On the last day of January 2023, the 1,547th and final Boeing 747 ever built was delivered to its final customer, Atlas Air. The 747-8F, with registration N863GT, was added to the freighter company’s fleet to operate its cargo routes.
As part of a press group, I got an advance peek at the plane, named Empower, before it made its debut. It bore a small decal with the image of late Boeing engineer Joe Sutter and the words “Forever Incredible” on the right side of the nose. While meaningful, the small detail could not match the significance of this plane, its creator, or what it represents for the aviation community.
This was the last 747 ever built—the plane that shaped commercial aviation as we know it today. It was a political ambassador, a show of force, and a spearhead of technology and innovation.
The 747 was the first double-decker passenger plane—the first widebody jumbo jet. The aircraft became the icon of global commercial aviation by making long-haul travel feasible and thus shrinking the world.
Before the event started, after about a half-hour touring Boeing’s facility, we were invited inside the factory, where Boeing staff and current and former 747 operators got together for a farewell. All carriers were represented by a parade of flags sloping behind the main stage.
Boeing executives told stories about the 747, Lufthansa’s CEO, Carsten Spohr, spoke of the German carrier’s relationship with Boeing, and videos detailed the history of the Queen of the Skies.
Near the end of the event, John Travolta revealed himself as the narrator of the whole show. As the band played, the hangar doors opened, and the 747-8F was unveiled to the crowd. It didn’t matter that it was the same plane I’d seen thirty minutes prior. Instead, I remembered the awe I felt as an eight-year-old kid with a poster of the 747-200 with the metal livery on my bedroom wall—a reminder of my earliest fascination with aviation.
Surprise! John Travolta is at today’s @Boeing event for the final 747 delivery. He calls the aircraft “a pleasure to fly,” noting his training in Seattle back in the day. Thanks employees who have built the 747 over the decades. @fox13seattle pic.twitter.com/MYdJxAzQeE
— Matthew Smith (@MattSmithFOX13) January 31, 2023
Boeing’s CEO, Dave Calhoun, spoke to the duality of the moment: As the Queen ceases to be a product for the company, Boeing’s focus has shifted to the 777X—the company’s big bet on the widebody market. It needs to overcome many obstacles—certification chief among these—and it is not the only product with hurdles ahead.
The company’s Everett, Washington, plant will receive a fourth 737 MAX production line, as Boeing is confident that it will be able to certify both -7 and -10 versions soon.
Calhoun asserts the only way to catch up with Airbus’s dominance in the segment is to increase the production rate to an unprecedented pace of eighty units per month. While the company can set up an assembly line that could keep up with that, the pressure on the supply chain will be immense.
At least the first step in this shift has come and gone: the day after the delivery ceremony, we watched the N863GT take off from Paine Field. After an ill-timed Alaska flight nearly stole its moment in the limelight, the 747 got its water salute and taxied elegantly to the runway. It took off with the magnificent aplomb of a Queen, flying a small circuit and amazing us with a low flyby. Then, it powered up and left the area on its way to Cincinnati.
I ended my visit to Washington with a symbolic outing, spending the afternoon at the Museum of Flight. The first 747, appropriately named City of Everett, is there to be admired. Within the span of my visit, I’d seen the first and last Boeing 747. It was a full-circle moment for that eight-year-old with plane posters on his wall.