First Look at a Boeing 747

Sometime in October, 1970 Delta acquired its first Boeing 747 (B747 in ATC-write—or just 747 in ATC-speak). We controllers were kind of anxious to work one—not that you could tell the difference on the radar—but for the novelty. The first 747s delivered went to Pan Am, and being an international-only carrier at the time, they didn’t have any routes through our area. However, one of the guys in ZMA had gone over to MIA to see one of the first ones to fly in there. I asked him what it looked like. He said, “imagine the biggest thing you ever saw—it’s bigger than that.”

One day, I was working JAX High near shift change and saw an inbound to JAX on the AMG High radar and saw that from my strip that it was a Delta 747. I don’t know if I knew it then or learned it later, but they had taken delivery of at least one, and were flying crews down to JAX to train on it (new airport, generous runway, not much traffic, only about 45 minutes away). I was relieved moments later, signed out in a hurry, and rushed toward the parking lot in time to see it pass overhead at around 5,000' on its way to JAX. I jumped in my car, and raced down US-1 and Lem Turner Road to get to the airport, hustled over to the tower, and begged for the professional courtesy of a visit to the cab.

Delta’s first Boeing 747—ATL, 2 October 1970 (Click on picture for larger image)

I got upstairs in time to see it about a mile out (probably on its second or third time around). It was amazing. Just like the guy at ZMA said, it was bigger than I could have imagined. The first impression was how slow it seemed to be moving as it crossed the threshold. My second impression was how narrow the runway seemed as the 747 passed the tower, midfield. My third impression was amazement as it throttled up, rotated, and climbed out to make another pass at the runway. One doesn’t often see airliners doing touch-and-goes—they’re usually in a hurry to plant it to clear the runway for following arrivals and to get to the gate.

Three years later, when I spent some break time and familiarization time in the cab at ORD when I was training in the radar room downstairs, I had lots of chances to see 747s, but that’s a much bigger airport, and they were all full stops. Of course, by then DC-10s and L-1011s had come online, and although not as big as a 747, were still bigger than the usual 727/DC-8/707/CV880 crowd and thus diminished the contrast in size to the 747.

More 747 Notes

Airline pilots are paid based on the weight of the airplane. That contractual tidbit—agreed upon in the days of the DC-6, no doubt, and never envisioning the eventual development of wide body jets with gross weights approaching 1 million pounds—resulted in 747 captains being very well paid. Note in the picture above the large “hump” on the top of the forward part of the fuselage. It’s very distinctive and no other airplane looks like it. Some wag once opined, “do you know why there’s a hump on the top of a 747? So the captain can sit on his wallet.”

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My wife once accompanied me on a FAM trip to DEN to visit some friends. Our daughter was then just a few months old and traveled with us. We went out on a DC-10 and returned on a 747. I always made a point to “mention” that my wife was in the back, which often prompted the captain to either offer me a seat in the back or to get the flight attendant to find a seat farther forward for my bride. On the 747 leg, the captain got the FA to bring her up to the lounge (what the hump is actually for) and sent me back to join her. There was no one else there, so for nearly 1,000 miles, we luxuriated in the whole upper deck of a 747. I went back to the flight deck around DBQ as we started to let down. My wife stayed in the lounge and was able to nurse our daughter in complete privacy.

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For the many years I was at either ORD or ZAU the most common runway configuration was simultaneous approaches to 27R/32L. Of the two, 32L, at ≈13,000' was the longer by some 5,000'. Still, 8K is respectable enough for most jet transports…except…every day a Northwest 747 arrived from Narita, Japan. It was stretched, it was full, and so long as it hadn’t encountered any undue weather, it was still carrying a healthy reserve of fuel, consequently it was heavy enough to need lots of runway. Since it arrived from the northwest it went over FARMM and normally FARMM served 27R when on 27/32s. Routinely the pilot would advise us he couldn’t use 27R so we had to coordinate with ORD to let them know he needed the left side. It’s a pain in the butt to do that, especially since the flight came at a time when at least two other arrival fixes were experiencing heavy rushes, but there really was no alternative. How does one put a flight crew which has already had ten or twelve hours in the air in the hold?

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32R was also some 13,000' long (not any more—lots of changes at ORD since I left). I was in the tower cab one day when a Korean Airline 747 (no, not that one) took off 32R on their way to Seoul. Naturally they were probably very close to max takeoff weight. I watched as the local controller rolled him. The acceleration was just sooooo slow. Normally, a jet taking off 32R will rotate by around the intersection of 22R (approximately 7,000' down the runway and with nearly 6,000' left). KAL just kept going and going and going. I really was starting to think he’d never rotate, but finally, with less than 1,000' to go, he did. I doubt they were 200' in the air when they cleared the fence. It was far and away the longest takeoff roll I ever witnessed. That’s the same runway, by the way, where AA191 took off just before they crashed in 1979.

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One thing about the 747 not often mentioned was the sound of the engine. It was very distinctive. No other airplane sounds like a 747. One day I was working on a friend’s tower, up at about 100’, and probably six miles due west of ORD. They were departing 27R, so the westbounds went straight out. As I was attending to some task up in the air, I heard that distinctive sound (not remotely my first time) and didn’t even look up as I cataloged it as a Seven Four (as we said in the trade). I’d guess he was no more than 2-3000' as he went over. I did look up just to enjoy the sight.

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