Icon of the airways

Boeing 747-400

  • TEXT MARC BIELEFELD

Film star, legend, collector’s item. Few aircraft have earned more admiration than the Boeing 747 – a plane that has made history, inspired Hollywood and thrilled fans around the world

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German model maker Arnold "Noldi" Meier with the 747 he built in 4600 hours over 17 years

© Arnold Meier

A meadow in Bassersdorf, Canton Zürich, Switzerland: It’s a mild September day and there’s a light breeze blowing. Having decided that “today’s the day,” Arnold “Noldi” Meier has driven his station wagon over to the airfield and now brings it to a standstill. Three men haul a freshly painted Boeing 747-400 from the back of his car, a technically perfect model jumbo jet that even had to come through thrust tests before being declared ready to fly. The remote-controlled aircraft weighs just under 25 kilograms, has a wingspan of over three meters and can fly 120 kilometers per hour in horizontal flight. Noldi, its owner and builder, isn’t able to make her lift off by himself today; he needs an experienced jet pilot to lend a hand. “I was too nervous plus I simply didn’t have the nerve to fly her the first time myself,” he explains. That’s understandable given that he spent thousands of euros on the plane and put in thousands of hours of work over the course of 17 years.

The model 747-400 finally leaves the ground with a thunderous roar. Once in the air, it is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Meier had a special reason for choosing a 747 for his mammoth project; this was no chance decision. “I love to watch the 747s at Zurich Airport, to see them land, roll majestically across the apron and take off. They fascinate me.” There’s something different about the jumbo jet, something very special. It’s more than “just” a plane. Its distinctive hump and cockpit located up high in the snout above the pointed nose really make it stand out from the crowd. Ant that’s not all: The 747 has also made history by transporting more people than any other plane. It’s a majestic cult object with wings, and it has real character. It is also the only plane in the world to be known the world over by its nickname – the jumbo jet.

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This plane has lent wings to many a tough-guy stunt: In the blockbuster movie Die Hard 2, John McClaine (Bruce Willis) battles terrorists on the wing of a Boeing 747

© United Archives/imago

 Search the Internet and you’ll easily find hundreds of jumbo jet fan clubs. Thousands of scale models of the 747 sit on children’s bedroom shelves and inflatable versions float in swim- ming pools. No other plane has enjoyed anything like the jumbo jet’s Hollywood career. In Air Force One, a film starring Harrison Ford and in the legendary Airport disaster movies, a roaring 747 is the main star of the screen. And in Die Hard 2, Bruce Willis actually fights the bad guy out on an airplane wing – a wing belonging, naturally, to a 747. The British rock band Genesis, renowned for its dramatic live performances, used a double row of dazzling white landing lights from a 747 to illuminate the stage. Back in the 1970s, they were reputedly the brightest lights around. Today, the jumbo jet is very much a symbol of an optimistic modern age, and is universally loved and admired and displayed – as a full-size model – in museums. The 747 is an aluminum metaphor for an entire era – for progress, for elegant travel and for global mobility.

At Arlanda Airport in Stockholm, a retired 747 has been turned into a hotel with 85 guest beds. The cockpit has been transformed into a two-bed suite. Another 747 was converted into a restaurant in Namyangju, South Korea, in 2007. Parked in the middle of a residential development, it looked like it had landed right next to one of the tower blocks. Guests had 150 tables to choose from, each with its own window to look out of, just like on any other plane. One of the engines was closed off by a tarp with the daily menu – fast food and noodle dishes – printed on it. The jumbo cook shop has since been scrapped.

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Dream of flying: The Jumbo Hostel at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm is a converted 747 with 27 rooms and 76 beds. The cockpit is now a suite with a view and the upper deck features a lounge complete with plane seats

© Zuma Press Inc./action press
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Restaurant plane: The “Juan T. Trippe” 747, named after Pan Am’s founder, has unfortunately been scrapped, but it was once parked in the city of Namyangju, South Korea, and served lunch

© Jon Dunbar

 The Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in the US state of Oregon has also put an old 747 to a very unique use. Attached to the museum there’s a water park, where families with children can have a great time splashing around in the pools and careen- ing down the water slides – a number of which start in the body of a 747-100 perched on the roof. A crane was used to haul the entire plane – wings, engines, undercarriage, together weighing a good 200 tons – some 30 meters into the air. Not even the boldest aircraft designer would have dreamed that the 747 would one day be the main attraction at a water park.

But there seems to be no end to the fascination the iconic 747 inspires. An entire jumbo jet was dismantled in the California desert, its parts flown by helicopter to a construction site in the Malibu hills, where the architect David Hertz had been commissioned to design “747 Wing House,” a home built mostly from 747-200 components weighing around 180,000 kilos. The curved aircraft wings – stripped of their engines – each form the roof of an elegant glass-walled bungalow. Elsewhere on the estate, the cockpit was converted into a pavilion for meditation, and the unmistakable hump that once contained the First Class cabin has been turned into the roof of the guesthouse. The eccentric home owner even had the freight bay converted into an animal barn, where she intends to keep endangered animals. Unlike the rest of the residence, the giant silvery wings of the 747 are perfectly visible from the air. In fact, they had to be registered with the US Federal Aviation Administration so that pilots flying overhead would not report it as a crash site.

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"Wing House" in the Malibu hills. It was built mostly from parts of a 747 that was previously dismantled in the California desert

© Action Press
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Anthony Toth, a fan from California, built a mock-up 747 cabin in his garage

© Frank/Redux/laif

 Then there’s Anthony Toth of Redondo Beach, California, who is so crazy about the 747 that he built a perfect mock-up of a First Class jumbo cabin in his garage at home. He put in almost all of the design details and furnishings that were typical back in the 1970s and 1980s: the seats, the overhead bins, even the steps leading to the upper deck in the hump – not forgetting the original coffee machines. Toth collects the napkins that the flight attendants used to hand out to passengers back then, as well as the headphones, and even the almonds, which are still wrapped in their sealed packages. This keenest of fans actually lavished 20 years of his life on perfecting his replica cabin and spent some 50000 dollars on the project. You’d never know, either, just by driving by his house, the secret hidden away in his basement: a jamboree of jumbo jet nostalgia, a monument to enthusiasm, an altar to an aviation icon devoted to 747 memorabilia.

When all is said and done, the 747 is no ordinary plane. It has long since taxied into people’s hearts.