British Airways, “in Japan, there were professional flight engineers,’ recalls Gottshall. “They had been in that position for 20 or 25 years and knew every single possible piece of that airplane, right down to the nuts and bolts.”
“I’m just so privileged to have been able to share those years with it,” he concludes. To a pilot, the fond feelings for the 747 remain—and the opportunity to fly the jet goes on, we hope for decades to come.