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