Qantas: 60 years of jet travel

July 27, 2019

Sixty years ago on July 29, 1959, Qantas became the first airline outside the US to launch the Boeing 707 with service from Sydney to San Francisco, and overnight the tyranny of distance disappeared.

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.

SEE Incredible video from a 777 cockpit of a 747 overtaking a 737. 

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

Below is a video produced by Qantas to celebrate 50 years of jet travel.

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.

SEE: Colourizing Qantas first 707 delivery flight. 

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 B-47 bombers in 1950 and had a “transformational experience” and was convinced that the future was jet travel.

Bill Allen about to board the company’s B-47 bomber. Boeing Historical Archives colourized 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 powerboat 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.

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.

Below is Mike Machat’s famous painting of the prototype 707 – the 367-80, performing the Barrell roll over Lake Washington in front of hundreds of airline executives

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.”

Tex Johnston. Boeing Historical Archives colourized by Benoit Vienne.

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

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

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.

The Boeing 707 started Qantas’s relationship with Boeing in the jet era. Credit: Boeing Historical Archives.

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.

The graphic below shows the dramatic decrease in the cost of travel when jets were introduced in late 50s as expressesd in number of average weekly earnings. 

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.

Qantas ordered 7 707-138s initially and then added a further 22 larger more powerful models – the -338C – to replace the initial 7 and for growth.

Qantas 707

The first 707-338 arrived in 1965 and the last one was not retired till 1979.

That order for 707s started a relationship with Boeing that included: 65 747s, 39 767s, 120 737s and 8 787s with more on order.

Below are some Boeing adverts extolling the virtues of jet travel.


  1. Certainly, the economy space has decreased but only by about 35% overall. Nothing like the decline in the fares.