Top 13 of the Most Incredible Boeing 747s
Air Force One, the Space Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, the Sultan of Brunei’s jet—here are some of the most lavish and advanced 747s to ever take to the skies.
The “Queen of the Skies” has been in service since 1970, following its first test flight the year before. The decades have been good to this jumbo jet, as Boeing 747s are still some of the most flown aircraft in the world, with more than 1,500 built as passenger planes, cargo aircraft, military strategic hubs, and NASA science aircraft. Here are some of the most awe-inspiring 747s to ever soar through the skies.
Boeing 747 Prototype
The first 747 prototype being rolled out of Boeing’s factory in Everett, Washington, September 30, 1968. The purpose-built 747 factory remains the largest building ever constructed by volume.
Boeing 747 Dreamlifter, or Large Cargo Freighter, is a heavily modified 747-400. The wide-body cargo plane is used exclusively by Boeing to transport aircraft components for the 787 Dreamliner from suppliers around the world to Boeing’s assembly plants. It uses the longest cargo loader in the world.
The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a modified 747SP used to carry a 2.5-meter telescope and conduct infrared astronomy observations in flight. A joint venture between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), SOFIA operates in the stratosphere at about 41,000 feet, above the majority of Earth’s water vapor, to study everything from star formation to alien planets’ atmospheres.
One of four Boeing E-4 Advanced Airborne Command Post aircraft with the program name “Nightwatch.” These modified Boeing 747-200Bs have been serving the U.S. Air Force as airborne command and control platforms since 1974. The E-4’s electronics are designed to survive an EMP blast, which is why the plane still uses traditional analog flight instruments. The aircraft is also equipped with direct fire countermeasures, has three operational flight decks, and can sustain a crew of up to 112—the largest crew of any USAF aircraft in history. With in-air refueling capabilities, the E-4s are designed to stay airborne for a full week in the event of an emergency, though the aircraft’s longest flight was 35 hours and 24 minutes.
One of the most vibrant 747s in the sky, this 747-400ER is owned and operated by Qantas Airways Limited, the largest airline of Australia. The pictured plane is the second aircraft to wear the airline’s Wunala Dreaming livery.
A Plane Fit for a Sultan
This 747 is almost certainly the most lavish jumbo jet in the world. Owned by the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah (the richest person in the world in 1997), the 747-430’s interior is filled with fine beds and furniture, solid gold washbasins, and Lalique crystal ornaments. Oh, and Sultan Bolkiah has been known to pilot the aircraft himself.
Space Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
One of two 747s modified by NASA to serve as Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA). The SCAs were primarily used to ferry the Space Shuttles from their landing sites back to Kennedy Space Center. Introduced in 1977 and retired in 2012, the first Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, SCA 905, was used to test the Space Shuttle Enterprise by releasing it mid-flight, allowing it to glide and land under its own control. In the photo above, one of the SCAs is transporting the Space Shuttle Endeavor to Kennedy Space Center after its final landing at Edwards Air Force Base in November 2008.
One of five Pokemon-themed 747s owned and operated by Japan’s biggest airline, All Nippon Airways, photographed in 2005. This ANA 747-400’s livery, called “Pikachu’s garden,” was designed by a Japanese student.
First 747 Airliner
Pan Am was the first commercial airline to operate the Boeing 747. This 1985 photo shows one of the airline’s 747-100s with the aircraft’s original window layout and iconic upper deck shape, which was modified on later models.
Air Force One
Special Air Missions (SAM) 2800 flies over Mount Rushmore in February 2001. It’s one of two modified 747s designated as presidential transport aircraft, called VC-25s. The VC-25s (which only use the call sign Air Force One when a sitting president is on board) are equipped with secure telephone and computer communications systems, in-air refueling capabilities, electronic countermeasures to jam enemy radar, defenses against an EMP blast, flares to avoid infrared homing missiles, and a chaff defense system to avoid radar-guided missiles. The aircraft’s luxury features include an office for the president, a conference room, and private quarters for the president and the first lady.
The variants of the 747 have used a number of engine models over the decades, but here you can see the innards of Pratt & Whitney JT9D turbofan, designed specifically for the 747 prototype.
The 747-400F (Freighter) is a modified 747 specifically designed for cargo shipments. It is equipped with a main deck nose door for loading and unloading as well as a mechanized cargo handling system in the interior. This 2013 photo shows German Red Cross (DRK) workers loading aid supplies into a 747-400F in Berlin to be sent to the Philippines after millions were displaced by typhoon Haiyan.
Another contestant for most colorful 747, the Ndizani is a 747-300 owned and operated by South Africa’s flag carrier airline, South African Airways. Here the Ndizani is photographed at Perth Airport in 2003.