SEATTLE -- After years of falling into disrepair, the world's first Boeing 747 has finally received some much-needed tender love and care.
Permanently parked at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, the hulking jet is easy to spot. Standing over 63 feet tall at the tip of its tail, it literally towers over its peers in the museum's open-air display lot. Its white fuselage, sporting a fire-engine red stripe, shines even under cloudy skies.
On a recent Saturday, a line of visitors to the museum queued up thirty-deep outside the jet. All were waiting their turn to have a look at 747's banks of test equipment and a groovy, 1960s-style upper-deck lounge.
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Those visitors might be forgiven for thinking they'd been transported back to September of 1968, when the now-legendary aircraft first rolled out of a custom-built factory in Everett, Wash. Designed by Seattle native Joe Sutter, the first 747 was twice the size of its nearest competitor when it debuted. Known as RA001, it made its first flight for Boeing four months later on Feb. 9 1969, ushering in a new age in air travel and changing the face of modern aviation.
The plane's cavernous main deck – over twenty-feet wide – meant it could carry more people for less money than other jets of the time. And it could fly them further and faster, shuttling passengers in record time between cities across the globe that airlines previously could not connect with nonstop flights. For the first time in history, long-haul travel started to become affordable for the average person.
In short, the 747 democratized air travel, says Dan Hagedorn, Senior Curator for the Museum of Flight.
"From a historian's standpoint, that may be its most lasting legacy. Not its size, not its engineering genius," Hagedorn says about the 747's role in bringing global air travel to the masses.
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The airplane also played a major role in Seattle's history -- a catalyst, some say, for helping transform the city from a sleepy burgh in the Pacific Northwest into the cosmopolitan giant it has become today.
Boeing suffered early engineering problems and poor sales that nearly bankrupted the program, but ultimately the 747 would go on to become the best-selling jumbo-jet in history. The company has built and delivered more than 1,500 747s to date. The rise of that aircraft -- and Boeing -- lifted tens of thousands of Puget Sound workers along with it. The 747 – and Boeing's subsequent success – helped establish metro Seattle as perhaps the world's leading city for the aerospace industry, a position the city holds on to today.
The majority of RA001's descendants left the Puget Sound, going on to fly an estimated 5.6 billion people on dozens of airlines across the globe in the following 46 years. But No. 1 – that first 747 – never left home. It instead went on to serve Boeing as a dedicated test aircraft, first for the 747, and later for other Boeing jets such as the 757 and 777.
By the time it retired in 1993, the airplane had completed some 12,000 flights for Boeing.
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Despite its significance to the region and the world, however, retirement wasn't good to RA001. Left outside and largely neglected for years, the once-luminous white and red paint job had faded and peeled. Seattle's notorious rain took its toll inside too, leaving the interior rife with moisture damage and the lingering stench of mildew.
"It was in distress," Hagedorn acknowledged. The museum commissioned an assessment of the airplane ten years ago, which concluded it was time to fix the aging jet. Still, that didn't materialize and the airplane sat mostly untouched under the damp Seattle skies. Other priorities – and limited funds – suppressed any urgency to bring the 747 back to its former glory.
But the skies finally cleared in the summer of 2012, when the museum's board green-lighted the restoration for takeoff.
The two-year project -- now nearly complete -- would become one of the largest aircraft restoration jobs ever attempted under the elements and not in the relative comfort of an indoor hangar.
"As far as I know, this is the largest aircraft that has even been restored inside and out where she sits," said Hagedorn, who previously managed the Smithsonian's Air & Space Collection before coming to Seattle in 2008.
Work to restore the exterior began in July. To restore the airplane's original luster, crews using more than 15,000 pieces of sandpaper to remove the jet's fading paint. Once that was completed, crews used more than 750 foam rollers to apply more than 60 gallons of fresh white, red, black, and blue paint.
Inside, workers began restoring the interior to its first-flight configuration. Mildew-filled insulation was replaced. Testing equipment that would have been on board for first flight, from archaic computer bays to ballast tanks, was sourced and returned to original spots on the main deck. Upholstery dating back to 1969 was tracked down to recreate the only significant creature-comfort on that first 747: an upper deck lounge replete with linoleum-covered tables, chairs with ash trays, and orangey-red sofas.
"We really want to retain the 1969, 1970 character of the aircraft," said Hagedorn.
That meant tracking down original parts, hardly an easy task.
"A lot of that stuff isn't being produced anymore," he said. For example, that upholstery on the upper deck: "We did our very best to find the original manufacturer, to see if they still had the original looms for the original configuration," he said. They didn't, but did have something very close."
Workers completed the restoration in late September, opening the jet to the public on Oct. 1.
The effort wasn't lost on David-George Dauphinee, a visitor to the museum who boarded RA001 on a recent Saturday afternoon (Oct. 18).
"To be able to be standing here today in this airplane is just mind-boggling," he said, smiling wide. In his hands he held a vintage United Airlines 747 brochure from 1969, a piece of history that helped cement his childhood love of the airplane. Dauphinee, able to catch a glimpse of the lounge upholstery from the main deck, held up the brochure, trying to compare the shades of orange and red to see if they matched.
"It's amazing that we can get inside and see it," said Dauphinee. "The museum has done an absolutely phenomenal job."
It's a job the museum doesn't intend to have to repeat. Plans have been drawn up to place the airplane, along with others, under a new roof that will finally shield them from the elements. The museum is hoping to complete that project in 2016.
Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren is a Seattle-based photojournalist and aviation writer and an occasional contributor to Ben Mutzabaugh's Today in the Sky blog.