The 707 shrank the world with its speed

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October 26, 2018
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The 707 was a masterpiece of engineering, a thing of grace and beauty and its impact on the development of air travel was extraordinary, shrinking the world and changing lives and economies.

Sixty years ago, Pan American World Airways launched its Boeing 707 service from New York to Paris, and overnight the tyranny of distance disappeared.

With its speed came productivity, while its size and jet power brought lower costs and airfares, moving air travel from the exclusive realm of the rich and famous into the reach of the everyday traveler.

Rather than a risky option to be endured, air travel was now the thing to do.

The birth of jet-powered commercial flight was a huge gamble.

The Comet disasters of the early 1950s, in which the world’s first commercial jet airliner suffered a series of fatal accidents, frightened the public.

But Boeing’s chairman William Allen convinced his board to stake the company’s future on building a jet transport prototype for both military and civil applications without a single order.

Mr Allen had taken a ride in one of the company’s jet bombers in 1950 and had a “transformational experience” and was convinced that the future was jet travel.

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Boeing president Bill Allen. climbs aboard colorized by Benoit Vienne

Nonetheless, it was an immense gamble, because Boeing was mainly a builder of military aircraft and had sold just 147 commercial models in the preceding 20 years.

Two years later, in 1954, the first 707 prototype — dubbed the Dash 80 — rolled out from the factory.

But Boeing still had to prove its credentials, with some airline executives saying no airline would buy a jet airliner from Boeing. However, Boeing test pilot Tex Johnston had other ideas.

Mr Johnston was asked to pilot the Dash 80 prototype in a demonstration fly-by for airline chiefs attending the 1954 International Air Transport Association (IATA) annual general meeting in Seattle.

Boeing hosted delegates at the Gold Cup power boat races on Lake Washington and company president Mr Allen thought it would be a golden opportunity to impress the chiefs of the world’s airlines.

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Tex Johnston in the 707. Boeing Historical Archives colorized by Benoit Vienne

But instead of a sedate fly-past, to everyone’s amazement, Mr. Johnston put the Dash 80 into a barrel roll which, while not overstressing the aircraft, gave Mr. Allen severe heart palpitations.

Not content with one roll, Mr. Johnston brought the Dash 80 around again and repeated the stunt — in case any of the airline executives thought they were seeing things.

The next day, legend has it that Mr. Johnston quipped to Mr. Allen, when asked about the barrel roll: “I was just selling airplanes.”

The 707 had a price tag double that of the piston engine aircraft it would replace but it would produce three times the revenue.

Publicity shot of passengers deplaning from an American Airlines 707. Boeing Historical Archives

The orders flowed for the 707 and its arch-rival, the Douglas DC-8.

Australia’s Qantas ordered a special longer-range version of the 707 that could operate out of Nadi in Fiji, and it started operations on July 29, 1959, to San Francisco.

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Qantas and Boeing executives and their wives about to board the airline’s first 707 for the delivery flight to Australia.. Boeing Historical Archive colorized by Benoit Vienne.

London followed on September 5 and the first-class return fare to London at the time was $1755, with an economy return ticket of $1170.

 

Aside from the glamour of the speed and the lower fares, the jet engine was far more reliable than the piston engines it replaced, giving travelers much greater confidence in air travel.

The 707 and the DC-8 blitzed the great ocean liners and even as early as 1960, more travelers went by air across the North Atlantic than by ship.

The basic 707 fuselage design gave birth to the 727, 737 and 757. The 737 went on to be the most popular commercial jet in history, with over 14,000 sold. It’s still being produced at a rate of 57 a month.