Saturday, February 14, 2015

Flashback Friday: 5th Anniversary of First Boeing 747-8 Flight

By Luis Linares / Published February 13, 2015

747-8F First Flight

Maiden flight of the Boeing 747-8F:  Photo courtesy of Boeing

This week, the Boeing 747-8 program marks the fifth anniversary of the first aircraft’s maiden flight, which took place on February 8, 2010.  The 747-8 continues a line of an iconic aircraft family that dates back more than 45 years.

While economic and environmental factors have made win-engine jets more attractive to customers, the 747 is not taking its last flight anytime soon. Join us on this Flashback Friday as we look at the history of the newest version of the “Queen of the Skies.”


The Boeing 747-400, the second generation of the family, entered service in 1989. During the 1990s, Boeing began studying larger capacity 747s.  At the 1996 Farnborough Air Show, Boeing unveiled the 747-500X and -600X, which would have been larger than the -400, with many of the aerodynamic and technological improvements of the, at the time, new 777. But the proposal failed to attract enough customer interest for Boeing to proceed.

In 2000, Boeing responded to its main competitor Airbus’s plan for what would become the A380 with the 747X, which would have been a modest stretch, with a larger wingspan, capable of carrying 430 passengers 8,700 nautical miles (16,100 km).  In addition, a 500-passenger layout would have offered a 7,800 nmi (16,100 km) range.  Again, not enough customers showed interest, but Boeing went on to develop the -400ER and -400ERF to give the -400 some additional range.

By the mid-2000s, development for Boeing’s newest project, the 787, was well underway, but Boeing still had ideas for the 747.  After briefly considering a quieter, longer-range option of the -400, Boeing shifted 747 upgrade potential to the 747 “Advanced,” a stretch that would adopt technology from the 787.  On November 14, 2005, Boeing formally announced it would produce this aircraft and gave it the 747-8 designation.

The 747-8 consists of the -8F (freighter variant) and the -8I “Intercontinental” (passenger version).  The 747-8 is the third generation of the 747 and first variant to have a lengthened fuselage.  Moreover, it consisted of a new wing design, including raked wingtips, and the exclusive use of General Electric’s GEnx turbofan engine, which was also one of two engine manufacturer options on the 787, the other being the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000. Boeing also implemented some fly-by-wire features but ensured enough commonality to make pilot transition from the -400 rapid and virtually seamless.

B748 Assembly B948 Assembly
Boeing 747-8 assembly line:  Photos courtesy of Boeing

The first variant of the 747-8 to go into production at Boeing’s Everett plant was the -8F in August 2008, and Cargolux became the launch airline.  Various factors, including a labor strike, pushed the first flight to the first quarter of 2010, which resulted in a $1 billion charge against earnings.  Lufthansa, meanwhile, would launch the -8I. The first 747-8 rolled out on November 13, 2009.

EXTRA:  Boeing’s Everett Plant:  A History of the World’s Widebody Mecca

Maiden Flight and Testing

The first Boeing 747-8 took to the skies on February 8, 2010, from Paine Field.  A month later, there were three -8Fs in the flight test program.  This phase of development is usually not immune from bugs, and the 747-8 was no exception.  Engineers discovered buffeting stemming from turbulence coming from the main landing gear doors and interfering with the inboard flaps.  After some evaluation, Boeing fixed the problem by redesigning the doors.  Other faults included a susceptibility to cracking in a section at top of the fuselage, oscillation in the inboard aileron, and structural flutter, which led to Boeing delaying use of fuel tanks in the horizontal stabilizer until early 2014.

In the summer of 2010, Boeing made up for lost time by adding a fourth test aircraft, which was already painted in the Cargolux livery.  A key milestone was a take-off with an MTOW (maximum take-off weight) of 1,005,000 pounds (455,860 kg), which exceeded the initial design MTOW of 975,000 pounds (455,860 kg).  Delays pushed delivery to Cargolux to mid-2011, and a fifth test aircraft began to fly on February 3, 2011. The 747-8 program saw another milestone when the -8I conducted its first flight on March 20, 2011.

Entry into Service (EIS)

The FAA and its European counterpart EASA certified the -8F on August 19, 2011. Contractual issues between Cargolux and Boeing delayed the first delivery from September 19, 2011, to October 12, 2011, and, within hours of delivery, the aircraft loaded its first revenue cargo destined for Luxembourg at nearby Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.  The -8I received certification on December 14, 2011, and was delivered to Lufthansa on May 5, 2012.  Lufthansa started 787-8I service less than a month later on June 1, with service from Frankfurt to Washington-Dulles International Airport.  That same year, Boeing produced the first private 747-8.

Extra:  Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental Delivery Ceremony to Lufthansa – May 1, 2012

The 747-8 encountered some post-EIS teething pains.  For example, on September 15, 2012, the NTSB requested the grounding of 747-8s as a result of cracks found in the Genx engines.  This also affected the new 787s powered by the same engines.  Furthermore, a core engine icing incident of an Air Bridge Cargo 747-8F on July 31, 2013, resulted in malfunctions and damage to three of the four engines.  Boeing and General Electric implemented software changes to mitigate the effects of core engine icing.

Specifications and Performance

The Boeing 747-8 is the world’s longest commercial airliner, with a length of 250 feet, 2 inches (73.3 m) and a wingspan of 224 feet, 7 inches (68.5 m). The full payload of the -8F is 295,800 pounds (134,000 kg), while the -8I can seat 467 passengers in a three-class layout or 605 in a single class, which no airline has opted for to date.  At their current MTOW of 987,000 pounds (448,000 kg), a -8F can fly 4,390 nautical miles (8,130 km), while the -8I can cover 8,000 nautical miles (14,800 km), both at a cruising speed of Mach 0.855 (570 mph or 917 kmph).  Furthermore, each GEnx-2B67 engine produces 66,500 pounds (296 kiloNewtons) of thrust.

Cathay Pacific Cargo Boeing 747-8F and Lufthansa Boeing 747-8I:  Photos by Luis Linares / AirwaysNews

Six months after the EIS of the 747-8F, Boeing reported a 1 percent reduction in fuel burn over the design projection, while delivering a 16 percent lower ton-mile operating cost than the -400F with more range.  The -8I carries 51 more passengers and provides 26% more cargo volume than the -400.  The 747-8 has identical lengths on the cargo and passenger versions, the key difference being the longer upper deck on the latter.  Moreover, Boeing foresees -8I conversion to cargo in the future.  Furthermore, the -8I offers a 30 percent noise reduction, improved fuel efficiency of 16 percent, and 13 percent lower seat-mile, in comparison to the -400.

The 747-8 passenger cabin incorporates interior designs from the 787, such as a more spacious entrance and curved overhead bins.  In addition, it uses windows similar to those of the 777 that are 8 percent larger than those of the -400.  Finally, it incorporates the popular LED mood lighting to improve the passenger experience.

An Uncertain Future

To date, Boeing has delivered 84 of the 119 747-8 orders. These orders are divided into 68 -8Fs, and 51-8Is.  The cargo customers include Cargolux, Nippon Cargo, Atlas Air, Volga-Dnepr, Korean Air Cargo, Cathay Pacific Cargo, Saudia Cargo, Silk Way and Air Bridge Cargo, as well as leasing companies. Passenger orders came from Lufthansa, Korean Air, Air China and Transaero.  Moreover, nine customers ordered private jet versions.  The most recent customer is the U.S. Air Force, which intends to use the 747-8 to replace the current fleet of two modified 747-200B presidential aircraft also known as Air Force One.

Air China B748 Delivery

Air China Boeing 747-8 delivery event:  Photo courtesy of Brandon Farris

Extra:  Boeing’s 747 Celebrates 1,500th Delivery as Future Remains Uncertain

Given the low number of orders, the 747-8 might have a limited future.  Some argue that Boeing failed to aggressively market the aircraft, while others claim long-range twinjets, including the future 777-9X, will continue to stymie the 747-8.  Furthermore, analysts claim the 747-8 is more attractive option for cargo operations and will have a viable future in that market.

The reality is that the worldwide economic recession took a bite out of the demand for air cargo and led to more freight operations by sea.  However, Boeing still holds a 90 percent share of the freight market.  From the passenger perspective, Boeing sees the -8I as a niche gap filler between its 77-300ER and the Airbus A380.

Scant passenger orders, the lower demand for the 747-8 and the slower-than-expected near-term recovery in the cargo market led to a decision by Boeing in December 2014 to decrease production from 1.5 to 1.3 aircraft per month.  Its closest competitor, the Airbus A380, has 317 orders and is also facing uncertainty in the future.  As of this writing, Emirates, the largest A380 operator, is pushing Airbus to develop a new engine option (neo) variant.  At the same time, an order of 100 747-8Is is being pitched to the airline, despite Emirates having considered and passed on the -8I in the past.

Extra:  Analysis: Boeing Cuts 747-8 Production Amidst VLA Weakness

We should have a clearer idea later this year as to how all this will unfold.  Furthermore, while lower oil prices are not necessarily here to stay, they could slow down demand for twin jets. Regardless of future decisions by Boeing and the airlines, the “Queen of the Skies” will remain a fixture in the skies for some time to come.

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