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The Rise & Fall of the Jumbo
John Quayle 585

The Rise & Fall of the Jumbo

This iconic aircraft is reaching the end of its days

The reign of both British Airways’ & Virgin’s “Queen of the Skies” having come to an abrupt end, it may be a good time to stand back and examine how present day long haul flying has changed, even before the advent of SARS.CoV.2., which has merely hastened the 747’s inevitable fall from grace. The years of the Jumbo Jet as a huge people carrier are well and truly over, to the cost of both Airbus, and to a lesser extent, Boeing. Why?


In the middle sixties when I first developed an interest in civil aviation the epoch of the first generation transcontinental jets was some half a decade old. Leaving aside the trail blazing Comet (which after a catastrophic start was relegated to European routes with the arrival of the American jets), the global air routes were the preserve of the Boeing 707, Douglas (later McDonnell Douglas) DC-8, General Dynamics’ Coranado, and a little later, Vickers Armstrongs’ VC10. The next generation of long haulers, under development, would it seemed fall into one of two categories – go fast or get big!


In fact the former never really got going. Boeing’s 2707 never got off the drawing board and the project was cancelled in 1971. Concorde was thus the west’s sole supersonic airliner project. It is said that the Anglo-French design was ahead of its time. In truth it was rather behind! Its gestation period, being such an ambitious project, was such that by the time it entered service in 1976, the economics surrounding air travel had entirely changed. The price of fuel had become a significant factor (and Concorde guzzled an eye watering amount of the stuff!). Noise, both from the engines (with after burners for take off) and the loud shock waves (known as ‘sonic booms’) associated with supersonic flight made it appear at one point that it would never enter service. It was also very limited on range. Whilst something of a natural treasure, it was a financial disaster, and the aircraft only ever served with the respective flag carriers of its mother nations, and even then only with extremely beneficial terms being underwritten by government. The many other global carries that at first reserved options, had faded away long before the Concorde entered service.


The huge Boeing 747 was an entirely different prospect. It needed far less development. Sure, it was huge. But basically it benefitted from the same configuration as Boeing’s existing and hugely successful 707. Its scale was made possible by a new generation of massive high by-pass radio turbofan engines, originally produced by Pratt & Whitney for the military Lockheed Galaxy. General Electric and Britain’s Rolls-Royce also provided power for later models.


These big fan engines burned proportionately far less fuel than their turbojet and low by-pass predecessors (and hugely less than Concorde’s re-heated turbojets). They were also much quieter. These factors had become extremely important by 1969 when the 747 entered service with launch customer Pan American. The name of the game was keeping ‘seat-mile’ costs as low as possible (simply put, how much it costs to move one seat, one mile).


Pan Am’s Juan Trippe realised that since many costs are broadly similar, no matter how big/small the aeroplane, a larger capacity, especially when combined with more economic power plants, would reduce seat-mile costs significantly. In 1965 he approached Boeing about a scaled up 707. As it happens, Boeing had a project on the table relating to a 1963 pitch to the US Air Force in respect of a massive strategic cargo aircraft (which Lockheed won the with their C5 Galaxy). That is why what was to become the 747 has its famous ‘hump’ – it was designed from the get-go as a freighter with nose loading capabilities! The design morphed into the world’s first twin isle wide body passenger airliner, and the new Jumbo returned seat mile costs some 30% lower than Pan Am’s existing 707s & DC-8s.


The 747 had four engines not just because it needed four to get it off the ground (there being nothing more powerful available at the time) but also because trans-oceanic aircraft of the day had by international law to be capable of staying aloft in the event that more than one engine failed. Hold that thought, as we will re-visit it shortly.


The 747 became the gold standard of long haul flying, and in the decades that followed its arrival on the scene very few western long haul carriers operated without the status symbol of at least a small fleet of 747s in their inventory. I had the honour to drive 747 -100/-200 series aircraft professionally, and I can say without hesitation that it was an absolute delight to fly; certainly, despite its sheer bulk, it was the most docile, forgiving jet that I have ever operated!


The 747 was soon joined on the long haul scene by both the slightly smaller Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, and McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Both were twin isle tri-jets, and both were designed initially for coast-to-coast US routes, but certain variants also had long haul transoceanic capability. But the 747 remained, I think it’s fair to say, the undisputed Queen of long haul, and it could easily be recognised by any layman with even the merest semblance of aviation knowledge!


In 1974, the Airbus A300B entered service, a twin isle, twin engine airliner. Whilst returning extremely low seat-mile costs compared to four, and three engine wide-bodies, it was restricted by ICAO to flight within 60-minutes single engine flight time of a suitable airport. This rule was established immediately post-war, when four-engine piston powered airliners plied the world’s oceanic airspace, when it was extremely unusual to actually reach your destination with all four engines still running!!


Once this second generation of large twin isle jets, powered by the new evolution of high by-pass power plants, had been in service for some years, an additional bonus, over and above fuel efficiency and noise, came to light. The engines were extremely reliable, so much so in fact that a pilot of types with these new engines under its wing might complete his whole career having never experienced an engine failure (other than in the simulator). It cannot be over-stated just how reliable a modern jet engines have become.


By the early 70s both Airbus and Boeing had twin engine wide bodied designs underway capable of long haul routes (A310 and Boeing 767 respectively). At the end of the decade the manufactures approached The Federal Aviation Administration with a view to extending the 60-minute rule for certain types of twin jets. Their reasoning was that as the new breed of aero engine had proved itself so reliable that a double engine failure was so unlikely to occur that allowing the 60-minute rule to be extended did not entail any meaningful increase in risk, and was still significantly safer than four engine legacy types.


The FAA Director’s response was “it’ll be a cold day in Hell before I let twins fly the Atlantic”.


I believe Hell can be quite chilly at certain times of year!! Less than five years later the 767 and various Airbus twins began plying the North Atlantic subsequent to the introduction of ‘ETOPS-120’ (Extended Twin OPS up two-hours from a suitable airport – it is not an acronym, as some whit once suggested, for ‘Engines Turn or Passengers Swim’!).


But under this rule the four engine jet was still the only type that could reach everywhere on the planet. Further, a less direct route would often be required to comply with ETOPS-120. The tri and quad jets thus still had their place. The later version of the 747 (the -400) was still selling well, and Airbus wanted a slice of that action. In 2000 it officially announced the development of a Super-Jumbo designated the A380, which would be the largest airliner ever to fly. By the time it entered service, in 2007, Airbus had spent an estimated €25bn on its development.


Boeing responded with the latest version of its iconic 747, the -8. Its upper deck, or hump, was extended perhaps half way along the fuselage making it a real double-decker. It would be slightly longer than the -400, and had uprated engines and a completely re-designed wing. Boeing stated that they preferred to re-design the 747, rather than design an entirely new type, as they believed that the market was changing, in favour of smaller (although still large) twin engine types.


And herein lay a problem. To some extent Airbus outsmarted itself. Along with Boeing, Airbus has been lobbying the authorities for longer and longer ETOPS approvals. In 2014, it received a jaw-dropping approval to operate A350 twins to ETOPS-370 criteria – that’s over six hours from an airport, on one engine (in the event of a failure), over the most inhospitable oceans in the world! Thus, there’s no routes on the globe that now lie beyond the twin engine wide bodies (Boeings, thus far, are limited to ETOPS-330).


Originally it was believed that ETOPS twins would develop thinner point-to-point routes, by-passing large hubs, where 747/A380 types would be uneconomic. But it’s gone beyond that. On any route, fat or thin, the big twin jets now offer considerably lower seat-mile costs than the Jumbo or Super Jumbo.


As a dyed in the wool ‘more engines the better’ type, would I be happy sitting in the back of an A350 over the middle of the Southern Ocean? I’ve got to be honest. No! But I’m just a Luddite from a different era. The figures speak for themselves. Since their introduction, have there been any double engine failures involving the two isle twins? Yes, two. Strangely both involving Canadian carriers. Both involved fuel starvation – ie. pilot error. In such circumstances you could have ten engines, and the result would be the same (by the way, both made safe emergency landings).


No A380s sold in the Americas – not one! A380 production will stop next year. Circa 250 will have been built. No more. Airbus will have lost an absolute mint on the project. Already the world’s airlines are starting to retire and scrap their A380s (there is virtually zero second hand market for them). Air France has just announced an immediate grounding and retirement of its entire A380 fleet. For the French flag carrier to take such action regarding what is ostensibly a French product, is virtually unheard of.


It is believed that Boeing will end 747-8 production in 2022. When production ends only 153 will have been built. Again, a loss maker for Boeing, but at least mitigated because the -8 is a re-boot of an established design. Of those only 47 will be passenger aircraft (plus 2 for the US Air Force’s Presidential Flight – ie: ‘Air Force One’). The rest are freighters. And so the 747 has come full circle. Originally conceived as a heavy lift cargo aircraft, that too is how it will end its days, after 1,574 examples, of all variants, have rolled off the line during some 50+ years of production.


Truly, to anyone with a modicum of interest in modern civil aviation, the end of an era!


Capt JWH Quayle 29-07-20


Photo Dusan Smetana


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