The 707 and the Jet Age - Higher: 100 Years of Boeing (2015)

Higher: 100 Years of Boeing (2015)

6 The 707 and the Jet Age


The 707 ushered in an era of passenger jet flight—and Boeing dominance in commercial aviation.

In the postwar period, Boeing and its aerospace competitors had become substantial enterprises engaging in multiple markets: military aircraft, rockets, and missiles; commercial airliners; and space-bound vehicles and satellites. The different ventures provided diversification that moderated the industry’s volatile cycles but did not come close to eliminating them. Aerospace would continue to be a risky enterprise in the unpredictable global economic and geopolitical environment.

A case in point is the development of America’s first jet-powered passenger airplane—the Boeing 707. The 707 evolved from the B-47 and the swept-wing aircraft research discovered by George Schairer. But there was no guarantee that the American public would be willing to travel on a jet-powered plane and thus no certainty that airlines would abandon their propeller planes and line up to purchase the expensive new jet aircraft. Another challenge was that very few commercial airports in the United States could accommodate jet aircraft, which required longer runways.

“Airlines were wary,” said author Geoffrey Thomas. “Jets were gas guzzlers and they were unreliable [and] not yet proven.”

Fueling these worries was a widely publicized series of accidents involving British de Havilland 106 Comet commercial jetliners, the first passenger jets. Although the Comet traveled without incident during its first year, problems ensued. Three of the jets exploded or broke apart during flight. The disasters were later attributed to metal fatigue due to the effects of pressurization on stress points at the corners of the Comet’s square windows—a problem that American manufacturers, who had more experience with pressurized aircraft, had previously resolved.

Despite hesitation on the part of airlines and the public, Boeing President Bill Allen was convinced jet travel was the future. His decision for the company to invest in manufacturing jet passenger planes, even in the aftermath of the de Havilland failures, required the nerves of a high-stakes poker player. No wonder Time magazine called the 707 a “gamble in the sky.”

Allen did indeed gamble big. More than 5,000 Boeing designers, engineers, and draftsmen would be tasked over a period of several years with developing the Dash 80 jet prototype. The Dash 80 name derives from the fact that it was the 80th variation that Boeing’s designers drafted in their unrelenting efforts to develop a passenger jet airliner. The airplane was eventually named the 707, the first in the famed 7-7 series of Boeing commercial jetliners.

Ultimately, Boeing would sink roughly $16 million into the creation of the Dash 80, an amount equaling approximately one-quarter of the company’s net worth. At the time, Boeing was so closely associated with making bombers that critics argued the company had no business being involved in, much less financing, the commercial airliner business. “While Boeing had thrived as a military manufacturer, its performance in the commercial market bordered on the anemic,” the Seattle Times reported.

The newspaper had a point. In 1950, the company’s share of the passenger market was less than 1 percent. Now Allen was betting its future on not just a new airplane but a brand-new type of airplane. And an extremely expensive one at that—each 707 would be priced at a whopping $4 million at a time when the jet’s primary competitor, the propeller-driven Douglas DC-7, cost a comparatively paltry $1.85 million.


On May 14, 1954, Boeing workers in Renton, Washington, celebrate the rollout of the Dash 80, prototype for the 707.


Two months after its rollout, the Dash 80 makes its maiden flight. Commercial aviation would never be the same.

Allen was taking a calculated risk, however. He knew the jet’s much greater size and speed would enable it to do double the duty of the propeller-powered DC-7. The 707 carried between 140 and 189 passengers and was also smoother riding and easier to maintain than the DC-7. Its appearance was nothing short of dazzling. When the Dash 80 rolled out for its preflight tests in July 1954, reporters and photographers elbowed each other for the best viewing spots. The sleek brown-and-yellow-painted jet was described as having wings that were sharply swept back like a modified jet fighter. When its four jet engines fired up, commentators called the sound a low wail rising to a roar.

“The 707 was one of the most extraordinary airplanes not just in the history of Boeing, but in the history of American commercial aviation,” said aerospace historian Tom D. Crouch.

To promote the aircraft, Allen asked company test pilot Tex Johnson to fly the 707 at Seattle’s annual Seafair summer celebration at Lake Washington. To Allen’s surprise, Johnson executed a slow but perfect barrel roll in the big jet. Spectators were in awe at the stunt.

“He told nobody that he would do a barrel roll, completely turning the plane upside down and back up again,” said author Clive Irving. “You don’t do this with an airliner, [but] apparently he’d done it at other times in the test program.”

Seemingly dazed by the pilot’s feat, Allen is said to have popped a heart pill. The next day he called the test pilot into his office. As Irving recounts the tale, Allen “had blown all his gaskets. He was mad. ‘Did you realize what you were doing?’ And Tex says, ‘Yeah, I didn’t do anything the plane couldn’t do… . It was never in an unsafe condition.’ ”

Needless to say, Johnson’s barrel roll earned its fair share of publicity. The public may have felt comfort at the huge jet’s remarkable maneuverability, but most airline executives still worried. Not all, however: Juan Trippe of Pan American Airways saw the same promise in passenger-jet travel that Bill Allen did.

As airline industry competition intensified, Trippe was eager to invest in innovative aircraft that would distinguish Pan Am. Passenger jets fit the bill perfectly, and Pan Am became the launch customer for the 707, with an initial order for 20 jets in October 1955.

Trippe asked Allen to keep the contract a secret until the jet’s introduction. He wanted to take advantage of the publicity that would undoubtedly arise. In fact, he did not announce the purchase until the 707s were ready for delivery, and then he proclaimed it in characteristic style: at a cocktail party at his apartment overlooking Manhattan’s East River on October 15, 1955. The executive committee members of the International Air Transportation Association were present and were reveling in their companies’ recent purchases of new turboprop planes when Trippe announced that Pan Am was going all jet. One could hear a pin drop as the executives absorbed the statement’s significance—their brand-new turboprops had just become obsolete. The Jet Age had arrived without them knowing it.

The first scheduled transatlantic 707 flight by Pan Am took off from New York to Paris on October 26, 1958, and Trippe went all out to treat the event like the premiere of a major Hollywood film. The 112 passengers walked to the boarding stairs on a red carpet flanked by red-velvet cords draped from brass stanchions. The jet, known as Clipper America, was illuminated by floodlights at Idlewild Airport (John F. Kennedy International Airport today). Before takeoff, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower christened the Boeing 707, and Trippe gave a speech saluting the plane as a triumph of the American spirit.

Both Allen and Trippe took substantial risks on the 707. And they hit the jackpot. The plane was soon the wonder of the skies. “The 707 obliterated time and distance as it soared across the country, capable of streaking from Seattle to New York in less than five hours,” the Seattle Times wrote.

At cruising altitudes of 30,000 to 40,000 feet, the jet could cross the Atlantic Ocean in hours rather than the days a ship required. In an October 1960 article, New Scientist compared the passenger capacity of the 707 to the Queen Mary. “In the twelve days needed to send the ship across the Atlantic and back with a potential load of 3,000 people each way, the Boeing, crossing twice in a day, could carry 2,040 … [The Queen Mary] is unlikely to be able to compete in profitability with the air route.”

Neither could the DC-7 or any other propeller-powered plane. Allen had proved the wisdom of his gamble, and Boeing eventually would sell more than 1,000 707s. The Dash 80 prototype was also adapted into the KC-135 tanker, a jet that could refuel other military jets in flight.

Allen scored a win with both planes, again proving the advantages of adaptive architecture. “He endured the swarming gnats who think small,” Fortune magazine wrote in a 2003 cover story naming Bill Allen one of the 10 greatest CEOs of the 20th century. “Allen thought bigger.”

Competitors soon followed Boeing’s dashing entry into the Jet Age. Douglas Aircraft’s first long-range jet, the four-engine DC-8, entered service with Delta Air Lines in September 1959. Advertisements gushed that the jet’s “lounges are almost like clubs!” and that the “world’s most relaxing jetliner” had wide aisles, broad seats, and “individual lighting built right into your seat.” But this time Boeing had the winning hand, racking up more sales with the 707 than Douglas with the DC-8. Never again would Douglas best Boeing in the sale of commercial airliners.

By the end of the decade, all the major U.S. carriers and prominent foreign airlines had ordered the new jet planes produced by Boeing and its competitors. They engaged in high-stakes competition for passengers, boosting the fortunes of Madison Avenue advertising agencies. Both the airlines and the aircraft manufacturers continued to assertively portray jet air travel as safe. Boeing, for instance, advertised the 707 as America’s “most tested airliner ever to take to the skies.” Other ads reassured travelers that flights would be “restful, serenely quiet.” Another pledged passengers would be “so completely free from vibration [they’d] be able to stand a half-dollar on edge.”

The 707 was also marketed as a luxurious alternative to transatlantic cruise lines. “In this superb ship, you will cruise indigo blue skies six miles above the earth—with such serene smoothness you’ll seem poised motionless in space, yet be traveling at an incredible 600 miles per hour,” a Boeing advertisement claimed. Other ads touted the jet’s speed, pointing out, “The flower you bought when you left will be fresh when you arrive.”

Travel on the new passenger jets was also promoted as being available to everyone, not just to affluent flyers. In the 1950s, the United States was in the middle of an economic boom. The public’s disposable income rose appreciably, giving many Americans the financial means to vacation abroad.


The new 707 provided a quicker, smoother, more comfortable flight. Promotional materials featured families to assure passengers of the safety of the jet planes.


A schematic of the 707-220 shows the plane’s dimensions.

This democratization of air travel was supported by basic economics. By transporting more passengers in larger planes traveling greater distances, airlines could charge reduced fares. For the first time, pretty much anyone could take to the skies. Increasingly, people did just that: the volume of passengers carried vaulted from 16.7 million people in 1948 to 35.5 million in 1954. Passenger travel had more than doubled in just six years.

These are remembered as the glamour days of jet travel, when boarding a plane was an event akin to boarding a cruise ship—an occasion people dressed up for. Prior to takeoff, the pilots walked up the aisles, giving children enameled metal pins with flight wings on them. Passengers in all classes received printed menus from which they could order a variety of free entrées and cocktails. Elegantly attired flight attendants served food and beverages to passengers, who dined on seatback tray tables, a novelty.

Once they were in the air, the biggest surprise for many first-time jet passengers was the noise—or lack thereof. Flight attendants no longer had to hand out earplugs. The only surprising sound passengers heard was the whine of the landing gear being elevated and lowered. In the days of piston-engine aircraft, the engines had drowned out this sound.

Flying in a jet plane became the thing to do. Celebrities who traversed the world by air were described as being members of the Jet Set. Even the president of the United States traveled on a 707. Beginning in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s term, air traffic control crews used the call sign “Air Force One” to designate the plane used to transport government officials. The name stuck after the government ordered two Boeing 707-320B airframes to be adapted specifically for use by President John F. Kennedy. To this day, Boeing jets are the official transport of the U.S. president.

Ultimately, the 707 became the standard for all passenger jets and the forerunner of more than 14,000 Boeing commercial jets built since its debut.

“They kind of got it right the first time around at Boeing with the 707,” said author Sam Howe Verhovek. “If you think about it, we’re not really flying any faster today or more comfortably than when the Boeing 707 first took off.”

The company had a winner in the 707 and was amenable to adapting the airliner to carrier wishes. When Qantas, Australia’s largest airline and a longtime purchaser of Douglas planes, needed a jet with greater range than the conventional 707-120, Boeing’s engineers shortened the fuselage by 10 feet, giving the jet greater fuel efficiency. Qantas purchased 13 of the unique 707-138s.

As in the past, industry competition spurred many aircraft advancements that, in turn, led to other technological achievements. When the 707’s success spurred Douglas and other manufacturers to switch to jet-driven planes, their respective expertise and ingenuity would advance Boeing’s own research and development. The marketplace also played a role in these iterative enhancements. For example, when Pan Am indicated that it would buy 25 DC-8s from Douglas and only 10 707s from Boeing because the DC-8 had capabilities the 707 lacked, Boeing’s engineers redesigned the 707 with a wider body, a more powerful engine, and bigger wings. The improvements increased fuel capacity from 15,000 gallons to more than 23,000 gallons and gave the jet a range of more than 4,000 miles when in a 141-seat configuration. Excluding the six DC-8s that had already been shipped, Pan Am eventually switched its entire order to Boeing. The new plane was known as the 707-300 Intercontinental.


In 1962, two 707-320B jets were adapted for use by President John F. Kennedy, earning the designation “Air Force One” when the president is on board. Since then, Boeing 7—7 series airplanes have continued to be the official aircraft of the U.S. president.

On May 28, 1959, the Intercontinental made a record nonstop flight of 5,830 miles from New York to Rome. A later version, the 707-320B Intercontinental, could fly nonstop over a distance of 6,000 miles, thanks to another innovation: turbofan engines. This revolutionary jet engine received additional thrust from a new turbine-driven fan. The turbofan remains the engine of choice for virtually every commercial and military jet aircraft today.

As commercial aircraft manufacturers gradually produced larger and wider-body jet planes with added features and functions, the economics of air travel continued to improve. An astonishing parade of innovations came forward. Boeing’s three-engine 727, for instance, was the first jet to undergo rigorous fatigue testing, the first to have completely powered flight controls, the first to use triple-slotted wing flaps, and the first to have an auxiliary power unit. The jet, which had three engines mounted below the tail, also could be convertible. Although it typically accommodated 131 passengers, sections of seats could easily be removed to permit greater cargo capacity. The aircraft, designed to service smaller airports with shorter runways on domestic routes, made its maiden flight in November 1966. Its range was 3,110 miles, and its top speed was 632 miles per hour.


A sleeper success, the adaptable 737 continues to evolve and post strong sales more than four decades after its introduction.

Boeing’s next jet in the 700 series was the narrow-body 737, which was intended to compete in the short-haul category. In its initial 100-seat configuration, it offered six-abreast seating, a selling point with airlines because it carried more passengers per load than the competitors. Like the 727, the 737 operated well at smaller airports and even remote, unimproved landing fields—the latter prompting orders by airlines in Africa, Central and South America, Asia, and Australia. The 737 would eventually become a legend in the aerospace industry and the best-selling airliner of all time; the 8,000th 737 rolled out of the factory in April 2014. Today Boeing estimates that, on average, more than 2,000 737s are in the air at any given time, with one of the jets taking off or landing somewhere in the world every two seconds.

By 1962, more than 30 million passengers on 27 airlines had traveled the world on a Boeing plane, and the company was besting all rivals in the commercial jet transport business. The following year, Boeing was in the black on the program-development costs for the early 7-7 series, including the $16 million invested in the Dash 80 prototype.

With the 707, Boeing entered the Jet Age and defined the new financial dynamics of the aerospace industry. Constant innovation, risk taking, and mastery of increasing complexity were the levers that aircraft manufacturers had to pull to stay alive in the increasingly competitive business. Subsequent projects took much longer to reach fruition yet still required a dizzying speed of production. Manufacturers needed vastly more resources, and to provide a return on their investments, they had to disrupt the status quo and be game-changers. This new way of doing business required a combination of visionary leadership, courage in the face of uncertainty, and a die-hard resolve to complete the most difficult projects imaginable.


Boeing’s entire 7-7 series of jetliners, lined up numerically from the 707 on the right to the 777 at the left, was on display during the new 787 Dreamliner’s premiere.