A personal ode to the Boeing 747

The Boeing 747 flew its maiden voyage in early February of 1969, a week or so after I was born. This was not a commercial flight. That wouldn’t come until a year later, in late January of 1970, a week before my first birthday, when the world’s first jumbo jet took off from New York following a bizarre christening with red, white, and blue water by First Lady Pat Nixon. It was just a trial, from the runway near Boeing’s new factory north of Seattle, a building constructed for the express purpose of assembling the 747, and, by the way, the largest structure ever erected.

The 1970s have developed a reputation for ennui, the so-called Malaise Era. This is somewhat deserved. Global events like domestic and international terror, proliferating guerilla wars, the OPEC oil embargo, massive inflation, urban population drains, crime and drug epidemics, and a pessimism resulting from an idealistic implosion in the social justice missions of the ‘60s certainly cast a pall over my formative decade.

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But the ‘70s—with its historically high rates of union membership, its firmly redistributive tax code, its founding belief in environmental protection, its broad expansion of social service benefits, and its fiendishly motivating Cold War rivalries—was also a time of a belief in the possibility of big thinking, big picture solutions.

The 747 was precisely one of these. Formulated, literally, from pie-in-the-sky logic, the plane was meant to be larger, more commodious, faster, more efficient, more profitable, and with a longer range than anything ever built. It was intended, in an era of wildly increased access to air travel, to be the solution to airport overcrowding, a kind of car-pooling at 30,000 feet. A single plane could carry more than 400 passengers in typical configuration, or more than 600 if everyone sat in economy.

But underpinning this development was a fundamental belief by Boeing that the plane would be rendered obsolete as a passenger carrier by the kind of supersonic travel predicted by aircraft like the Concorde—which, coincidentally, also had its first test flight in the winter of 1969. This faster-than-the-speed-of-sound travel, it was thought, would not impact on the expanding air cargo market. The 747 was thus designed as adaptable, able to carry humans, cargo, or some combination of the two. The result was a broad and tall fuselage capable of holding enormous objects, which could be loaded in through the plane’s hinged nose. This need for cavernous cargo capacity was also the root of the 747’s most alluring and memorable feature in commercial guise: a second floor.

A second floor. One flight up. On an airplane that flew six miles in the air.

I didn’t ride planes as a child. We were from Detroit. If we went somewhere — Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando — we drove, which was fine for me as a car-obsessive. My mother flew to Vegas twice annually with her bowling leagues, and we would sometimes accompany her to the airport and wait at the gate, searching the ashtrays and modular furniture for lost change or scratch-off lottery tickets in the hope of finding a discarded winner. But she didn’t fly 747s. So I glimpsed this chimerical upper deck only in movies, mainly disaster movies like Airport ‘75 and Airport ‘77.

It is the upper deck that defines not only the 747, but the 1970s. Upstairs, there was a lounge, bar, or restaurant, sometimes, but not always, restricted to business or first class fliers. Like one of the era’s famed nightclubs or music venues, there was a compelling air of exclusivity at its core, but it had some porosity to it. No door-closing executive suites, just banquettes, and tulip tables, and asterisk-shaped open plan seating arrangements. It was a party in a storage locker converted to human use until such a time that it was no longer tenable. Like the Paradise Garage.

At the heart of the upper deck was, thus, a kind of louche and tragic nihilism. It recognized that carefully and often artificially constructed social orders were being toppled, and should no longer bind us, and we should maybe just enjoy it until the end comes. Drink, smoke, and flirt in an open storage closet in the sky, until irrelevant.

Other significant practices that got their start at the beginning of 1969 didn’t exactly end in longevity. Led Zeppelin, whose first album was released in January of that year, broke up at the decade’s end, following the death of their drummer. Richard Nixon, inaugurated a week before my birth, would see his presidency end, as it started, in shame and scandal. The Concorde was eventually undone by its excessive noise and fuel consumption, limited capacity, and destructive high-altitude emissions.

But the 747, against all odds, would go on to be produced in numbers never seen before for a commercial airliner. Fifteen hundred have been built, and they’ve flown 3.5 billion people 42 billion nautical miles. Deregulation and subsequent consolidation in the airline industry, and a race to the bottom quest for profits typical of our era’s vile predatory capitalism, would eliminate the plane’s signature upstairs lounge. Still, there are seats up there.

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I’ve been equally fortunate in the intervening five decades. I’ve managed to make a successful career for myself as a writer, covering a subject I love — cars — a double rarity. And I now fly often enough for work, that I’ve had a number of fortunate recent opportunities to board a 747 in business class. Much has been made recently of the discontinuation of 747s from the fleets of our domestic airlines; United and Delta just flew its last planes on a farewell tour. But British Airways still flies three-dozen of them, the most of any airline. And, if given the choice, I always sit upstairs.

On my most recent flight home from Heathrow, I posted a photo of the plane’s signature internal staircase, reveling in the glory of this unique experience. “I don’t know much about planes,” I wrote. “But I know that I prefer the Upper Deck of a 747.” A friend, a transportation junkie, responded with his typical deflationary style. “It’s so noisy up there. Also, ever looked for the escape doors up there? I believe the pilots can blow the windows out and have a repelling device. Seriously. You have to go down the stairs.”

Drinking a glass of champagne, I channeled my inner ‘70s child, my sense of louche nihilism. “If there is any call for escape doors,” I wrote, “I plan to be already dead.”