Anyone who likes airplanes and aviation probably has at least a small appreciation for the Boeing 747. For most of us though, the 747 is symbolic of the modern age of air travel as well as being something of an engineering marvel. I grew up with an aviation obsession and always knew that I wanted to be a pilot, so for me the 747 was like lofty life goal that I could hopefully someday achieve.
There are countless books and TV shows that can tell you the history and engineering of the airplane, but there aren’t a lot of sources that will tell you what it’s like to fly the airplane from a pilot’s perspective. I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve my childhood dreams and eke out a living as a professional pilot. Just recently, I started a new job and finished training on the 747-400.
My intent here is to provide a sort of “first drive” perspective for aviators and enthusiasts alike. As of this writing, I have less than 100 hours of flight time in the airplane but I wanted to use this new period to make more thorough comparisons to airplanes I’ve flown in the past before the 747 becomes completely familiar to me.
For context, my aviation experience includes the following types:
- Many hundreds of hours in high performance GA planes, but primarily the Cessna 210 and 206, nearly every version of the Beechcraft Bonanza and Baron, and the Piper Navajo/Chieftain.
- Beechcraft King Air 200
- Several versions of the straight-wing Cessna Citation
- Embraer EMB-120 Brasilia
- Bombardier/Canadair CRJ 200 and 700
Obviously, the defining feature of the 747 is the sheer size of it compared to almost every other airplane. It’s huge. Just standing next to the tires is mind-boggling. A preflight walk-around takes a few minutes longer than regional jet to say the least.
The weights are another matter. My airline operates 2 versions of the -400, a converted passenger plane known as the BCF and then the factory freighters known as the ERF or LRF depending on configuration. The BCF can takeoff at a maximum weight of 870,000lbs and the ERF can be as high as 910,000lbs. For comparison, the max takeoff weight in the 70 passenger CRJ-700 was 75,000lbs.
A large part of the weight is fuel. When you’re carrying 100 tons of cargo across continents and oceans, you’re going to need some gas to feed the 4 massive engines. In an interesting and perhaps telling experience of 747 fuel-burn, allow me to share this anecdote flying from Delhi to Leipzig, Germany.
We generally plan about 2,000 lbs of fuel burn for the taxi out to the runway. In this case, we were expecting an especially long taxi from our parking stand in the middle of the airport to a runway on the far corner, so the captain elected to have the fuel truck add an extra 1,000lbs of gas to avoid hitting our MINTO fuel before takeoff which is a minimum fuel amount that is legally required per our flight plan. If we go below that MINTO number before advancing the throttles for takeoff, we must return to parking and get more gas. Think of it as safety net for unforeseen circumstances that could be encountered half a day and half a world away.
So operating in a slightly narrow margin between max takeoff weight and MINTO, we departed for Europe. Some 9 hours later, we were beginning our approach into Leipzig when it became obvious that we were going to be over our maximum landing weight of 652,000lbs (a structural limitation to protect the landing gear). What to do? Add drag and increase the fuel burn. We slowed down and dropped some flaps and our landing gear. The engines spooled up to maintain speed with the added drag and by the time we were about 5 miles from the runway, we had burned off enough extra gas to get to our max landing weight.
Taxiing is of course another abnormal experience with an airplane this large. The nose wheel sits roughly 15′ behind the pilots’ seats, so tight turns will have you sitting out over the edge of the pavement before the airplane starts to turn. It was slightly disconcerting at first, but I trusted the veteran captain at the tiller. Wider taxiways and shallower turns don’t require this technique. The main wheels beneath the fuselage (as opposed to the the wheels under the inboard wing section) also provide a small measure of steering assistance.
Once you’re flying the airplane, the mass behind you quickly becomes forgotten. Even during landing, I found the sight picture to be only slightly different from much smaller airplanes.
Before I ever sat in the cockpit, I was given all sorts of subjective and anecdotal advice about the airplane from instructors and veterans alike. The 747 has a very dual nature in that its raw performance could appropriately be described as “monstrous” and yet its handling qualities are harmonious and legendary. It’s earned the moniker “Queen of the Skies” for a good reason. But the docile handling and feel belies the fact that this machine is 400 tons screaming through the skies at 600mph.
Compared to every other airplane, the 747 is perfectly normal, just scaled up massively. Thrust is appropriate for the weights and the control surfaces are large enough and well boosted to provide very positive control feel in all phases of flight. It feels no more “truck-like” than any other transport category airplane I’ve flown.
Takeoff acceleration can feel slower at high gross weights. This leads to the initially eye-opening experience of watching the far end of the runway get shockingly close before the other pilot calls rotation speed. You just have to trust that the performance data is accurate!
Conversely, I’ve heard (not yet experienced personally) stories that the airplane is a rocket at low gross weights. And you would expect it to be considering the amount of thrust the engines can produce. Normally, we operate with some level of “de-rated” takeoff thrust to prolong the lifespan of the engines since they are more valuable than the hull of the airplane. A 747 veteran told me recently of a time when he was taking off empty and suggested they use max thrust to get the full acceleration experience- they were not disappointed.
Once airborne, the 747 climbs respectably, even at high gross weights. At our normal operating weights, we climb out at just over 250 knots once the flaps are retracted below 10,000′ and then accelerate to around 300 knots above 10,000. The 747 has one of the most highly swept wings of any civilian aircraft and as such, it likes to fly fast. “Economy” cruising speeds tend be around Mach .83. Maximum speed is Mach .92, but we never seem to fly at that speed because the trade off in fuel burn to time saved is unfavorable.
Hand flying the 747 in the climb is pleasant. A light touch on the controls yields very direct changes in the aircraft’s attitude. As I mentioned earlier, the control surfaces are appropriately massive and hydraulically boosted, so there is very little sensation of the huge mass you’re controlling. From the pilot’s seat, it’s very hard to distinguish the 747 from the CRJ. If the cockpit were much smaller, it might feel very similar to the corporate jets I’ve flown as well.
Approaches and landings are the same. Certainly, energy management becomes more of a factor at these speeds and weights, but the flight spoilers and idle thrust provide an adequate amount of drag to make the airplane easily controllable. As with any large jet though, it pays dividends to think several miles ahead about what you want the airplane to do. Fortunately the flap and gears speeds are impressively high and give even a sloppy pilot a fair amount of operational flexibility if extra drag is suddenly needed.
Landings are straight-forward, but again, energy management is crucial. A few extra knots on approach can translate into dangerous amounts of runway floating underneath. Landing performance and runway limitations demand that we fly a tight speed/path profile and really try to get the wheels on the ground in the touchdown zone of the runway because the margins can be thin for stopping distance required.
In my 7 landings thus far, I can only surmise that the formula I was given works really well. On profile, wait for the radar altimeter to call “30” feet and apply a slight amount of back pressure on the yoke for about 2 degrees of additional pitch. That’s the flare. When you hear “10”, bring the throttles to idle. You do have to fly the nose to the ground to prevent abuse to the nose gear, but that really amounts to using your pitch authority to control the descent of the nose as the speed decay naturally brings it to the ground. Surprisingly easy and simple if you fly the numbers.
In case you might be wondering about automation’s role in this airplane, I’ll try to explain it as simply as possible here. The 747-400 was designed in the 1980’s so the automation is at least a generation or 2 behind at this point, but it’s more than adequate. The biggest evolution was replacing the flight engineer on the 100/200/300, but advances in navigational technology also improved situational awareness and performance.
Crucially, Flight Management Computers (FMCs) communicate with essential airplane systems and the autopilot to assist the pilots in making sure the airplane gets to the right place at the right time with a reasonable amount of fuel. But this doesn’t mean that we press a few buttons and then do the crossword puzzle for the next 10 hours. These systems still require a huge amount of pilot monitoring and input over the course of a flight.
Even with the autopilot and the autothrottles, the 2 pilots are busy in the terminal environment (climbing out or approaching to land) that bookends any flight. For instance, while the Vertical Navigation portion of the autopilot can plan and execute perfectly efficient descents, that plan does not frequently coincide with what ATC has in mind for you. And because of the obvious limitations in 1980’s computer interfaces, the pilots occasionally have to out-think the native programming of the FMCs to ensure that we legally and safely comply with ATC instructions. None of this is to imply that we’re under undue burden while flying, but I think it’s important to reiterate that these airplanes are nowhere near autonomous.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the Boeing autopilot (which is functionally common across numerous Boeing models) was probably the biggest learning curve for me personally. It has a higher level of functionality than any other autopilot I’ve used before which, as a clever friend of mine accurately described, “makes hard things easy and easy things hard”. The basic idea is that there are usually 3 different ways to tell it how to do any one thing and each of those ways comes with its own special set of consequences. It certainly feels like the part of the airplane that I will still be learning for some time to come.
Hopefully that communicated the basics of what it’s like to fly the 747-400. It really is a great airplane and it feels pretty awesome to sit behind the yoke of something that I had numerous toys/models of growing up. The opportunity feels even more special as the 747 is almost completely gone from passenger fleets now. I suspect they’ll being flying cargo for many years to come, but that just means only a luck few pilots will get to fly them before they finally retire. If you fly, or aspire to, I promise you that flying the 747 is exactly as cool as you imagine it is.
[Images copyright 2016 Hooniverse/Stephen Rubke]