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America ruled, unchallenged, as the supreme source of the best in airplane technology for most of the century since the Wright brothers took to the air on 17 Dec 1903.

But American passenger aircraft building companies have reduced down to only one - Boeing, and it in turn has steadily lost market share to a European competitor, Airbus.

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Where is Boeing Going?

Part 1 :  The Early Years


A Boeing 247 operated by Boeing's then subsidiary, United Airlines. Boeing's refusal to sell these planes to TWA encouraged Douglas to develop the DC3 - a plane that was vastly superior to the 247!

Part 1 of a 5 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three  Four  Five



Boeing has been one of the proudest and most obvious examples of American technological success. But in the last ten years, it seems to have lost its direction, while its competitor, Airbus, has been steadily advancing, to the point where it now dominates the market.

How did this happen? Is there a future for Boeing? What should it do?

This series chronicles Boeing's rise to industry leadership and domination, explains how that leadership was lost, and then offers suggestions for Boeing's future.


Getting Started

Boeing was formed by William Boeing, and the company built its first two planes in 1916. These two planes were known as B&W seaplanes (after the initials of the two designers - William Boeing and then partner George Westervelt). The US Navy declined to purchase them, and so they were sold to the New Zealand Flying School, becoming not only Boeing's first sale but also their first international sale. The B&W seaplane cruised at 67 mph, had a 320 mile range, and carried a crew of two.

William Boeing's partner moved to the East Coast, and Boeing continued alone, incorporating the company on 15 July, 1916, initially as Pacific Aero Products Company, and then renaming it as Boeing Airplane Company the next year.

In 1917, the company made a sale of 50 Model C seaplanes to the US Navy, marking their first ever production order.

World War 1 ended in late 1918, and military orders for planes also ended, while a surplus of ex-military planes depressed the market as a whole. Boeing managed to win some contracts to build planes from other company's designs, but it became increasingly clear that they needed to design, build and sell their own planes if they were to get more control over their future destiny.

A successful design for a fighter resulted in the sale of 586 P12/F4B fighters over the decade from 1929-1939.

Help from the Government

In 1925, the US Postal Service started contracting with private companies for the delivery of airmail. People would hitch rides on the airmail freight planes, marking the informal start of scheduled air transportation. The growth of passenger services closely followed the airmail routes (and the USPS contracts that funded them).

Boeing designed and built a mail carrying plane, the Model 40, which had room for two passengers as well as mail cargo. This plane cruised at 105 mph and had a 650 mile range.

After winning a US Mail contract to carry mail between Chicago and San Francisco, Boeing formed a subsidiary company in 1927, Boeing Air Transport, to provide airmail and passenger services. The first flight was on 1 July, 1927 in a Model 40A - a 22.5 hour flight between San Francisco and Chicago. The success of these flights encouraged Boeing to develop its first ever plane specifically for passenger services - the three engined Model 80 biplane, carrying 12 passengers and cruising at 125 mph, with a range of 460 miles. Shortly thereafter, Boeing added the first female flight attendants to its passenger services.

1927 was perhaps the year that aviation finally moved into the mainstream of public thought, when Charles Lindberg flew (not in a Boeing plane) nonstop between New York and Paris. Passenger numbers started to quickly grow, as did airlines and airplanes.

Reflecting its broader range of activities, Boeing renamed itself as United Aircraft and Transportation Corp in 1929. Included in this conglomerate were companies such as Pratt & Whitney, Northrup, and Sikorsky. Rapid developments were occurring in the aviation field, and Boeing's planes were prominently featured, for example the 247, developed in 1933, and the first of what we'd now recognise today as modern airplanes, with a low single wing, smooth and streamlined all-metal fuselage, and retractable undercarriage. The 247 enabled the journey time between New York and Los Angeles to be cut by 7 hours, down to 'only' 20 hours (with seven stops along the way. The plane carried 10 passengers, cruised at 189 mph, and had a range of 745 miles.

Interestingly, Boeing refused to sell the 247 to competing airline TWA, reserving the first production run of 60 planes for its own airline subsidiary, United Airlines. Because of this, TWA commissioned a similar plane from Douglas, the DC-2 and which evolved into the DC-3, a plane that eclipsed the 247 in size and speed and rendered it quickly obsolete. United's 247s cost $50,000 each.

Hindrance from the Government

New anti-trust legislation in 1934 prevented aircraft manufacturers from also owning airlines with US Mail contracts, and so Boeing split itself into three parts - the Boeing Airplane Company, United Air Lines, and United Aircraft (now known as United Technologies, with engine building Pratt & Whitney as one of the main divisions).

Saddened by this, founder William Boeing retired that same year, and the new President/Chairman, Clairmont Egtvedt, focused Boeing more strongly on developing large bombers and passenger planes.

The Golden Age of Aviation ....

Results of this development were soon seen in the form of the model 314 'Clipper' flying boat, a luxurious plane that carried up to 74 passengers with a range of up to 4500 miles, cruising at 184 mph. Reminiscent of today's 'sleeper seats', the 74 seats could be converted into 40 bunks for overnight sleeping.

The 314 Clipper first flew on June 7, 1938, and was the largest, heaviest, longest-range, highest capacity airliner, using the most powerful engines in the air. They cost $550,000-$800,000 each, but only twelve were produced - World War 2 interrupted the sale and use of these planes.

Flying boats were developed for two reasons - they could be operated to places that did not have expensive airport facilities, and the public felt safer, due to the fact that, if the engines failed, the plane could land safely in the sea. As air travel became more popular, more airports were built, and as planes became safer, the need for emergency landings at sea became less important, and so the era of the flying boat was shortlived (from the mid 1930s to the late 1940s).

Meanwhile, the B-17 'Flying Fortress' bomber was developed from concept to test flight in less than 12 months and first took to the skies in 1935. Why is it that, with all the modern computer modeling and CAD/CAM productivity aids, such rapid model development is no longer possible?

During the war years, Boeing built 6,981 B-17s, and 5,745 more were built by Douglas and Lockheed. A passenger variant, the model 307 Stratoliner, was the world's first pressurized passenger plane, and could fly above bad weather, up to 26,000 ft, cruising at 220 mph, with a maximum range of 2400 miles. One of the Stratoliners was purchased by eccentric millionaire (and aviation enthusiast) Howard Hughes who fitted it out as a flying penthouse.  Only ten were made in total, prior to the onset of WW2, and no more subsequently.

Another famous Boeing plane from World War 2 was its B-29 Superfortress. These pressurized planes could fly higher than other bombers, and had a 5830 mile range. B-29s were chosen to deliver the two atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The end of the war saw the almost immediate loss of 70,000 jobs at Boeing, and the company attempted to refocus on civilian aircraft development and production. Its first new passenger plane was the model 377 Stratocruiser, a derivative of the B-29 bomber design. This plane had two levels - much like the new A380 - and could carry up to 100 passengers, cruising at 300 mph with a maximum range of 4,600 miles. Only 56 were sold, at a cost of $1.5 million each.

.... but Not Golden for Boeing

The brutal reality is that Boeing was failing to produce a successful passenger airplane. Its 247 was eclipsed by the Douglas DC-2 and DC-3 and only 76 were built. It produced a mere twelve 314 Clipper flying boats, ten 307 Stratoliners, and 56 Stratocruisers.

Although Boeing was enjoying outstanding success with its heavy bombers (B-17, B-29, B-47 and B-52) its passenger airplane programs desperately needed resurrection.

The Jet Age Arrives

Boeing released its first jet airplane, the B-47 bomber, in 1947, which was shortly followed by the B-52, a bomber still in service today.

In 1952 an insignificant seeming event occurred that would, in time, vastly alter the market for air travel. Pan Am introduced a second class of service on international flights, making them more affordable than the previous all 'first class' service and fares.

Also in 1952 Boeing decided to invest $16 million into developing a revolutionary new jet plane, the model 367-80 (commonly referred to as the 'Dash 80'). This new plane took three years to develop.

Boeing's costly gamble paid off, and the plane formed the basis for the first jet tanker, the KC-135 Stratotanker, and the 707, the first Boeing passenger jet, which had its first flight in 1957. This plane would revolutionize the industry, and make Boeing the clear international leader in passenger aircraft manufacturing.

Read more in the rest of this five part series

Part 1 :  Boeing's early years

Part 2 :  Boeing's best years

Part 3 :  Boeing in decline

Part 4 :  Does Boeing have a future

Part 5 :  Key facts and figures about Boeing, its planes, and its competition 

If you liked this, you might also enjoy our multi-part series 'Airbus Fires the First Shot in the New A320/737 War with Boeing'.

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Originally published 12 Dec 2003, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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