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The year in aerospace: Why 2022 could be Year One

A few years from now, we just might look back at 2022 as Year One for a new age in aerospace: It was the year when NASA’s next-generation space telescope delivered the goods, when NASA’s moon rocket aced its first flight test, and when an all-electric passenger plane built from the ground up took to the skies.

I’ve been rounding up the top stories in space on an annual basis for 25 years now (starting with the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997), and 2022 ranks among the biggest years when it comes to opening up new frontiers on the final frontier. The best thing about these frontier-opening stories — especially the James Webb Space Telescope and the Artemis moon program — is that the best is yet to come.

Check out my top-five list for the big stories of the past year, plus five aerospace trends to watch in the year ahead.

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Boeing’s last 747 has left the building

Nearly 55 years after Boeing started production of its jumbo 747 jet, the last model of the iconic airplane left the company’s factory in Everett, Wash., closing a chapter in aviation history.

“For more than half a century, tens of thousands of dedicated Boeing employees have designed and built this magnificent airplane that has truly changed the world,” Kim Smith, Boeing’s vice president and general manager for 747 and 767 programs, said in a statement after Tuesday night’s rollout.

Workers and VIPs gathered at the Boeing plant to watch the plane, wrapped in a green protective skin, emerge from the giant assembly building. The 747-8 will go on to other facilities for painting and fitting-out, with delivery to Atlas Air scheduled in early 2023. Atlas plans to operate the cargo freighter as well as the second-last 747 to be delivered for Kuehne + Nagel, a Swiss logistics company.

Back in the 1960s, Boeing engineer Joe Sutter designed the 747, the world’s first twin-aisle airplane, to carry 400 passengers or more on long-haul flights. Production began in 1967, and the first plane entered service with Pan Am in 1970.

For decades, the 747 was celebrated as the “Queen of the Skies” — and it played supporting roles in movies ranging from “Airport ’77” and “Air Force One” to the 2020 sci-fi movie “Tenet.” More than 1,500 of the planes were produced.

But as the aviation industry came to focus on fuel efficiency and point-to-point route planning, the business model for the passenger 747 became obsolete. In recent years, the 747 has increasingly been used for cargo rather than passengers, and the baton has been passed to other wide-body jets such as the 767, 777, 787 and 777x.

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R.I.P.: Boeing’s Joe Sutter, ‘Father of the 747’

Image: Joe Sutter
Boeing engineer Joe Sutter, the “Father of the 747,” takes a turn in the pilot’s seat. (Credit: Boeing file)

Boeing engineer Joe Sutter, who led the engineering team for the 747 jet in the mid-1960s and played a role in the investigation of the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986, died this morning at the age of 95.

His passing was announced online by Ray Conner, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The cause of death was not mentioned.

Sutter’s role in creating Boeing’s biggest passenger jet earned him the title of “Father of the 747.” His 4,500-member team came to be known as “the Incredibles” for putting the plane into production 29 months after it was conceived.

“It remains a staggering achievement and a testament to Joe’s ‘incredible’ determination,” Conner wrote.

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Boeing trims back 747 jet production

Image: Boeing 747
A Boeing 747-8 jet is assembled at the company’s factory in Everett. (Credit: Boeing)

The Boeing Co. says it will cut back the production rate for its 747 jets to one every two months and report an $885 million pre-tax charge against earnings, due to the slower-than-expected recovery of the air cargo market.

“Global air passenger traffic growth and airplane demand remain strong, but the air cargo market recovery that began in late 2013 has stalled in recent months and slowed demand for the 747-8 Freighter,” Ray Conner, Boeing vice chairman and president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said Jan. 21 in a news release.

He voiced confidence that business would pick up for the 747-8 jet as companies replace their older 747-400 freight airplanes, but said cutting back production was a “prudent step to further align production with current market requirements.”

Some observers were less sanguine about the 747’s prospects.

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