A new queen of cargo set to rule the skies

Nearly 41 years to the very day of the inaugural flight of its first incarnation, Boeing’s re-designed 747-8 freighter, taxied past hundreds of Boeing workers, journalists, representatives of launch customer Cargolux and Boeing officials who had gathered on a chilly Seattle morning to witness the first flight of the re-birth of what is surely the most successful commercial aircraft ever built. Donald Urquhart reports from Seattle.

For an aircraft that very nearly never made it to mass-production, the 747 – of which a remarkable 1,418 were built as of December 2009, with 281 of the 747s of all variants still flying – became the iconic image of jet travel for the masses, in what became known as the era of the jumbo-jet.

And while that era and the accolade of ruling the roost as the largest commercial aircraft ever made was finally surpassed some 35 years later by Airbus’ doubledecker A380, it did little to change the fact the B747 had firmly established itself as the backbone of the air cargo industry. And that fact was not lost on anybody that chilly February morning standing on the berm overlooking Boeing’s Paine Field waiting for the reborn giant to take to the skies.

Although a 10 am flight window had been subverted by the low clouds that typically smother the Pacific Northwest in winter, Mother Nature eventually cooperated and the warm sun spilled out onto Paine Field, foretelling what was to be a winning day for Boeing’s biggest bird.

The vintage T-33 chase planes flying overhead signaled that RC501 was about to begin its take-off roll and with aT-33 at each wing, the 747-8 hummed down runway 34L with 266,000 poundsof thrust accelerating the erstwhileearth-bound airframe to its 152-knotrotation speed and with its nose geargently rising off the runway, Boeing’slargest commercial plane ever made wasairborne and a new era took flight.