The Pan Am Series – Part XII: The Boeing 747SP

The Boeing 747SP and a Record Making Flight

Boeing 747SP (Illustration by Mike Machat in Pan Am - An Airline and Its Aircraft)

Boeing 747SP (Illustration by Mike Machat in Ron Davies’ Pan Am – An Airline and Its Aircraft)

Once the Boeing 747 was a fixture in Pan Am’s fleet, the focus in the mid-1970s was toward ultra-long range flights. In the airline’s eye was the important and potentially lucrative New York-Tokyo market. What was called for was an aircraft with a range of 7000 miles and capable of carrying approximately 200 passengers in a mixed class configuration. The flight would be about 13-14 hours duration.

Pan Am was convinced there was a demand in the New York-Tokyo market for such an aircraft and persuaded Boeing to produce a shortened version of the 747 with the range for that route. Iran Air was also looking for a high capacity airliner with sufficient range to cover its Tehran-New York route. What resulted was the Boeing 747SP.

Boeing 747SP - Clipper Freedom

Boeing 747SP – Clipper Freedom

The Boeing 747SP is a modified version of the Boeing 747, and was designed for ultra-long-range flights. Compared with its predecessor, the 747-100, the 747SP retains its wide-body four-engine layout, along with its double-deck design, but has a shortened fuselage, larger vertical stabilizer, and simplified trailing edge flaps. The weight saved by the shortened fuselage permitted longer range and increased speed relative to other early 747 configurations. The aircraft was also intended to provide Boeing with a mid-size wide-body airliner to compete with the DC-10 and L-1011. And until the introduction of the Boeing 777-200LR and 747-8, the SP was the first and only Boeing wide-body with a wingspan greater than the length of its fuselage

The SP could accommodate 230 passengers in a 3-class cabin to a maximum of 440 passengers in one class. Originally designated 747SB for “short body”, Boeing later changed the production designation to 747SP for “Special Performance”, reflecting the aircraft’s longer range and faster cruise speed. Pan Am was the launch customer, taking the first delivery, Clipper Freedom, on 5 March 1976.

Captain Sherman Carr, one of the former Pan Am pilots who flew the Boeing 747SP had this to say about the aircraft:

 “The plane was originally developed for Pan Am to be able to operate non-stop from the U.S. to Hong Kong and be able to stay aloft for over 15 hours. It was actually a regular 747 with upstairs lounge seating but shortened by about 48 feet to make it lighter and additional fuel tanks for longer range. If it’s not loaded with full fuel for extended range flights, the aircraft actually scoots like a hot rod and will outperform any WWII or Korean conflict fighter aircraft and is a lot of fun to fly.  It will roll or loop or do most of the maneuvers you see at airshows but of course this is not authorized so no pilot would ever tell you he had done those things.

The 747SP first entered service on Pan Am’s New York-Tokyo route on 26 April 1976. It was later used on other long-haul routes, including New York-Dhahran, San Francisco-Hong Kong and Los Angeles-Sydney.

Until the 747-400 entered service in 1989, the SP was the longest-range airliner available. Despite its technical achievements, the SP never sold as well as Boeing hoped. The cost of fuel in the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, the SP’s heavy wings, expensive cost, reduced capacity and the increased ranges of forthcoming airliners were some of the many factors that contributed to its low sales.  Some of the engineering work on the 747SP, however, was reused with the development of the 747-300 and 747-400 permitting them to fly the same range as the SP with the added bonus of extra seats and cargo capacity.

The aircraft was later acquired by VIP, government and corporate customers. At the end, a total of 45 aircraft were sold. Pan Am took delivery of eleven and disposed of them with the sale of its Pacific Routes to United Airlines.

Boeing 747SP - Clipper Plymouth Rock (John Wegg photo)

Boeing 747SP – Clipper Plymouth Rock (John Wegg photo)

While in service for Pan Am, the 747SP made two record-setting round-the-world flights. From 1-3 May 1976 the “Liberty Bell Express” flew around the world from New York with two stops, Delhi and Tokyo. The flight took 46 hours and 26 minutes over 23,137 miles. And from 28-30 October, celebrating Pan Am’s 50th Anniversary, “Pan Am Flight 50” flew around the world over both the North and South Pole with stops in London, Cape Town and Auckland. The flight took 54 hours, 7 minutes and 12 seconds and covered 26,706 miles.

Pam Hanlon was Managing Director, Corporate Communications at the time of the flight, and was also editor of the employee newspaper, the “Pan Am Clipper”. Below is an excerpt about Pan Am Flight 50 from her essay about her experiences in that position in the book Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People:

“[T]he most spectacular of all the Pan Am celebrations was a record-setting round-the-world anniversary flight that hurdled both the North and South Poles.  “Clipper 50,” a Boeing 747SP, carried 172 passengers, including aviation enthusiasts and Pan Am loyalists who paid $3,333 for First Class service and $2,222 for Economy; five employees selected by lottery; official guests, among them Miss Universe and Miss USA; a guitarist; caricaturist; hairdresser; members of the press; and a crew headed by Pan Am’s Chief Pilot, Captain Walt Mullikin, and Astrid Seemueller on the flight service side.  Clipper 50 (in regular service, the aircraft was Clipper New Horizons, or N533PA) took off from San Francisco, flew over the North Pole to London, then to Capetown, South Africa, and over the South Pole to Auckland, New Zealand, before returning to San Francisco. * * *  Reservations for the flight were on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the flight was sold out in less than a week after it was announced, due in large part to extensive media coverage of the dazzling plans.  It seems no one was disappointed in the experience.   As Clipper 50 taxied to the gate in San Francisco at journey’s end, Captain Mullikin asked over the public address system, ‘Would you do it again?’ His question was met with a resounding cheer of enthusiastic fliers. ‘Just say where and when,’ one passenger shouted above the rest.”

(left to right) Janelle Penny Commissiong, the reigning Miss Universe; Captain Walter H. Mullikin, Vice President and Chief Pilot; Kimberly Louise Tomes, Miss USA.

(left to right) Janelle Penny Commissiong, the reigning Miss Universe; Captain Walter H. Mullikin, Vice President and Chief Pilot; Kimberly Louise Tomes, Miss USA.

Pam Hanlon’s recollections of her experiences at Pan Am is one of 71 stories in Pan American World Airways – Aviation history Through the Words of its People written by the people of Pan Am who played important roles in many of the important events in Pan Am’s history. The book is published by BlueWaterPress.

Also, in the “B747SP Website“, retired Pan Am pilot Lee Nelson contributed a great story in “A 747SP Love Affair”. This website is dedicated to the 747SP and contains a potuporri of information about the “cutest airplane”.

Preview Pan American World Airways – Aviation History Through the Words of its People

For purchasing information, visit the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon

Also available in a Kindle Edition

For a companion book with a timeline of Pan Am history and images of aircraft, timetables and other memorabilia, see a preview of  Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline

The book is also available directly from the publisher, BlueWaterPress or Amazon.

For further information about the history of Pan American World Airways, visit: Pan Am Historical Foundation

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About James Patrick ("Jamie") Baldwin
James Patrick ("Jamie") Baldwin is an author, blogger, lecturer and consultant in air transportation, an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Maryland University College and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Westminster (London). Previously at ERAU’s College of Business he taught Business Law, Business Law for Airline Managers, and Airline Management. He was also faculty advisor to Sigma Alpha Epsilon. As a lecturer he coordinates Aviation Law workshops for Aeropodium, a UK-based aviation-related events company and organizes Aviation Law Conferences at his law school, American University Washington College of Law (AUWCL). As a consultant he specializes in start-up airline strategies, airline marketing, regulatory compliance, licensing, aircraft sourcing, strategic planning, contracts, agency agreements and preparing business plans. An avid golfer, Mr Baldwin is a golf correspondent for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Previously Mr Baldwin served as Deputy General Manager for Legal and Regulatory Affairs of Star Airways, a small Turkish cargo airline of which he was a founder, and prior to that, the US Representative of Tajik Air, the international airline of the Republic of Tajikistan. In the latter capacity, he represented the airline’s interests before the US government, multilateral development banks and private US and international business interests. He also coordinated and prepared on behalf of the government of Tajikistan a request for a grant from the US Trade and Development Agency for a feasibility study on its air transport sector. Mr Baldwin also served as an officer in the US Navy (1974-1978) and the active US Naval Reserve (1978-1994). His latest assignments included service as a Naval Liaison Officer on tanker convoys during the Iran/Iraq War, Officer in Charge of military officers boarding, inspecting and briefing masters of merchant ships delivering military cargo during the first Gulf War and Commanding Officer of a US Naval Reserve unit. He is now retired with the rank of Commander. Mr Baldwin is the author of Pan American World Airways – Images of a Great Airline (BluewaterPress, 2011). He also co-edited, with Jeff Kriendler, former Vice President, Corporate Communications at Pan Am, Pan American World Airways – Aviation History through the Words of its People (BluewaterPress, 2011). Mr Baldwin obtained an A.B. (Bachelor’s) Degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California (Los Angeles) and a J.D. (Juris Doctor) Degree from the AUWCL (Washington DC). He is a member of the U.S. Naval Institute, the U. S. Golf Association and Sigma Alpha Epsilon. He has traveled widely and includes among his interests golf, hill walking, sailing, model railroading, spectator sports, classical music and writing. He is married and resides in Maryland.

14 Responses to The Pan Am Series – Part XII: The Boeing 747SP

  1. Raymond Hahn says:

    The 747SP is an excellent chapter in the Pan Am Story. So where your rendition of Pan Am’s first 747 inaugural back in January 1970? I’d love to see your take on it. It is a story worth telling.

    • Thanks for your comment. I try to tie my stories to Pan Am events. So, I’ll tie a 747 story to either the initial order for the aircraft, its first delivery to PAA or its first revenue flight….and aim for a unique take. Watch this space. Cheers!

  2. Ken McAdams says:

    Jamie,
    As one of the pilots on that historic flight, it is a joy to see your coverage of the extraordinary event. Pan Am was certainly a “One Off.” We set records wherever we flew and defined airline procedures and training industry wide. Now that Pan Am is gone, the friendly skies of the world are just not the same. Again, in sadness I still say, thank you.
    Ken McAdams
    Former Pan Am Regional Chief Pilot

  3. Gregory s McInnis says:

    J.H. McInnis my dad worked for PAM AM over 35 years in miami . i grew up flying with him at the old PAN AM field and tamiami airport ..he started as an aircraft parts clerk in miami and worked his way up to director of material and world sales.i was really lucky to have him as a dad he was first class just like PAN AM myfirst flight on a boeing747sp was to toyko ,japan in first class in july of 1976 on my first world trip.i was the luckiest kid in the world. thank to all the good man and woman that worked for PAN AMERICAN WORLD AIRWAYS

  4. Bob Stearns Jr. says:

    My Dad Robert F Stearns Sr. was a Pan Am 747-SP Captain. He flew the Tokyo route for many years and then moved on to United Airlines where he continued to fly to Tokyo. My mom was up in first class on one trip with the Rock Band Kiss who got a real kick out of her Norwegian accent. She brought home an autographed menu and had no idea who those nice boy’s were. The Pan Am years were wonderful times for my parents and my brother and I. Thanks for a great memory on a rainy morning. Bob Stearns Jr.

    • Thanks for the nice comment. There are so many great Pan Am stories out there. I have tried to keep this Pan Am Series blog going, but time has been a premium. I was involved with an ex-PAA -SP that was involved in a unique operation in Tajikistan. The story about that aircraft is also in this blog, “The Story of Snow Leopard”. I quote extensively the words of a former PAA pilot with extensive -SP experience…..A classmate of mine from USC was a guy named Greg Stearns. I think he was a Navy pilot. We were class of 1974……There is a reunion scheduled for next year in Berlin…..They are usually big. Thakjs again. Best, Jamie Baldwin

  5. Gregory McInnis says:

    I remember july 1976 we saw Kiss the Rock Band Planes in maui .if i remember right they had 7 Baby boeing 737 hauling there Equipment . Later We saw them at Pan Am’s InterContinental Hotel Maui where our family was staying me and my sister walked by there room there was so much left over Room service food Bottles and all kinds of stuff .it looked like there having a big time

  6. Gregory McInnis says:

    Thank You James I remember flying on a Pan Am Boeing 747sp in 1976 and the pilot coming over the PA saying welcome to the second half of the Inaugural flight of Clipper Freedom or Liberty bell .its been forty years i do remember being on more then one Boeing 747 Inaugural flight in the 18 years i had flight Privileges on Pan Am. when i was 17 yr old
    .i remember jumping on a plane to dallas tx for a day just checking out the airport Bars i met a really nice girl working there she kissed me before i flew back to miami. i turned red i had a lot of fun .thank You Pan Am

  7. Reblogged this on JPB Transportation and commented:

    Forty-three years ago, on 10 September 1973, Pan American World Airways ordered the Boeing 747SP. Here is a blog I wrote about that aircraft…

  8. Ed Jankiewicz says:

    Always like your stories Mr. Baldwin! My guestion is, Why wouldn’t Pan Am sell off the 747-100, n 200’s n acquire more of the SP’s?! Better on long range with less fuel consumption?! More savings for company. I would think. Thanks again, hope you have more stories for us.

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