History Special: five decades of the 747 at British Airways

Posted by Charles Kennedy on



British Airways was formed by the March 1974 merger of Britain’s two state-owned flag carriers — BEA (British European Airways) which covered short and medium haul trips with an entirely British-built fleet of Tridents, BAC-111s, Viscounts and Vanguards, and BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) which flew intercontinental with a fleet of British-built VC-10s and American Boeing 707s.


BOAC were considering all options including the stretched Douglas DC-8-63 and Vickers’ homegrown Super-Super VC-10, a reimagined Super VC-10 that never left the drawing board. Factors that influenced BOAC towards the Boeing 747 were the obvious savings to be achieved by flying 370 people in a single aeroplane, and a shortage of pilots that was expected to last into the foreseeable future.


In April 1966, BOAC purchased six Boeing 747s; as performance forecasts from Boeing became more concrete as the 747 design neared completion, the true scale of the efficiencies that could be realised by operating such a large and modern machine that the board soon placed a follow-up order for another ten planes, with 20 percent of the purchase to be financed by BOAC’s ticket sales in the US which were in dollars.


Around the time of 747 deliveries were intended to begin, it was realized that a long-running pay dispute with pilots would endanger summer 1970 flying. The airline’s labour problems soon multiplied as flight engineers insisted on retaining their two-night stopover privileges, and cabin crew wanted extra “747 pay” — and compensation for crew who weren’t selected to work on the jumbo. Pilots refused to start training until the disputes were settled.


A BOAC Boeing 747-136 decelerating after landing, Sydney 1972 (photo clipperarctic)


The first jumbo for BOAC and the twenty-third built was G-AWNA, flown into London Heathrow on April 22, 1970, followed by G-AWNB on May 6 and G-AWNC on May 28. However the machines were parked and stored while the dispute rumbled on. In fact this saved BOAC a considerable headache, as the early Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines on the 747-100 were extremely unreliable in service (the first ever 747 passenger flight, Pan Am’s inaugural New York to London trip on January 6, 1970, was delayed by nearly ten hours including an eventual aircraft change). BOAC was able to bypass these teething problems while its labour problems were ironed out, even leasing some of their engine inventory to other airlines who desperately needed them as their own spares were rapidly exhausted.


It wasn’t until early 1971 when contracts with pilots and cabin crew were settled and all nominated staff reported for training on March 1, with 747s getting airborne on passenger services on April 14. The inaugural flight was to New York JFK operated by G-AWNF departing Heathrow at 1203 under the command of BOAC’s 747 Flight Manager Captain D. Redrup. Initially the frequency was twice weekly, reaching daily the following month. Within a year the 747 fleet was flying daily to Chicago and Miami, followed by Montreal, Bermuda and Toronto. Summer 1972 also included a Manchester-Prestwick-New York service.


Johannesburg turnaround (photo by John Wheatley)


The cabin layout was for 27 first class passengers and 335 in economy; in winter the configuration was changed to 36 first class and 315 in economy. First class passengers also had the use of the Monarch Lounge in the upper deck, accessed by a spiral staircase and containing a luxurious hide-out for sixteen passengers to enjoy the services of a bartender and relax on settees and couches.


Although the merger with BEA was not formalised until March 31, 1974, the last 747-136 delivered in BOAC livery was G-AWNM which arrived at Heathrow on May 3, 1973. G-AWNN onwards were delivered in British Airways livery in anticipation of the merger. The last 747-136 to be delivered was G-BDPV on April 4, 1976, by which time the jumbo was flying throughout the network including the bulk of transatlantic trips, across the pole to Japan, and all Australia and New Zealand routes.


A hybrid livery, BOAC cheatline with a British Airways tail, London 24 October 1982 (photo by Tim Rees)


Rolls-Royce had created the RB.211 high-bypass turbofan for Lockheed’s L-1011 Tristar, a development so ambitious that it bankrupted Rolls, which survived only by being nationalised by the British government. Political pressure to make the taxpayer’s investment profitable may have been a factor for government-owned British Airways’ order for RB.211-powered 747-200Bs, but in any case the engine, with its unique triple-stage fan, was a world-beater. The prototype for Rolls-powered 747s, which were also ordered by Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, Malaysia, and Saudia, was G-BDXA, which began test flying in September 1976. One memorable test flight saw ’XA lift off at a weight of 381.25 tonnes, at that time the heaviest aircraft in history.


747-236B in the Negus livery with full British Airways titles, San Francisco September 1980 (photo by Richard Silagi)


One 747-236F pure freighter was delivered in October 1980, intended to be G-BDXK but aptly registered G-KILO. However, the economy in the early 1980s was soft, and it was decided that the passenger 747 fleet had ample underfloor cargo capacity, so it was sold to Cathay Pacific in March 1982 (where it received another custom registration, VR-HVY).


On the night of June 24, 1982, G-BDXH made history as the world’s heaviest glider when it flew without engine power for 12 minutes after flying into an unforecast cloud of volcanic ash over Indonesia. Luckily three of the engines were restarted after the machine glided clear of the ash cloud and a challenging but safe landing was achieved by ace pilot Captain Eric Moody and his crew at Jakarta.


An old 747-136 in the late 80s/90s Landor livery


The final 747-236Bs were delivered in the 1987-1988 period, a trio with main deck side cargo doors, although they were never used as combis. Interestingly, Boeing were already manufacturing the horizontal stabilizer for the 747-400 which included integral fuel tanks, so although they were never plumbed in with fuel pumps, those ships had -400 stabilisers.


British Airways was one of the first airlines to place an order for the upgraded jumbo, with an initial order for 16 aircraft announced on August 16, 1986. As with the -200B, was the first airline to receive aircraft powered by Rolls-Royce engines. G-BNLA and ’LB were handed over to their new owner on June 30, 1989. The inaugural flight of the 747-400 in British Airways service took place on Thursday July 27, with Speedbird 219 pushing back from terminal 4 at Heathrow at 1232 local time bound for Philadelphia, where it landed at 1520 local time, before continuing on for the short hop to Pittsburgh where it landed at 1750.


747-436 in the delivery Landor colours, London April 4, 1997 (photo by Aero Icarus)


A week later, the 747-400 took over the trip to Detroit via Montreal. The multistop flights were favoured initially, as the extra sectors allowed more takeoffs and landings, giving crew more opportunities to get type rated on the airline’s new flagship. The extra range of the -400 was used to its full extent on ultra longhaul nonstops to Singapore, Tokyo, Sao Paolo, and Johannesburg, displacing the Classics which retreated to shorter trips such as Toronto, New York, Washington, the Persian Gulf, and India.


A new livery was introduced in 1997, known as the Utopia scheme, and was an innovative reflection of the wide range of global destinations served by British Airways, and included twelve different tail designs based on ethnic art from every corner of the world. While colourful and unique, some elements of the airline’s core customer base felt it diluted the “Britishness” of the brand, and the tail design that had been created just for Concorde, a stylised Union flag known as the Chatham Historic Dockyard was adopted fleet-wide in 1999.


747-436 in the South African Ndebele Emmly livery, one of the many ethnic World Tails that made up the Utopia livery, London 27 October 2001 (photo by Aero Icarus)


The only 747-200 to receive the Chatham Historic Dockyard livery was G-BDXB, as the Classics were coming up to retirement. The first to leave the fleet was BOAC’s first 747-136, G-AWNA, which was exited from the fleet in Nov 1998; to mark the occasion, she was painted in a basic BOAC livery for final weeks of service before being ferried to Bruntingthorpe and scrapped. The last Classic to leave the fleet was a -236B, flying from Bombay to London on the last day of October 2001, the retirement plans hastened by the post 9/11 downtown in air traffic.


In topping up orders for more of the 747-400, British Airways requested a unique variant, known as the 747 Lite. By not plumbing in some of the auxiliary fuel tanks, the 747-400 Lite was recertified with a lower maximum takeoff weight, from 396,900 kg down to 381,000 kg, increasing payload by 6,000 kg and still paying lower landing fees and overflight fees. The only visible difference on these ships is found in the cockpit, where two fuel tank switches are replaced by a blank panel.


Further top-ups had raised the size of the 747-436 fleet to 50, yet British Airways had plans for a total of 75. The final 25 – representing an order for a further 100 engines – were to be powered by a special hybrid of the RB.211, utilizing the core from the Trent engine. However, only nine of this final order were built before British Airways decided 59 jumbos was enough, and deposits for the rest of the order were transferred to Trent-powered 777-236ERs. Interestingly, today those unique RB.211s with the Trent core, over the years of engine changes between ships, turn up randomly on various British Airways 747s. With the sophisticated FADEC engine management software, they produce identical thrust to the rest of the engine pool, but are notable in flight because they burn slightly less fuel and run with slightly lower exhaust gas temperatures (EGTs), which is usually the only way operating crew will notice they have one of those engines along for the ride.


The final Chatham Historic Dockyard livery, Pheonix, April 25, 2013 (photo Aeroprints)


As well as innovating with technology, British Airways has always been at the cutting edge of passenger accommodation; in May 1977 it was one of the first airlines to introduce business class, starting with the 747. The new cabin was called Executive Class (incidentally the origin of BA’s frequent flier programme which is called the Executive Club to this day), renamed Super Club in March 1981 on US routes and extended to the rest of the long haul network in 1984, and relaunched as Club World in 1987.


British Airways stunned the airline world with a revolutionary move in March 2000 by introducing flat beds in Club World, the first flat bed in business class on any airline in the world. World Traveller Plus, a premium economy product, was launched on November 11, 2000, an innovation initially created by Eva Air of Taiwan (Evergreen Class).


Three 747-400Fs were operated between 1999 and 2001 on behalf of British Airways World Cargo by Global Supply Systems, a British company based at Stansted; of the three (N491MC, N494MC and N495MC), the latter was painted in the Utopia Chelsea Rose livery. In November 2011 the arrangement was resurrected when three 747-8Fs were put on the British register as G-GSSD, SE and SF and painted in full BA livery. Alas the operation was not a lasting success and in May 2014 the three were returned to Atlas Air; there are likely to be the only 747-8s that are ever seen in BA livery.


A British Airways 747-8F at Chicago, January 8, 2012 (photo by Piotr Pasula)


Even as the oldest -400s were stood down, the decades-long love affair continued at the World’s Favourite Airline — as Bloomberg put it, “British Airways Just Can’t Kick Its 747 Habit”. A new subfleet was created for routes with high business class demand, with the main deck Club World cabin extending all the way to the trailing edge of the wing, with a total of 86 Club World seats, leaving only a single economy (World Traveller) cabin at the rear of the main deck with 143 seats — the same as on all-economy Airbus A319.


The 747 was displaced from some of its signature routes by the larger Airbus A380, and the more efficient Boeing 777, but up until the coronavirus grounding, remained a stronghold on the ‘Blue Ribband’ New York route with multiple daily trips, as well as schedules to Accra, Boston, Cape Town, Chicago, Dallas, Delhi, Dubai, Houston, Kuwait, Lagos, Las Vegas, Miami, Riyadh, Sao Paolo, Toronto, and Vancouver.


Alas, the Covid 19 pandemic brought about the premature grounding of the last of the fleet in early 2020. The last bookable flight operated by a British Airways 747 was from Miami to London on April 6, followed by a handful of repatriation flights including from unusual jumbo ports such as Larnaca in Cyprus; the last ever British Airways 747 movement with passengers was a repatriation flight from Lagos to London on April 18. It is heartbreaking for the type to be retired without fanfare, but British Airways and Boeing can be proud of the jumbo’s spotless half-century record as Britain’s flagship to six continents.


Part Two of this blog will cover the retirement and preservation of the British Airways 747


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