A Jumbo journey straddling the skies

The Boeing 747 completes 50 years of flying on February 9. Ms Ashwini Phadnis captures the extraordinary story. The Boeing 747 will complete 50 years of flying in international skies. The first flight of the ‘Jumbo’, so called because of its huge size, was on February 9, 1969. Since then, the aircraft has undergone various technological upgrades but it still continues to evoke nostalgia and awe among pilots who flew it in its early days and those who are flying it still. “The Boeing 747 had a tremendous and sensational impact on the Indian market. It was a twin aisle (aircraft),” says Mr Michael Mascarenhas, who retired as Managing Director of Air India. Incidentally, Air India is the only Indian carrier to operate this aircraft. The airline placed orders for the Boeing 747-100s in 1967 and got delivery of the Boeing 747-200s in 1971. Fifty years later, the aircraft has been or is being flown by Lufthansa, Thai Airways, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic and Air India. Mascarenhas recalls that the Boeing 747 aircraft was under engineering with Air India for three days when the airline decided to open it up to the public, which was allowed to enter the tarmac at the old Santa Cruz airport in Mumbai. Mr P.S. Nair, Executive Director, GMR Airports — who was lucky enough to be one of the few to get a dekko of Emperor Ashoka, India’s first Boeing 747 before it was opened for public exhibition — recalls sitting on the first class seats which still had the plastic covers. Mr Ravi Menon, Executive Director of Air Works, vividly remembers the day he was invited to see the Jumbo which was undergoing a check. “There was something so graceful and majestic about this aircraft. Standing in the aircraft when the emergency exit was open and looking out at the wing and everybody saying this is equal to a football field — I loved it,” recalls Menon. Improved navigation So, what is it about the Jumbo that makes it so special? First and foremost, it came with vastly superior technology compared to the other aircraft, like Boeing 707, that were flying at that time. According to Captain Mark Hoey, General Manager, Operations, Cathay Pacific, who has flown all the variants of the Boeing 747, from the classic to the latest, “It introduced powered controls that are the basis of most aircraft today. For such a large aircraft it was agile, predictable, stable and forgiving which is why it is loved by all who fly it.” A former Air India Commander, who flew the aircraft, says that the main thing was the improvements to the navigation system. “In the old days, you could only go from one radio beacon to another radio beacon. When the new system came you could just put in your position and go direct to that position…. everything was done by computer.” Captain Jeremy Aeria, Chief Pilot of Boeing 747, Singapore Airlines, says that the Boeing 747-400 was the most advanced in terms of avionics and automation during his time. Aeria spent almost half his aviation career flying the Boeing 747 — 21 years operating the 747-200, 747-300 and the 747-400, including both the passenger and cargo-configured aircraft. Sunshine or storm The superior technology helped pilots immensely, particularly when they were flying in inclement weather. Aeria recalls the time he was flying from Singapore to London in winter. “Weather conditions did not improve and we were one of the few airlines that could make an approach and land into Heathrow. A safe landing was conducted and a “follow-me-vehicle” guided us to our parking bay. To this day, I dare say that the Boeing 747-400 has one of the best and most reliable automatic landing systems,” he says. The availability of the TCAS warning system on the aircraft also helped avoid a fatal accident on an Air India aircraft en-route London from Mumbai. “I was flying from Mumbai to London over Karachi when the Air Traffic Controller gave an aircraft from Karachi to Dubai a climb-through me. We were lucky that the new Jumbo had the warning system TCAS which had just come. I got the warning climb, climb and I did,” says a former Air India pilot. Captain Minoo Wadia, who retired from Air India, recalls that though he has flown many aircraft, “the Jumbo is the only aircraft in which no one, not even the captain, knew that it had landed because its design was solid and it was massive.” “Flying became a lot easier with the Boeing 747. The stress in the cockpit came down tremendously. Navigation became really simple,” adds another pilot. A lot has changed in the aircraft over the years. Pilots recall that while the original Jumbo came with the captain, co-pilot, flight engineer and navigator, as it became advanced there was no need for a navigator because of the on-board ‘Initial Navigation System’ and when the newer models came with the glass cockpits, there was also no need for a flight engineer. A smooth flying experience The Boeing 747 also made flying a more enjoyable experience for travellers. Being a larger aircraft of huge weight the Boeing 747 could handle weather better, making flights less turbulent. “To sit down and see an air hostess talking on the phone with someone in another zone was amazing; it was surreal in 1971,” recalls Mascarenhas, who also remembers a bar on the upper deck of the aircraft — something that was unheard of then. Captain Hoey sums up the Jumbo the best when he says: “the 747 has dominated aviation for half the entire history of powered flights and has done so in such a way as to define the standards, comforts and safety which we take for granted today while shrinking the world and bringing humanity closer together.”

Source: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/

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