In the early 1970s, Pan American World Airways wanted to buy a Boeing 747 that could fly from New York to the furthest destination — Tehran without landing.
When designing the 747SP (Special Performance), Boeing took into account two factors:
- The aircraft was supposed to compete with the Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011 TriStar.
- The aircraft was to be a smaller version of the then successful Boeing 747 with longer range and higher cruising speed.
Despite its success, the standard Boeing 747-100 was too big for many routes. Until Boeing built the twin-engined 767, it didn't have a mid-size widebody aircraft.
The aircraft was originally called the Boeing 747SB — Short Body (short fuselage). Later, Boeing changed it to SP, which meant Special Performance, that is, “special characteristics.”
After testing and certification, the first Boeing 747SP was delivered to launch customer Pan Am on March 5, 1976. At the time, it was the longest haul airliner in the world and remained so until the introduction of the Boeing 747–400 in 1989.
Despite its longer range and better performance, sales of the Boeing 747SP were sluggish due to limited use and were heavily impacted by rising oil prices. In total, only 44 examples of the 747SP were built during its production from 1976 to 1982. In 1987, Boeing received a request from Abu Dhabi Amiri Flight for one aircraft and built a VIP variant for its VIP client. Thus, the total number of Boeing 747SPs stopped at 45.
As of 2022, only three Boeing 747SPs are in operation, 18 are mothballed. The remaining aircraft were either decommissioned, or destroyed, or abandoned.
In 2016, after 40 years of operation, Iran Air retired its last Boeing 747SP from the fleet. Another Boeing 747SP, which was used as an executive transport, was decommissioned in 2020 and is in storage with Royal Flight of Oman.
Thus, the following remain operational at the moment:
Two 42-year-old aircraft used for engine testing by Pratt & Whitney in Canada, and a 43-year-old Boeing 747SP owned by Las Vegas Sands.
January 30, 2023 marks 35 years since United Airlines' Boeing 747SP set a new world record for circumnavigating the world. After the Paris Air Show in 1987, United Airlines pilot Clay Lacy said he would like to try to break the record for a round-the-world flight, which at that time was 45 hours 32 minutes — a time that Lacey thought he could easily improve.
For the flight, Lacey chose a Boeing 747SP called Friendship One after the charitable foundation that he founded with colleagues. To raise awareness for the project, the foundation sold 100 aircraft seats for $5,000 each, which were then donated to various children's charities.
The plan was to take off from Seattle and fly east, landing in Greek Athens for refueling. Then the path followed to Taipei on the island of Taiwan. Then came the return journey over the Pacific Ocean home to Seattle. The venture was a success: Lacey and his team circumnavigated the globe in 36 hours 54 minutes and 15 seconds.