Maharaja and his Queen: Air India and Boeing 747's match made in heaven

Boeing 747 has been one of Air India's most iconic aircraft, whose charm reached its pinnacle with India's national carrier

Maharaja and his Queen: Air India and Boeing 747's match made in heaven
Emperor Ashoka, Air India's first B747, crashed seven years after induction. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Michel Gilliand/

An Economic Times report on March 9 said that national carrier Air India was planning to retire the Boeing 747 jumbo jets that had been the proverbial 'Kohinoor' of the Maharaja's crown during 'his' heydays. It would have meant bidding adieu to what stands even today as a glowing symbol of Air India's magnificent grandeur, especially during the times of the legendary JRD Tata. 

Air India, however, soon issued a statement, saying that the giant flying machine "will continue to remain an integral part of our fleet", though it is a fact that under the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic, frontline airline companies around the world, including British Airways, KLM and Qantas, had phased out these mammoth aircraft. Lufthansa had also sent some of its B747s to early retirement. 

As a result of the reduced demand for especially long-haul international air travel in the wake of the pandemic, big four-engine jets like B747 and Airbus 380 have started to fall out of favour with airlines, who now prefer more economical and fuel-efficient medium/long haul twin-engine jets like Boeing's B777 and B787 and Airbus's A330 and A350. 

Palaces in the sky

However, there is no denying the fact that the B747 had ruled the skies for half-a-century. The B747 became a star whichever fleet it went to, but as rightly pointed out by aviation veteran Sanjiv Kapoor in an article in the Mumbai Mirror, it was Air India that "truly raised the bar" with its B747s.

In-flight service onboard Emperor Ashoka. Image courtesy: Twitter/@robinjindia

The widebody humped giant has been among Air India's most iconic planes, along with the de Havilland Puss Moth that JRD Tata flew himself in 1932 marking Tata Airlines (Air India's earlier avatar) and indeed India's first flight, the Lockheed Constellation L-749A that undertook Air India's first international flight, or the Boeing 707-420 (Gauri Shankar) that made Air India the first Asian carrier to enter the jet age.  

This then gives us the context to examine the rich history of the Air India B747 and that of the B747 in general. 

The first B747 joined the Air India fleet 50 years ago, in 1971, and was named Emperor Ashoka. This B747-237B was the first in the long line of Air India's Maharaja-themed aircraft.

Inside one of the early Air India B747s. Image courtesy: Twitter/@robinjindia

Four more B747s were ordered initially apart from Emperor Ashoka and named Emperor Shahjehan, Emperor Rajendra Chola, Emperor Vikramaditya and Emperor Akbar, with each aircraft depicting exquisite sidewall artwork on its cabin reliving the times of the specific emperor after whom it was named. It was an ode to some of the most prominent characters of Indian history and indeed to Indian cultural heritage itself. Air India B747s stood distinctly apart.    

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Air India under JRD Tata redefined inflight luxury with the B747s. It came up with a 'Palace in the Sky' livery and branding for the '747th wonder of the world'. The theme featured intricately painted Rajasthani arches around each window on the main deck. Murals on the inner walls, floral prints on cabin panels and different-coloured wallpapers for different sections made flying on these aeroplanes an experience of a lifetime. The marvellously decorated staircase to the upper deck, jharokha interior flight panels, dewans and bars ensured that flying in the B747 was indeed a royal experience. 

JRD Tata in front of Air India B747 Emperor Shahjehan. Image courtesy: Twitter/@abhishektelang

The upper deck often had no passenger seats but boasted of luxury lounges decorated on the lines of the lounges of Mumbai's Taj Mahal hotel complete with red velvet. There were separate flights attendants for the upper deck. Only the prettiest air hostesses were selected to serve in the B747 lounges and they wore beautiful Rajasthani ghagra-cholis, Elfin Fernand, a former Air India flight attendant told Scroll. All these went well with the B747, which was itself called the 'Queen of the Skies'. 

Air India added two more emperor-themed B747-237Bs -- Emperor Chandragupta and Emperor Kanishka, before the Chaudhary Charan Singh government in August 1979 dropped the term 'emperor' from the names of Air India aircraft, according to an article. After this, the carrier continued to add B747s to its fleet named after famous emperors, without using the term 'emperor'! Thus Krishna Deva Raya, Samudragupta, Mahendravarman and Harshavardhan joined the Air India fleet. These were all B747-237Bs. 

When disaster struck twice

Sadly for the airline, it turned out to be a dark new year's day for Emperor Ashoka seven years after it was inducted. On January 1, 1978, only minutes after taking off from Mumbai's Santacruz airport at 8.15 pm on its way to Dubai, Flight 855 crashed into the Arabian Sea, barely 3 km off the Mumbai coast.

Lounge area of one of Air India's early B747s (left) and an air hostess preparing food and drink for passengers. Image courtesy: Twitter/@robinjindia

None of the 213 people on board survived and Air India lost a prestigious asset. The crash took place so close to the coast that some residents of Mumbai's Bandra suburb said they had heard an explosion of sorts, and some eyewitnesses claimed to have seen a fireball diving into the sea which they had mistaken to be a meteor at first, according to the Scroll article.   

Numerous theories were presented as the cause of the accident, including sabotage and terrorism. In fact, India Today reported citing the Samachar news agency that Air India's London office had received a threat four days before that one of its planes would be blown up. The threat allegedly came from the Proutists who were seeking the release of their leader PR Sarkar.

Moreover, the relative of one of the deceased passengers claimed that as many as 126 passengers had cancelled the trip after fearing that a bomb was on board. Adding to the woes of the flight, it was delayed by 13 long hours after suffering a bird hit the previous day. 

Emperor Kanishka that was the target of a terrorist attack in 1985. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Ian Kirby/

The airworthiness of the commander Madan Lal Kukar was also called into question and it was pointed out in aviation circles that he was grounded a year before the crash for eight months due to medical reasons, the India Today report added. 

In spite of these conspiracy theories, what is largely believed to have been the cause of the crash was a faulty attitude director indicator (ADI): an instrument that informs pilots about the orientation of the aircraft relative to the earth's horizon, the Scroll article said. Emperor Ashoka's ADI apparently told the pilots that the plane was tilting to the right, though it was in fact straight. Heeding the false alarm, the pilots made a sharp left bank and flew into the sea instead. 

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This was the deadliest air crash in India till the Charkhi-Dadri mid-air collision in 1996. It was also the worst accident in Air India's history until the ghastly terror attack on board another much-vaunted B747 -- Emperor Kanishka. 

Decoration inside one of the early Air India B747s. Image courtesy: Image courtesy: Twitter/@robinjindia

On June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182 was on its way from Toronto to London, continuing to Mumbai. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, after a routine stop at Montreal, Canadian officials removed three suspicious packages from the aircraft. Emperor Kanishka then continued on its journey.

However, 45 minutes from the London-Heathrow airport, the aircraft broke apart at 31,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean as a bomb planted by Sikh Khalistani terrorists exploded, killing all the 329 people on board. The wreckage fell off the coast of Ireland. This was the deadliest act of terror in aviation history until the 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001. 

Losing two of its most high-profile planes in the space of just 14 years was a massive setback for Air India.

As a replacement of Emperor Kanishka, the carrier decided to acquire a B747-212B previously owned by Singapore Airlines, according to an article in

Inside one of the early B747s of Air India. Image courtesy: Twitter/@robinjindia

This plane was delivered in 1987 and was proposed to be named Shivaji after the great Maratha ruler of the 17th century. However, the Shiv Sena objected to using the name of the cultural icon for a previously-owned plane when other kings had brand new aircraft named after them. As a compromise, this B747 was named Himalaya. 

Strife over naming

In 1988, Air India got two new B747-300M Combi aircraft, according to The first was named Shivaji, and the second one was proposed to be named after Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. However, the Shiv Sena raised a ruckus again, this time over the same type of aircraft being named after a Muslim king. What's worse, Aurangzeb was Shivaji's arch-enemy. As a result, the second B747-300M Combi was named after the Hindu Pallava king Narasimhavarman. After that, Air India aircraft were no more named after kings. 

In 1993, the B747-400 joined the Air India fleet, and an Air India B747-437 operated the first non-stop flight between New York and New Delhi. The B747-437 aircraft were named after architectural marvels or places of tourist interest. Accordingly, the fleet had B747-437s named Konark, Tanjore, Khajuraho, Ajanta, Agra and Velha Goa.

Emperor Shahjehan: another early B747 of Air India. Image courtesy: Twitter/@robinjindia 

In 2002, Air India acquired a B747-4B5 on lease from Korean Air. The aircraft was proposed to be named Prayag, but following protests by an ultra-nationalist Hindu outfit, the plan was dropped and the aircraft was named Fatehpur Sikri. Two more aircraft of the same type, named Sanchi and Kaziranga were added. A B747-412 named Mamallapuram joined the Air India fleet as well. 

VVIPs' steed

Currently, Air India's fleet consists of four B747-437s -- Khajuraho, Ajanta, Agra and Velhagoa. One of these planes is not in flying condition and the other three have been used for VVIP flights and also for regular commercial flights when not used by the dignitaries, according to a report in The Times of India. These planes were used to carry the President, Vice President and Prime Minister on official state visits for the past two decades. The B747s were also used by the general public for one-stop commercial flights on the Delhi-London/Frankfurt-New York/Los Angeles routes. 

Air India B747 named Velha Goa takes off from Toronto Pearson airport with PM Modi on board. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Snowjam

When these planes were required for VVIP duty, the government would inform Air India in advance and the lower deck would be cleared to make room for the dignitaries' sleeping and meeting areas, while top bureaucrats travelling with the President, Vice President or Prime Minister would be seated in the upper deck. 

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An interesting story shared by an Air India Engineering veteran to The Times of India is that the upper deck of the B747s would serve as the play area with toys for the then very young Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, who would accompany their grandmother and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on her official visits.  

Growing obsolete?

Last year, the government acquired two modified Boeing 777-300ER planes as a replacement for the B747s for VVIP assignments. These B777s have been fitted with a missile defence system called the Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) and Self-Protection Suites (SPS) capable of countering missile threats.

Air India B747 named Ajanta in its early (top) and current avatars. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Raimund Stehmann and Chris Lofting/

They are armed with advanced and secure communication systems that allow audio and video communication functions mid-air without the risk of hacking or being taped. These planes make up the Indian version of the Air Force One that carries the US President. Recently, the government informed Air India that the B747s would not be much needed for VVIP flights.

However, according to an Economic Times report, one of the B747s of Air India would not be a part of the Air India sale process and would instead be transferred to Alliance Air and continue its VVIP duties. Air India subsidiary Alliance Air is not part of the disinvestment process and would continue to hold the B747 till December 2024. 

“We are planning to phase out the (B747) jumbo jets. The final decision will be taken by the Air India board, possibly in its next meeting. The planes are over 25-years-old on average and will be scrapped. Their residual value lies in the about 10 engines we have of these 747s that could fetch about $2 million apiece,” The Times of India quoted a senior official as saying.

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Air India remains the only Indian airline to ever operate the B747 and the only Indian airline to operate four-engine jets. Vijay Mallya's Kingfisher Airlines is said to have ordered four-engine Airbus 340s and the two-deck Airbus 380s, according to TOI and reports respectively but had shut down before it could induct these behemoths.

An Air India B747 ticket from the 1970s. Image courtesy: Twitter/@robinjindia 

However, the Covid-induced demand downturn had made even the new-generation four-engine passenger jets like B747s, A340s and A380s unattractive, with airlines drastically cutting their use or use-by period. 

Giantess of the Skies

The B747-400s that Air India currently flies can carry respectively 12, 26 and 385 passengers in first, business and economy classes. These twin-aisle jets have a configuration of 2X2 for the first and business classes and 3X4X3 for the economy class. Seat pitch varies from 31-34 inches for the economy class, 57-59 inches for the business class and 82 inches for the first class. Seat width ranges from 17.32-18 inches for the economy class and 19.5-21 inches for the other two classes. The first-class offers a seat reclination of nearly 180 degrees, while it is 158 degrees in the business class and 5.2 degrees in the economy class. 

The then US First Lady Pat Nixon christens the first-ever B747 in 1970. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/White House Photo Office

Coming to the vital statistics of these planes, Air India's B747-400s are 231.8 feet in length and 64.3 feet in height. The height, in fact, is similar to that of an average six-storey building. The cabin width is a sizeable 20.1 feet. With a fuel capacity of 161.4 tons and an average cruise speed of 0.86 Mach (1,062 kmph), the B747-400 can go up to an altitude of 45,100 feet. The maximum takeoff weight of these giants is 377.8 tons. These planes fly on PW 4056 engines.

How it all started

The B747 was conceived when airlines in the 1960s felt the need for really large jets to accommodate the growing number of passengers. Boeing's market research predicted that there would be a dramatic increase in passenger numbers, which only a plane holding more than 300 passengers could manage. 

British business magnate and the founder of Virgin Atlantic Richard Branson wrote in the Time magazine that Pan American Airways President Juan Trippe really wanted to cash in on the jet age that had begun with the Boeing 707. The B707 promised that flying the oceans would not be reserved only for the privileged classes, it could fly twice as fast and carry twice as many people as the Stratocruiser it had replaced and could fly "over" the weather, typically at 32,000 feet. Pan Am predicted that by 1965, there would be 35 million flyers on international routes and it would increase 200% by 1980. Trippe was also calculating the seat-mile cost.

Prototype 747 that was first displayed to the public on September 30, 1968. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/SAS Scandinavian Airlines

The Pan Am boss was keen to push the envelope. He wanted to democratise international air travel, and for that, he wanted a plane two-and-a-half times that of the B707 and set Boeing a target of reducing the seat-mile cost by 30%. In 1966, Trippe ordered 23 passenger and two freight versions of what would be the B747. The order was worth $550 million. 

Joe Sutter and his team started designing the B747. Safety was a key priority considering that a B747 crash would kill more people at one time than died in air crashes over an entire year. The B747 became the first plane to use an innovative technique called fault tree analysis whereby engineers could accurately detect potential hazards and see the impact of the failure of one part or system on the other parts. 

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The plane could carry more than 400 passengers. Although the plan initially was to have a double-decker aircraft, it was dropped in favour of a partial double-decker with a hump on top of the main passenger deck. The increased evacuation time that would be associated with a double-decker plane and the reduced cargo space it would provide tilted the scales in favour of the humped design. The hump (along with the pointed nose) has become the B747's most distinctive and indeed endearing feature over the years. 

Economy class of a B747-400. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Altair78

This revolutionary aircraft could carry enough fuel to drive an average automobile 10,000 miles (16,093 km) a year for 70 years, according to Boeing. The plane was designed in such a way that cargo could be loaded straight through the nose, which swung upward on a hinge.  

The first B747 rolled out on September 30, 1968, less than three years after Pan Am had signed the letter of intent. Development costs were said to exceed $1 billion. The first flight of the behemoth took place on February 9, 1969. The first passenger flight of the B747 was on January 21, 1970, under the Pan Am banner from New York to London.  First Lady of the US Pat Nixon had christened the first B747 at the Dulles International Airport on January 15, 1970. 

During the ceremonial 747 contract-signing banquet in Seattle on the 50th anniversary of Boeing, Trippe predicted that the B747 would be "...a great weapon for peace, competing with intercontinental missiles for mankind's destiny", Graham Simons wrote in his book 'The Airbus A380: A History'.

Cargo being loaded onto a B747. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/Aleksandr Markin

The Boeing 747-200B that Air India started with had a range of about 9,300-11,000 km with a full passenger load, while the B747-400 it now operates can typically carry 416 passengers in a three-class layout over 13,490 km. The two-crew glass cockpit of the B747-400 makes the presence of a flight engineer unnecessary. The B747-400 was superseded by another stretched and improved version called the B747-8. The B747-300M Combi -- another version of this mammoth aircraft that Air India has flown -- has a range of around 12,400 km. It has a cargo section on the rear portion of the main deck, while its stretched upper deck can carry more passengers.  

Boeing had initially expected to sell only 400 B747s before supersonic aircraft came to dominate the market, but by June 2020, had sold more than 1,500, according to a article. 

The veritable Queen of the Skies may have become a little long in the tooth, and like aged humans, is struggling to cope up with the Covid assault, but its charm will never fade -- a charm that possibly reached its pinnacle with India's national carrier and JRD Tata's progeny: Air India. Here's to many more years of the famed giant with a hump and bulbous nose soaring through the skies like the true monarch it has always been.

(Cover image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Michel Gilliand/