Boeing’s 707 was the world’s third jetliner type to enter service – following the British Comet and Soviet Tu-104 – but the American machine truly set the template for the Jet Age, as Charles Kennedy explains
While famous for its bombers, Boeing also made inroads during the golden age of the propliner. It built 83 airframes of the Model 40, a four-seat biplane, in the 1920s and then 83 ten-seat B-247s, a twin-engined all-metal monoplane that operated the first transcontinental passenger flights not requiring an overnight hotel stop. Each day a United Airlines B-247 left Newark, New Jersey at midday, landing in San Francisco the next morning at 6.55am with eight stops en route, for US$160 one way ($3,000 in today’s money). At the time, Boeing owned United, and used its dominant position to refuse to build for the competition, declining to accept B-247 orders from TWA and American Airlines.
This policy had the knock-on effect of driving spectacular business opportunities to the Douglas Aircraft Corporation, based in California’s Santa Monica; it eventually built around 22,000 DC-2 and DC-3 transports (including more than 5,000 under licence in the Soviet Union and Japan), with another 2,285 four-engined piston-powered propliners – the DC-4, -6 and -7.
With the advent of jets, Douglas had much to lose and yet it was slow to develop a transport with those powerplants. So, the pendulum was about to swing back up the Pacific coast to Washington-based Boeing, which had helped win World War Two by building almost 13,000 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers – and the B-29 Superfortress, the most expensive weapons platform in the conflict (costing even more than the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. And yet it remained very much out of the civil transport game.
Boeing gained experience with jet engines and swept wings with its B-47 Stratojet bomber of 1947, not exactly a well-loved machine due to challenging high-speed handling characteristics, but nonetheless built to the tune of 2,032 airframes. Five years later this type led to the legendary B-52 Stratofortress, which remains in service today.
However, the new bombers didn’t just give Boeing the theoretical ability to create a world-beating jet airliner – they also highlighted the requirement for a vital support asset, that of aerial refuelling. The USAF and Strategic Air Command were relying on the lumbering piston-driven KC-97, a tanker/transport derivative of the B-29, with a top speed that wasn’t much less than the minimum manoeuvring speed of a B-47.
Boeing evaluated more than 150 different configurations for a jet-powered transport, including a KC-97-style ‘double-bubble’ fuselage cross-section, and exterior wingtip tanks with the same proportions as those found on Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter. Engine placement on pylons was quickly becoming a Boeing speciality, with the advantage of giving a clean wing, access for groundcrew and suitable distance from fuel tanks.
The design for the prototype was agreed at the end of 1951, emerging from a series of plans designated the 367 series, and the configuration chosen was subtype 80, hence the prototype was a Boeing 367-80, shortened to ‘Dash 80’.
On May 15, 1954 the Dash 80, registered N70700, was formally unveiled to the public, being towed out of the hangar at Boeing’s Renton factory during the 4pm shift change, so employees could participate. The wife of company founder William Boeing, Bertha M Potter Paschall Boeing, smashed a bottle of champagne on the Dash 80’s nose and pronounced: “I name thee, airplane of tomorrow!”…
The rest of this feature can be read in the current FlyPast, in UK shops now, or available at www.flypast.com