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“If It Ain’t Boeing, I Ain’t Going!”

The United States entered the jet transport era on July 15, 1954, when the Boeing Model 367-80 (affectionately known as Dash 80) made its first flight from Renton Field, near Seattle. Later, as Boeing test pilot Alvin Johnston came out of the cockpit, he reported, “She flew like a bird, only faster.” Well, considerably faster. Its cruising speed was 495 knots as compared to the propeller-driven Boeing 307 Stratoliner’s speed of 209 knots. Indeed, it could climb more rapidly and cruise higher and faster than any commercial plane, and it set many records. When the press were invited for a demonstration, the Dash 80 flew from Seattle to Baltimore in just 3 hours 48 minutes at an average sped of 532 knots. It hardly needed more publicity. The Dash 80 was the prototype of the Boeing 707 that first flew on December 20, 1957. And the B707 itself was the forerunner of the 7X7 series of Boeing jet airliners of which over 16,500 have been delivered to the civil market alone with close to 6,000 on order.

The Boeing is today a leader in the global aerospace market, civil as well as military. But after the Second World War it was renowned only for its military offerings while Douglas Aircraft and other manufacturers held sway in the commercial arena that changed with the Boeing 707. Indeed, if there’s one aircraft that transformed Boeing into a dominant force in commercial aviation, it was this iconic jet airliner.

At that time British, French and Russians technologists were all trying their hand at building passenger jets. 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, meant that it never entered the popularity charts. Hence the B707 was the undisputed leader for many years.

The Boeing 707-120 was made by widening the Dash 80 to hold six seats abreast and stretching it to take between 140 and 179 passengers depending on the configuration and amenities each airline wanted. It had a tube and wing configuration that became the standard for jet airliners and was powered by four podded Pratt & Whitney JT3 turbojets. Travellers found it more comfortable, less noisy, and far swifter than the lumbering propeller-driven planes that had ruled the roost. It was also larger and smoother. Depending on the version, its range was anywhere between 2,500 and 5,750 nautical miles and it ushered in a dramatic transformation in long distance travel.

Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) contracted to buy 20 Boeing 707s and became its launch customer. It was October 26, 1958, when the first regular jet passenger flight of the B707 took place with Pan Am’s transatlantic service from New York to Paris. This helped the carrier surge ahead of its rivals in the lucrative intercontinental market.

However, Boeing’s fight with Douglas was long and bitter. Douglas launched its DC-8 passenger jet in September 1959 and many airlines preferred it because Douglas was a far more experienced commercial manufacturer. However, Boeing had a head start and did whatever it took to gain customers, including offering heavy discounts. It even accepted a major redesign of the B707’s wing to increase its range and payload. This more advanced version was called the B707-320 Intercontinental, and no less than 11 airlines adopted it within a year of its introduction. Ultimately, the DC-8 could not match the B707’s appeal.

In all Boeing manufactured 1,010 B707s for commercial use till 1978, and another 800 for military customers till 1991. It sparked a remarkable transformation in the commercial aviation industry. It was not the first jet airliner but was undoubtedly the first commercially successful one. It did not make much money for Boeing but it dominated the air routes for most of the 1960s. And it laid the base for Boeing’s steep ascent to global market dominance, via the B737 and B747, till almost three fourths of all commercial jets were Boeings. In America the refrain was, “If it ain’t Boeing,

I ain’t going!” Of course once Airbus Industrie entered the fray in 1970 it was a different story.

© India Strategic