Bring on the Boeings!

The Boeing 707 ushered in a dramatic transformation in long distance air travel. It was ordered by a number of leading airlines across the globe, including Air India.

Issue: 11-2022By Joseph Noronha

The world’s first successful turbojet-powered aircraft, the Heinkel He 178, made its first flight on August 27, 1939, just prior to the outbreak of World War II. However, the German military leadership failed to appreciate the tremendous potential of this new technology. The United States and Britain also developed fighter jets during the War, but they were not operationally deployed. Thereafter, it took a few years for the War’s dust to settle before aircraft manufacturers turned their attention to commercial jets.

At that time airliners were propeller-driven planes and were rather slow, small and at the mercy of the weather. Therefore British, French and Soviet technologists began striving to design and build passenger jet planes. The 36-seat British de Havilland DH 106 Comet, the world’s first production commercial jetliner, began scheduled service with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) from London to Johannesburg in May 1952. But a few tragic accidents, mainly on account of metal fatigue exacerbated by the square window design, soon forced its premature withdrawal from service.

Also in 1952, Boeing commenced work on a prototype jet aircraft that could be used both for aerial refuelling of military aircraft and as a commercial airliner. It was designated the Model 367-80 or simply Dash 80. It had a tube-and-wing configuration that became the standard for jet transport aircraft. Powered by four underslung Pratt & Whitney JT3 turbojets, each producing 10,000 lbf (44 kN) thrust, it could reach a top speed of 600 miles per hour (960 km/h).

The Boeing 707-120 was built by widening the Dash 80 to hold six seats abreast and stretching it to take between 140 and 179 passengers depending on the specific configuration and facilities desired by each airline. Its first flight was on December 20, 1957. The wings were swept back at 35 degrees. While this helped it to achieve higher cruise speeds, it also gave it an inherently unstable and potentially dangerous “Dutch roll” tendency that manifested itself as an alternating yawing and rolling motion. The aircraft was fitted with a yaw damper but any malfunction of the system or inadvertent disengagement by the crew could prove hazardous. A fatal accident during a customer acceptance check was attributed to this factor. Later variants like the Boeing 707-320C, the most popular of all 707s, could seat up to 194 passengers. It was powered by the more powerful and fuel-efficient P&W JT3D turbofan.

In 1955 Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) contracted to purchase 20 Boeing 707s and became its launch customer. Simultaneously it ordered 25 Douglas DC-8s, a similar jet airliner being developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company. Till then Douglas had dominated the commercial space, supplying airlines with most of their piston-engine passenger planes. However, the Boeing 707 was faster than the DC-8, and Boeing was willing to customise the plane to meet the airlines’ preferences. On October 26, 1958, the first scheduled jet passenger flight of the B707 took place with Pan Am’s transatlantic service from New York to Paris. Travellers found the new jet comfortable, less noisy, and far swifter than the leisurely propeller-driven airliners that had crisscrossed the skies for almost four decades. It was also much larger and smoother. It helped Pan Am steal a march over its rivals in the highly competitive intercontinental air travel market. In fact, the Boeing 707 ushered in a dramatic transformation in long distance air travel. It was ordered by a number of leading airlines across the globe, including Air India.

To handle the large, fast, high capacity jets, changes had to be made in airport terminals, runways, airline catering, baggage handling, reservation systems, and air traffic control. Pan Am later emerged as the most prolific operator of the 707, with 133 aircraft and the Boeing 707 became the most popular airliner of the day. In America a well-known slogan went, “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going!”

Boeing manufactured a total of 1010 707s of different variants for commercial use till 1978, and another 800 for military customers till 1991. The US Air Force still operates a small fleet of Boeing 707s, testimony to the exceptional standard of this pioneering jet. However, with green aviation now being the buzz phrase, a Boeing 707 airliner would be roundly condemned as a noisy fuel guzzler. But in its day, it rejuvenated the commercial aviation space. It continued in airline service with Tier-2 carriers till as recently as 2013. It was not the first jet airliner but it was certainly the first commercially successful one. It did not earn Boeing any profit but it dominated the air routes for most of the 1960s. Building on this sweet success, Boeing rapidly achieved global dominance of the market with its 737s and 747s. At one point, almost three fourths of all airliners in the world were Boeings.