The KLM Boeing 747. No other plane in the history of KLM contributed so much to its global growth as the Boeing 747 has done. From the 1970’s onward the Boeing 747 enabled KLM to rapidly and efficiently grow its global network. They did this with a clever mix of passenger and combi versions of the 747. Enthusiasts around the world lovingly call her “The Queen of the Skies”. KLM operated 42 passenger planes of the type and 4 cargo planes, of which 3 are still in service. This photo report is a homage to a plane that already had a legendary status during her lifetime.
The Boeing 747 first flew in February 1969. In the 1960’s the first jet powered airliners, such as the Boeing 707, Convair Coronado and Douglas DC-8, entered service. Jet powered air transport was already a big progression. But the introduction of the 747 was a massive leap forward. Especially in terms of capacity and size. Boeing and launch customer Pan Am took the massive gamble to develop the biggest passenger plane in history. Pan Am placed an order for 25 Boeing 747 in April 1966. At that time both companies risked their reputation and financial future on the development of this plane. But by doing so they paved the way for a plane that would revolutionize air travel. The Boeing 747 brought such a massive increase in passenger and cargo capacity that it made air travel accessible to the average Joe, and not just the happy few.
Following Pan Am’s lead any self respecting airline could not stay behind. Soon Boeing could add one after another flag carrier to their customer list for the Boeing 747. The first 747 rolled out of the Everett plant on 30 September 1968. The first flight lasted 1 hour and 16 minutes and took place on 9 February 1969. Surprisingly quickly the 747 was certified in December 1969 and entered service with Pan Am on 22 January 1970. Quickly the 747 got the nickname “Jumbo Jet”, due to its size. It was also the first aircraft type to feature two aisles in her cabin, since then known as a “wide body aircraft”.
The Boeing 747 is unique due to her size and shape with the famous “bubble” upper deck. You can recognise the Boeing 747 easily from any angle and almost from any distance.
The Boeing 747 has a configuration of four main landing gear bogies with four wheels and two nose wheels. The touchdown is always a thing to behold.
The cockpit of the Boeing 747 is placed on the upper deck. This enables a unique feature of the Boeing 747. People in rows 1 and 2 can look forward due to the curvature of the nose section.
In June 1967 KLM joined a growing list of national flag carriers to order the Boeing 747. KLM initially ordered three Boeing 747-100. Soon after the order was placed KLM formed a consortium with Scandinavian Airline System (SAS), Swissair initially. The French Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) joined later. The airlines co-operated on maintenance and procurement. This consortium, called KSSU, cooperated in joint maintenance, and requirements for future planes. The co-operation led to the development of the Boeing 747B. KLM changed its order for the three -100 version to the 747B (later known as 747-200B) and ordered four more.
The PH-BUA “Mississippi” taxiing to runway 19R at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in 1988.
The first KLM Boeing 747-206B – The PH-BUA named Mississippi- was delivered to Amsterdam Schiphol on 31 January 1971. The KLM Boeing 747-206B had a two-class configuration accommodating 253 passengers: 32 in Royal Class and 321 in economy. The Mississippi performed KLM’s first 747 revenue flight to New York JFK on 14 February 1971. The remaining -200B’s were delivered through 1971. The seven oldest KLM boeing 747-200’s retired from service once the 747-400 were delivered. The last one -the PH-BUG- left KLM in November 1991
In the wake of the Boeing 747, Mc Donnell Douglas introduced the DC-10 that KLM als ordered. Lockheed came to the market with the L1011 Tristar. All three widebody types were wider, higher and longer than any plane that had been built previously. At Schiphol many infrastructural changes needed to be done. The C Pier received a addition enabling room for five wide bodies. A completely new hangar 11 named “Jan Dellaert” was built for maintenance. In addition to this KLM and Schiphol bought a lot of new ground equipment such as fork lift catering trucks and new tow trucks as well.
The PH-BUW arriving as KLM 644 from New York JFK in September 1989
The N4548M “Sir Frank Whittle” at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol before a big thunderstorm.
As much as the Boeing 747 is synonymous with an era of growth for KLM, it is also part of the blackest page in the history of KLM and aviation. On March 27, 1977 flight KLM 4805 carried out by the PH-BUF “The Rijn” collided on the runway with Pan Am flight 1736 in foggy conditions on Los Rodeos Airport in Tenerife. All passengers in the KLM plane died in the crash and only 61 passengers on the Pan Am flight survived. In total 583 people died in this terrible event, which is still the deadliest accident in aviation history.
KLM had a firm order for more -206B versions. But when KLM found out that Boeing was developing a version with a Side Cargo Door at the back, KLM changed the order to the Boeing 747-206M. In the ’70’s KLM had been quite successful operating DC-8-55 in a mixed combination of passengers and cargo, and saw great potential in a combi version of the Boeing 747.
The operation of In total seven Combi versions of the -200 series brought KLM two massive advantages. Firstly combining passengers with a large amount of cargo in the hold enabled KLM to become a truly global network airline. Secondly KLM was able to play with shifts in demand by varying the cargo and the passenger compartment to suit every mission. As a result KLM was the worldwide largest cargo operator without its dedicated cargo airplanes for many years.
In October 2003 the last of the Classics left the KLM fleet. Since the 747-200/300 were the last types to operate with a flight engineer, this moment also marked the end of the flight engineer at KLM. Many of them went on to other airlines or were retrained as a pilot with KLM.
When the 747-400 entered service with KLM, they were very quick to emulate on the success of the -200 series SCD. Up to 17 747-400 series planes have served with KLM as combi plane. If it where in KLM’s hands they would still be flying combi planes. Given the current fleet most probably in a the form of a Boeing 777. But certification issues and the simple fact that Passenger and cargo traffic have grown so much, that economically it makes less sense nowadays.
The N4548M “Sir Frank Whittle”in front of Hangar 11 at Schiphol wearing a sticker for the 70th anniversary of KLm in 1989.
The PH-BUH “Albert Plesman” after her conversion to full freighter configuration (Boeing 747-206B SF).
Some of the KLM Boeing 747 received colours of KLM Asia to enable operations to Taiwan. The PH-BFH “HongKong” was one of them.
In the early 80’s Boeing announced plans for a new variant of the Boeing 747 by stretching the upper deck with 23ft. The stretch would enable 10% more passengers to take place in the 747. This capacity increase came at only a slightly higher fuel consumption rate.
KLM especially was interested in this version as it could take on more passengers without compromising the cargo combi hold. Swissair was the launch customer for the Boeing 747-300 and got their first plane in March 1983. KLM placed an order for the new plane as well. And in September 1983 the N4548M entered service with KLM. Eventually KLM would receive three factory new Boeing 747-300. But the fleet of Boeing 747 with a stretched upper deck (SUD) would grow way bigger than that.
Boeing developed a modification program for existing Boeing 747-200 and 747-100 versions. In combination with a heavy maintenance program, Boeing would convert the shorter bubble of the -200 version in to a stretched upper deck in about two months. As most of the newer -200 series were only a few years old and had many years of service in them, KLM decided to convert all the newer 747’s to a SUD version. Between 1983 and 1984 every plane from the PH-BUH until the N1309E (later PH-BUT) would become a SUD version.
The PH-BUN “Anthony H.G. Fokker” being towed to the gat in October 1988 at Amsterdam Schiphol
Boeing 747-206B SCD PH-BUN “Anthony H.G. Fokker” climbing out after take off from Runway 19R at Schiphol.
Boeing 747-206B SUD PH-BUP “The Ganges” rotating from the Zwanenburgbaan in july 1991.
Boeing 747-206B SUD PH-BUR “The Indus” almost home in the spring of 2003.
In the late eighties the Boeing 747-200 and -300 versions started to show their age. The step to the -300 version not being substantial enough to keep airlines happy for the decades ahead. Boeing developed the Boeing 747-400 as an answer to airlines’ requirements for more range and better fuel consumption. The Boeing 747-400 offered that with newer engines and a wing stretch of 6 feet and winglets to improve the airflow over the wings. Including a full glass cockpit, Boeing brought airlines a new flagship for the two decades ahead. KLM was one of the five launch customers of the -400, together with Northwest Airlines, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and British Airways. KLM would end up operating 22 -400 of the passenger version and 4 full cargo planes. Of the passenger version 17 had a side cargo door enabling the famous combi operations.
Over the years I have had countless encounters with the 747. My favourites no doubt being at the runway very early on a summer morning, alone with the morning dew at my feet, and one after the other KLM Boeing 747 coming in from their Asian or American destinations. This collage is a testimony to these moments.
When the last decade ended many of the 747-400’s were already showing their age. If it was not for the massive advantages of the combi planes, KLM would probably already have favoured replacing the fleet with a combination of 777’s and 787 Dreamliners already. As it stood however, there was still place for the 747 in the KLM network, while many other airlines had already said goodbye to the 747 as a passenger airplane. KLM intended to keep the 747’s until the end of 2022, until COVID-19 appeared. The total collapse of passenger traffic forced KLM to rethink its plans.
The end of the 747 came sooner than expected, much to the sadness of many KLM employees and enthusiasts. Many of them saw a large part of their life connected to this icon. So, that is how, on 31 March 2020, the PH-BFT landed for the last time with passengers onboard. An emotional and sad day for many, especially since KLM had decided to let the 747 go without any fanfare or ceremony. Completely understandable from a business perspective and the extremely difficult situation that KLM was in but a hard pill to swallow for many nonetheless. The short re-entry of the 747 in the following months, to cope with the surge of cargo traffic, did little to ease the pain.
For decades not a moment would pass without at least some of the 747 back at their home base in Amsterdam. But after the end of the summer timetable in 2020 they were gone forever, leaving nothing but the memories. I hope this photo story helps preserving them.
The last KLM Boeing 747 passenger flights drew a lot of people to the runways, even if it was really early.
My last trademark “RWY 06 threshold shot” of the KLM Boeing 747.
The PH-BFY Boeing 747-406M “Johannesburg with KLM 100 Years sticker almost touching down on the Polderbaan.
Stichting Farewell MD-11, published two amazing photo books about the KLM Boeing 747. Just as with the farewell of the MD-11 at KLM, two books describe the history of the 747 at KLM. The Farewell KLM Boeing 747 “Queen of the Skies” is a book about the Boeing 747-400 in service of the KLM. It was preceded by: “Farewell KLM 747 – the Grand Lady-” about the 747 Classics.
Both books are part of a series of many Dutch Aircraft types that have been put out of service in recent years. Among these are the Fokker 70 &100 and the MD-11 at KLM and Martinair. Many of my photos appear in the MD-11 and 747 books. You can still order most of these books on this website. Profits of the sale of these books go to Wings of Support. You can find more info on Wings of Support here.
I have created similar photo stories for the Axalp Fliegerschiessen Airshow and the GLV V training Area. Be sure to check them out as well.
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