When the 747 entered into service back in 1970s, it revolutionized air travel. Over the last couple of decades, though, more fuel efficient aircraft were developed which led us to the point where nowadays only twenty or so airlines use the 747 for carrying passengers.
While there are also airlines that use the freighter version of the Queen of the Skies, overall, the number of 747 operators is decreasing steadily.
Luckily for aviation enthusiasts, though, companies and government agencies have found other – more unique – uses for the type. Below, I look at seven of those ranging from transporting aircraft parts and testing aircraft engines all the way to fighting fires.
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1. Transporting Aircraft Parts
Let’s start with Boeing’s own modified version of the 747, the 747-400LCF (Large Cargo Freighter). Boeing and its partners designed the aircraft, commonly referred to as the Dreamlifter, to be able to quickly transport large aircraft parts (such as wings) from its suppliers around the world to its assembly plants.
To date, four 747-400s (including one former Air China airframe, two China Airlines airframes, and one Malaysia Airlines airframe) were converted into LCFs. The conversions were done by Evergreen Aviation Technologies in Taiwan with the first of those having flown for the first time in 2006.
While Evergreen International Airlines operated the LCFs for Boeing until 2010, currently, they are operated by a different airline, Atlas Air. The type can commonly be seen at Everett and Charleston airports in the United States, Nagoya Centrair airport in Japan, as well as Taranto airport in Italy.
Interestingly, while the Dreamlifter can fit roughly three times as much as the regular 747 freighter in terms of volume, the maximum weight of its payload is lower. The LCF also has to fly slower than the regular freighter, and its cargo hold is unpressurised.
2. Testing Aircraft Engines
Boeing is not the only company in the aerospace industry to be using a highly modified version of the 747. The 747 is also used by the three major aircraft engine manufacturers – GE, Rolls-Royce, and Pratt & Whitney – to test their products. So, if you happen to see a 747 with one of its four engines being different than the remaining three – or with an extra engine sticking out of its side – it’s one of these.
Photo credit: GE Aviation
Having first flown in April of 1980, Rolls-Royce’s 747-200 (reg. N787RR) is the oldest of the 747 flying testbeds. It was originally delivered to Cathay Pacific before being sold to Air Atlanta Icelandic in 1999. Rolls-Royce got hold of the aircraft in 2005.
Just slightly newer are Pratt & Whitney’s two 747SPs (reg. C-FPAW and C-GTFF). The first of those was originally delivered to CAAC (Air China’s predecessor) in September 1980. The other one is a former Korean Air aircraft originally delivered to the South Korean carrier in March 1981.
Finally, GE Aviation’s testbed is a 747-400 (reg. N747GF) that the engine manufacturer acquired in 2011. Currently, it is testing the world’s largest jet engine, GE9X, which makes photos of the aircraft look like photomontages. In its prior life, the aircraft was flying for Japan Airlines.
It’s also worth noting that even before GE Aviation acquired the 747-400, it was using a 747 as a testbed. That aircraft (reg. N747GE) was a 747-100 and it was donated to Pima Air & Space Museum last year.
3. Transporting Heads of State
While not every king, queen, president, and prime minister is lucky enough to be able to fly around the world on the Queen of the Skies, some of them are. These VIP-configured 747s are either operated by the respective countries’ air forces or governments, or by the countries’ flag carriers.
Generally, these aircraft have sections for press, staff, and other people “hitching a ride” along with the head of state that don’t differ from a regular airliner. But, they also have luxuriously equipped VIP sections that could rival some apartments, as well as meeting rooms and other facilities to get work done.
Perhaps the best recognized of the 747s used by heads of state is the VC-25A, a modified version of the 747-200 that’s used to transport the President of the United States. Commonly, the aircraft is referred to as “Air Force One,” which is technically its callsign when the President is onboard (as well as the callsign of any other aircraft the President might find himself flying on).
Other countries using the 747 as a VIP transport plane include Brunei, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, and India. Japan used to operate a pair of 747s for use by the Prime Minister, Emperor, and other VIPs as well – but those were replaced by a pair of 777-300ERs earlier this year.
4. Fighting Fires
One of the 747s out there that amaze me the most is the 747 Supertanker – a water bomber version of the iconic type. Currently, there is one active 747-400 (reg. N744ST) that has been converted to fight fires. And, while there are plenty of other firefighting aircraft including modified DC-10s, nothing comes close to the Supertanker.
The company that initially decided to turn a 747 into a water bomber was Evergreen International Aviation. It converted a pair of 747s, an ex-World Airways 747-200 and an ex-Delta Air Lines 747-100, into Supertankers. The first one of those never entered into service, while the latter fought fires from 2009 until 2013 when its operator – Evergreen Supertanker Services – got into financial difficulties.
After a couple of years out of service, a company called Global Supertanker Services transferred the firefighting system from the former Evergreen 747-100 into the newer 747-400 which is in service to date. The aircraft is the world’s largest water bomber with twice as much capacity as the second largest one.
5. Observing the Night Sky
The next Queen of the Skies we’ll take a look at is a 747SP (reg. N747NA) jointly operated by NASA and its German equivalent DLR. The aircraft, known as SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), is equipped with a 100-inch telescope which makes it the world’s largest airborne observatory. Prior to joining NASA, it served with Pan Am and United Airlines.
SOFIA is based in Palmdale, California together with some of NASA’s other research aircraft. During its night missions, it helps scientists gather the data they need to better understand our universe. Just as an example, it recently helped detect the very first type of molecule that ever formed in the universe.
I was fortunate enough to fly on the aircraft and observe one of its missions last year. So, if you are interested in learning more about this unique 747, make sure to check out the articles I wrote about my SOFIA experience.
6. Launching Rockets
While Space X seems to get most of the press when it comes to bringing the cost of space launches down, there are other companies working on achieving that as well. One of those is Virgin Orbit which is in the process of developing its LauncherOne rocket aimed at delivering small payloads into Low Earth Orbit.
Photo credit: Virgin Orbit
What makes LauncherOne interesting is that rather than being launched from the ground, it is designed to be launched from the air. And, to make things even more interesting, Virgin Orbit decided to modify a 747 for the job.
The 747 (reg. N744VG), aptly named Cosmic Girl, is a former Virgin Atlantic aircraft. It’s currently undergoing testing out of Mojave airport, but once it enters service, it will mainly operate out of Long Beach airport.
On a side note, Space Shuttles used to be transported on the back of a 747 – known as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft – as well. In fact, the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft was even used to launch the first Space Shuttle, Enterprise, during its atmospheric test flights.
7. Serving as a Military Command Center
The last 747 I’m going to introduce in this article is the E-4B – a military version of the 747 operated by the United States Air Force. Just like the VC-25, the E-4B is based on the 747-200. Four of them were manufactured in the 1970s, and all of them remain in service to this day.
At first sight, the VC-25 and E-4B might seem like similar planes. They were designed for very different purposes and are equipped very differently, though.
The former is essentially a VIP transport aircraft equipped to carry the President of the United States, his family, and entourage. The latter is a fully-equipped military command and control center designed to provide the President and the Secretary of Defense with all the necessary tools in time of war.
Even with the increasing number of airlines that are retiring the 747 out of their fleets, the type is still – obviously – an airliner transporting passengers and cargo first and foremost. However, thanks to its unique features, the Queen of the Skies also became the aircraft type of choice for many non-airline uses.
What is your favorite unique use of the 747?
Do you know of any other unique 747s that I did not mention in this article?