Apr 9 2021 - Apr 9 2021

Boeing 707


The Jet Age Begins and An Airline Shakes the World

On 13 October 1955, Pan American Airways ordered 45 new jet airliners. Each had twice the capacity of all but the largest of the piston-engined generation, had the potential of trans-Atlantic nonstop range, and was twice as fast. In economic terms this multiplied to about four or five times the productivity of the DC-7Cs or the Super Constellations, and furthermore the reliability of the engines and airframes held out the prospect of far higher levels of annual utilization. The collective economic advantage, measured in seat-mile costs, represented such a dramatic improvement that Boeing hardly had to market the product. The world of airlines beat the proverbial pathway to Boeing's assembly plant doors in Seattle.

Hedging the Bet

Often forgotten is that the order was for 25 Douglas DC-8s and 20 Boeing 707s. This suggested that Pan American was prepared to support the company which had supplied it with so many reliable aircraft during the postwar years, but was also warning it that its product had to be good and that tradition and sentiment would not guarantee a continued market, In the event, Boeing proved that its determination not to let this chance slip was matched by its actions. It assembled a production and marketing team that out-produced and out-sold the experienced Douglas. More important, Pan American switched to Boeing as its main supplier. And at this time, when Pan American sneezed, the rest of the aviation world felt a severe draught and most of it caught cold or worse.

Day of Infamy... for British Aviation

The effect of Pan American's order on the British commercial aircraft industry was shattering. The technical lead which, given a slightly better throw of the dice, could have established the Comet as a permanent, rather than a temporary world-beater, was irrevocably lost. De Havilland was too heavily committed to the Comet line to undertake a completely new design. Vickers worked on a large jet project, the V-1000, but this was abandoned, and many years were to pass before the fine rear-engined VC-10 made its appearance. Before the Boeing 707, Great Britain stood an outside chance of securing perhaps a 25% share of the world's commercial market; now its chances were reduced to the extent that it had to struggle to stay in the market at all, and it did not help itself by a series of appalling blunders from which it never recovered. Pan American's press release read like an obituary in the boardrooms of the British aircraft industry.

The 707's Place in History

The lower seat-mile costs mentioned above constituted the biggest advantage, in most emphatic terms, of the Big Jets (as they became known at the time) over previous types. This factor, and this alone, caused the technical revolution which launched the Jet Age. The dramatic increase in speed from the 300 mph of the piston-engined airliners to the 600 mph of the jet giants was only a contributory element in the economic equation. People did not flock to the jets only because (as is so often claimed by the advocates of supersonic and hypersonic airliners) of their speed, but because of the economy fares that the lower operating costs made possible.

The Boeing 707 clearly ranks as one of the half dozen most significant airliners of all time. Closer analysis would probably grant it even higher status. While aircraft such as the Ford Tri-Motor, the Boeing 247, and the Comet had their hours and years of glory, only four commercial airliners have so influenced their contemporary scenes as to launch entire eras of air transport; the Junkers-F 13, the Douglas DC-3, the Boeing 707, and the Boeing 747. These aircraft were so good as to survive in a harsh competitive environment for at least two decades and still be a force to be reckoned with. The 707 was in good company.

The Dash Eighty

After the British Comet had demonstrated in 1952 that the advent of commercial jet operation was much closer in the aircraft development cycle than aviation engineers, designers, and economists alike had dared to imagine, the United States industry harnessed its vast resources to enter the race.

Boeing drew on its experience of having previously produced piston-engined tankers for the B-29 bomber fleet. The jet-powered Type 367-80, or the Dash Eighty, first flew on 15 July 1954, five years after the Comet's first flight. This was a little more than two years after the British aircraft's entry into service, and ominously only three months after the second Comet disaster which dashed de Havilland's hopes. Designed as a tanker for the B-47 and B-52 jet bombers, the Air Force ordered a production batch in March 1955.

The Boeing 707-120

The Dash Eighty's fuselage had to be widened, to match the Douglas DC-8's six-abreast seating. The redesigned Boeing's wings, by comparison with the DC-8, had a slightly greater angle of sweep, 35° against the DC-8's 30° but otherwise the two rival aircraft were remarkably similar, with the Boeing's smaller windows a key recognition feature. The result outcome being the Boeing 707-120. The 100 Series, was equipped with Pratt & Whitney JT3C-6 engines and made its first flight on 20 December 1957. The first aircraft was delivered to Pan American on 15 August 1958.


The Soviet Union inaugurated the first sustained commercial jet airliner service. The Tupolev Tu-104 went into service on medium-stage U.S.S.R. domestic routes in 1956, the design bureau in Moscow having taken a giant step when it moved straight from outdated aircraft such as the Ilyushin IL-7A to a twin-engined jet.

But the Tu-104 was never more than a medium-haul airliner, and could not cross the oceans. Indeed, many more years were to pass before the rear-engined Ilyushin IL-62, remarkably similar to the British Vickers VC-10, was to make its debut on the North Atlantic. The Soviet Union, for its own reasons, never placed enough emphasis on the development of main line jets. It fell behind by at least a whole aircraft generation; and it is still behind by at least that measure. The Boeing 707 was a landmark and swept aside all the claims of the British and the Soviets alike for pride of place in the Jet Age.

The Era of Domination: Statistics Don't Always Lie

The table of data on this and the following page tells its own story. Such was Pan American's dominance of the international airline arena during the 1960s - a decade when the volume of air transport quadrupled, that it acquired 120 of the Boeing 707-300 Series. Twenty-six of these were of the basic version, with Pratt & Whitney JT4A-9 straight jet engines ( the so-called "Ole Smokies" as they became known rather unkindly in later years, along with the original JT3C-6 engines of the 100 Series. Then came the JT3D-3 turbofan, or bypass ) engines which resulted in the "B" versions and the further developments which resulted in the Advanced models. The turbofans gave the aircraft greater range, capacity, and profitability than before, and above all cut about half a mile off the almost two-mile takeoff distance required for the Boeing 707.

This total of 120 does not include the eight 707-100 series or the nine 720Bs. Thus Pan American had no less than 137 of the 707 family, such was the pace of airline growth during the successful Sixties. The last two digits of the series number -321, incidentally, refers to the customer identification allocated by Boeing and Pan American's was -21. Pan American bought six from T.W.A. (or more correctly the Hughes Tool Company, which always bought aircraft and leased them to Hughes's airline.) The series number of these was thus -331, denoting that airline.

All the Boeing 707s served Pan American well and were intensively used for an average of about 15 years, until they were gradually retired when the Boeing 747s replaced them.

On Top of the World

During this heady period, Pan American seemed to be able to do no wrong. By the middle of 1962 it had completed 100,000 Atlantic flights, a figure not even approached by any other airline at that time, although the pendulum was to swing later on. On 7 March 1963 it moved into the new building which towered over Grand Central Station, New York, with the Pan Am abbreviation in huge letters on the top, and visible for several miles up or down Park Avenue, almost symbolically telling the world the aviation industry had taken over from surface travel.

Subtle changes were being made to the network. Interests in Latin American associates, including substantial organizations such as the two Mexican airlines and Panair do Brasil, were sold in the early 1960s. With possible ambitions to acquire a connecting domestic network ( by buying National Airlines ) and even to merge with T.W.A., the Atlantic and Pacific Divisions amalgamated to form the Overseas Division at the end of 1959, and the Latin American Division was closed down in 1964.

This was the year when Harold Gray, once a pilot in the 1930s with a Mexican airline, later Pan American's Chief Pilot and one of the first to fly the Atlantic in the Boeing flying boats, succeeded Juan Trippe as President. This was the beginning of the end of an era during which Pan American had been run almost single-handedly by an amiable despot. Trippe had built the airline from nothing to world dominance in twenty years, and had maintained that dominance with confidence and complete authority until he handed over. He finally retired on 7 May 1968, a true giant of the airline world.

Variations on a Theme: Marketing Style

Although Boeing had unmistakably "seen Douglas off in a big way" ( as one impartial British commentator put it ), it still had its work cut out to overcome the marketing strength of Douglas which, with its world-wide network of agents, representatives, and traveling salesmen, possessed a solid base from which to conduct its DC-8 campaign. Boeing countered this by producing what it called a family of airliners, emphasizing the commonality of parts between the various models. Although this did not begin to look like a family until the Boeing 727 was launched in 1963, the idea was nevertheless effective, even though all the 707s seemed to look the same.

Boeing made much of its willingness to build a 707 that would meet a customer's precise requirements, whereas Douglas was inclined to be more rigid, offering a choice of DC-8 series but reluctant to deviate from the basic specifications of each series. The Boeing 707s for Braniff and the Australian airline QANTAS were sized and specified precisely to the requirements of each and no others were built.

A Smaller 707: The Boeing 720

As the best example of its flexibility, Boeing produced the Model 720, with a fuselage sixteen feet shorter and a wing span fifteen feet shorter than the 707's. First ordered by United Air Lines, it marked that airline's return to the Boeing camp after its extensive DC-8 program, and went into service on the one-stop Chicago-Los Angeles route on 5 July 1960. Other orders followed but the Boeing 720 did not sell in great numbers. Nevertheless, it served Boeing's purpose in being able to offer an airliner which was smaller than the 707/ DC-8 standard and was suitable for medium-stage routes of lower traffic density.

Curiously, when, as the 720B, the variant was fitted with the Pratt & Whitney JT3D fan engines, and because of its lighter weight, it had for a short time the longest range, exceeding 4,000 miles, of any commercial airliner. Pan American had a few 720Bs but did not use them extensively. Nine were delivered from 1963 to 1965, mainly for use in the Caribbean and Latin America, but all were disposed of by 1974.

Boeing 720

Every Little Bit Helps

While the Boeing 720 did not sell in such numbers as the Boeing 707-300 series, its contribution to the 707 program as a whole was significant. It actually outsold the original -100 Series (154 v. 146) and was thus almost a fifth of the total sales of 848. In the unrelenting fight for commercial markets among the few manufacturers, it was a major factor in the virtual elimination of the Convair 880, also marketed as a mainline jet smaller than all the others. United's 720 order was a big nail in Convair's coffin.

Arguably, the Boeing 720/720B, combined with Pan American's 128 other Boeings, made the difference in relative market shares, particularly when compared with the Douglas DC-8. Had Boeing not obtained a share of what could have been almost exclusively Convair's medium-haul market, and had Douglas snatched the lion's share of the Pan American requirement, Boeing's and Douglas's sales might have been about equal, at perhaps 600 each. In the event, the Boeing 707s outsold all the DC-8s by a ratio of 3:2.

  • Apr 9 2021 - Apr 9 2021

  • The Jet Era

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