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Boeing bids farewell to an icon on Tuesday: It is delivering its final 747 jumbo jet. Since its first flight in 1969, the 747 has served as a cargo plane, a commercial aircraft capable of carrying nearly 500 passengers, a transport for Nasa’s space shuttles, and the US Air Force One presidential aircraft.

It revolutionised travel, connecting international cities that had never before had direct routes and helping democratise passenger flights. But over about the past 15 years, Boeing and its European rival Airbus have introduced more profitable and fuel efficient wide-body planes, with only two engines to maintain instead of the 747’s four. The final plane is the 1,574th built by Boeing is being delivered to cargo carrier Atlas Air.

Boeing set out to build the 747 after losing a contract for a huge military transport, the C-5A. The idea was to take advantage of the new engines developed for the transport – high-bypass turbofan engines, which burned less fuel by passing air around the engine core, enabling a farther flight range – and to use them for a newly imagined civilian aircraft.

Designed in the late 1960s to meet demand for mass travel, the world’s first twin-aisle wide-body jetliner’s nose and upper deck became the world’s most luxurious club above the clouds. But it was in the seemingly endless rows at the back of the new jumbo that the 747 transformed travel. “This was THE airplane that introduced flying for the middle class in the U.S.,” said Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith.

It took over 50,000 Boeing workers less than 16 months to churn out the first 747, a Herculean effort that earned them the nickname “The Incredibles”. The jumbo jet’s production required the construction of a massive factory in Everett, north of Seattle, the world’s largest building by volume.

The plane’s fuselage was 225 feet long and the tail stood as tall as a six-storey building. The jet’s design included a second deck extending from the cockpit back over the first third of the plane, giving it a distinctive hump and inspiring a nickname, the Whale. More romantically, the 747 became known as the Queen of the Skies.

Some airlines turned the second deck into a first-class cocktail bar. One decommissioned 747 has been converted into a 33-room hotel near the airport in Stockholm.

Delta was the last US airline to use the 747 for passenger flights, which ended in 2017, although some other international carriers continue to fly it, including the German airline Lufthansa.

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