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Boeing delivers its final 747 jet, ending a run of more than 50 years

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Boeing Company delivered its final 747 jumbo jet yesterday after a production run of more than five decades. Thousands of current and former Boeing workers gathered at the factory for this moment. Here's Tom Banse of Northwest News Network in Seattle, Wash.

TOM BANSE, BYLINE: The guests of honor at the official send-off were the Incredibles. That's the name Boeing gave to the designers and builders who created the world's first jumbo jet - incredibly fast - in the late 1960s. More than three dozen of those old-timers returned to the jet factory Tuesday to see off the last 747 ever built.

DESI EVANS: I love the airplane so much. I would like for it to just continue.

BANSE: Desi Evans worked for 45 years at Boeing, including as a production manager on the first 747. To this day, he can conjure amazement that the beloved beast flies.

EVANS: The size of it and - good grief, and the tonnage - you know, when you're talking about between 3 to 400 tons of aircraft, it's absolutely uncanny, isn't it? And yet it just floats, doesn't it? Absolutely floats.

BANSE: The shapely hunk of aluminum and wires is clearly more than just another airplane to the Incredibles. Greg Umperovitch (ph) choked up looking at the last one off the line.

GREG UMPEROVITCH: Really sad - lots of really wonderful memories, wonderful people, tough stuff we had to go through and all of that.

BANSE: A cargo carrier named Atlas Air took delivery of the last Boeing 747. It's a freighter. This is the 1,574th built since the iconic wide-body with that distinctive hump first entered service with Pan Am in 1970. Aviation industry consultant and author of the book "Air Wars," Scott Hamilton, says the 747 transformed international air travel by making it affordable to the middle class.

SCOTT HAMILTON: It was a revolutionary airplane. It was the first jumbo jet, and it also allowed the airlines to dramatically reduce air fares of the day because they could carry so many people.

BANSE: Boeing's archrival, Airbus, surpassed Boeing in the early 2000s with a larger airliner, the A380. But that double-decker didn't achieve nearly the same commercial success and ended production years ago. Hamilton says the beginning of the end for the four-engine jumbo jets was the arrival of more fuel-efficient twin engine wide-bodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME FLY WITH ME")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Come fly with me. Let's fly. Let's fly away.

BANSE: Accompanied by a live band, the cavernous, now mostly empty 747 assembly hall filled up again for the final delivery ceremony Tuesday. The surprise guest was movie star John Travolta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN TRAVOLTA: And even when you understand the science behind flight, there's nothing like seeing a 747 take flight to remind you that there's also magic here.

BANSE: You may or may not know Travolta is a serious pilot, too - in fact, certified on the 747.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRAVOLTA: She's a great airplane, and I'm looking forward to many years to come flying with her.

BANSE: Executives from Boeing and customers UPS and Atlas Air said it's the end of an era, but not the obituary for the jet. A dwindling number of passenger 747s can still be spotted at U.S. airports. Boeing and others expect the cargo version to keep flying for decades to come. And a couple of previously built 747s now undergoing modification will serve as the new Air Force One.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Banse in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.