The World’s Most Interesting Boeing 747 Uses

The iconic Boeing 747 has been inspiring generations of long-haul travelers for more than half a century. Taking large quantities of passengers and/or cargo to far-flung destinations is how it made its name, but did you know that there also are certain examples that have been used for other purposes? Let’s take a look at some of these modified jumbos.

NASA Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Getty
The Space Shuttle is among the most interesting cargo transported by the 747. Photo: Getty Images

Carrying the Space Shuttle

The Boeing 747 is no stranger to carrying unusual or outsize cargo. Indeed, Boeing even produced a special ‘Dreamlifter‘ version to transport 787 components between Japan and the US. However, a pair of NASA-owned examples took this a step further. Between 1977 and 2012, NASA utilized two jumbos to transport Space Shuttles.

The journey that this most often involved was between Edwards AFB, California to the Kennedy Space Center’s ‘Shuttle Landing Facility’ in Florida. What made these aircraft stand out was the fact that they carried the shuttle atop their fuselage! NASA sadly no longer operates such flights, but, for the 45 years that they did, they made for a spectacular sight.

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An airborne missile defense system

The US Air Force has also operated modified 747s for a variety of purposes. One of these was an airborne missile defense aircraft known as the YAL-1. Originally a 747-400F, the USAF fitted this plane with a megawatt-class chemical oxygen-iodine laser (COIL).

Boeing 747 YAL-1 Missile Defense
The Boeing YAL-1 in flight. Photo: US Missile Defense Agency via Wikimedia Commons

The purpose of this airborne laser testbed aircraft was to use the aforementioned COIL to destroy inbound ballistic missiles. The YAL-1 first flew in 2002, but did not test-fire its low-power laser at an airborne target until five years later, in 2007.

January 2010 saw the first deployment of the YAL-1’s high-energy laser when it intercepted a test target. Shortly after, it succeeded in destroying a further two test missiles. However, funding was cut the same year, with the program canceled in 2011. After making its last flight in February 2012, the YAL-1 was eventually scrapped in September 2014.

SOFIA – an airborne observatory

Our next example takes us back to NASA, which has used the 747 for more than just shuttle carrying duties. Indeed, it also operates a modified short-fuselage 747SP, known as the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

SOFIA in flight with its telescope door open. Photo: NASA/Jim Ross via Wikimedia Commons

NASA jointly operates SOFIA with the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (German Aerospace Center). It recently flew a series of missions from Cologne, Germany, after a maintenance period at Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg.  As seen in the photo above, SOFIA’s fuselage features a large telescope door towards the rear of the aircraft.

This allows a 2.5-meter wide telescope to make observations from a high altitude, of around 45,000 feet. Compared to ground-based telescopes, the benefit of this is that it avoids most of the atmosphere’s water vapor, which otherwise absorbs light. The result is clearer observations of the wonders of outer space during its 10-hour overnight missions.

Which of these unorthodox Boeing 747 uses is your favorite? Have you ever seen or even been onboard any of these special jumbos? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!


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