is Boeing Going?
Part 2 : Boeing's Best Years - the
1950s to the 1970s
Back in Boeing's glory
days, airplanes like the revolutionary 707 defined all that
was best about travel, and changed the lives of millions of
people, everywhere in the world, making air travel
affordable and convenient.
What has gone wrong
since then, and why?
2 of a 5 part series - click for Parts
The 707 changed everything. It
changed the way people flew, it changed the way planes were
designed and sold, and it changed the aviation industry, making
Boeing the clear international leader.
Boeing continued on a positive
winning streak, with its 720, 727, 737 and 747 airplanes. But
then it fumbled, and has been slipping backwards ever since.
The Dawn of a New Era
Initially there was hot
competition between Boeing's 707 and the very similar Douglas
DC-8, but Boeing decisively won the larger market share, and
when production ceased, it had produced an extraordinary number
of planes - 1009 707s compared to only 556 DC-8s produced by
Douglas, by far the largest number of passenger planes Boeing
had ever manufactured.
The 707 was a very fast
plane - it cruised at 600-610 mph. Only the shortlived and
unsuccessful 747SP would cruise at this speed; no other Boeing
plane has subsequently been as fast as the 707.
The Revolution of the 707
The 707 was a revolutionary
plane. It transformed passenger flight from an expensive,
inconvenient, and uncommon form of travel for only the very
rich, and made it instead accessible and affordable to the
The 707 was an engineering
marvel in its day. It was almost twice the weight of any earlier
plane, and carried almost twice as many passengers as any
earlier Boeing plane.
Although propeller powered
planes had already made major inroads into passenger liner
traffic, the economics of the 707 made this an unbeatable match.
A single 707, costing $4 million (later models cost more), could
carry as many passengers across the Atlantic as could the $30
million Queen Mary. The 707 used 10% as much fuel per passenger,
and required only 1% of the man hours per passenger journey.
In a single decade, the
number of trans-Atlantic ocean passengers halved, while the
number choosing to fly quadrupled.
The growth in air travel of
course meant a growing need for airplanes. Although Boeing was
late to release a passenger jet (both Britain and Russia had
already released jet airliners) Boeing's 707 quickly became the
market leader, and returned huge profits to Boeing in the
The 707 was the first jet to
have its engines slung below the wings - a trend that continues
to this day. Another less fortunate 707 legacy can be noted any
time you board a 737 or a 757. The 707 was developed with a 148"
wide fuselage (4" wider than earlier Boeing models and 1" wider
than the competing DC8). This was generous in its day, but this
width has remained constant in all single aisle Boeing planes
for the almost 50 years since.
It is interesting to note
that what was viewed as 'wide' then is now viewed as pitifully
narrow and inadequate, and one of the advantages of the single
aisle Airbus planes is that they have a 7½" wider fuselage,
making for appreciably greater passenger comfort.
Airplane Development Slows
Until the 707, most planes
developed were never as capable as the manufacturer or the
client would like. In general, planes never carried enough
people, never had enough range, and never flew fast or high
enough. This meant that there was a fairly clear progression in
airplane development - each new model plane was better than the
models before it, either in terms of passenger capacity, range,
speed, or cruising altitude, and often in terms of several of
these measures. Each plane type would also be quickly replaced
by a newer, better, plane type.
The 707 carried so many
people, so fast, and sufficient distance to cross the US or the
Atlantic without stopping, that the need to develop bigger
faster planes slowed.
The basic airframe design of
the 707 was sufficiently advanced that new model planes did not
need complete new designs. Instead, greater range was simply
obtained by updating the engines that were hung off the wings,
and more passenger capacity could be obtained just by
'stretching' the plane - lengthening its fuselage, allowing for
more rows of seats to be added. The versatility and
functionality of the 707 design was such that the plane would be
manufactured for 22 years, in six different variations, before
finally being retired.
Meanwhile, the airlines and
the manufacturers that supplied them started to think about
smaller jets, with less range, that could be used on shorter
domestic routes, and which could operate from shorter runways. A
smaller version 707 was called the 720, and then evolved into a
new model, the 727.
In the interests of
manufacturing economy, the 727 had the same diameter fuselage as
the 707, but was a different length, with different wings,
different engines, and different performance characteristics;
indeed with three engines, all mounted at the rear, and a high
'T' shaped tail, it represented yet another design innovation on
Boeing's part. It carried fewer passengers than the 707, and had
a shorter range.
The 727 had its first flight
in 1962 and was first flown commercially in 1964. It also was
manufactured for 22 years, with the final model coming off the
production line in 1984. Unlike both the 707 and later model
planes, the 727 was only released in two versions, the standard
version (727-100) and a stretched version (727-200) which
carried almost half as many again passengers as the -100).
The plane needed to have 200
sales to reach breakeven on the development costs, and Boeing
initially planned a total production run of 250 planes. But,
during its long life, a staggering 1832 planes were built,
making it the best selling passenger plane ever, a status it
held until 1987 when the 737 series of jets passed this
milestone (as of the end of January 2006, there have been 5000
The airlines and Boeing
continued to 'think small', and in 1968 an even smaller plane
had its first commercial flight - the 737. Again, to save on
manufacturing costs, the 737 had the same diameter fuselage.
Amazingly, the 737 series is
still being manufactured today, although in very different form
than the first 737-100 that was made 35+ years ago. A modern 737
has 50% greater range, much greater efficiency (from new wing
designs, lighter weight, and improved engines) and carries
almost double the number of passengers that the early -100
Fewer Technical Crew
An innovation in the 737 was
the elimination of the need for a flight engineer - the plane
could be operated by a pilot and co-pilot only. This was a far
cry from the early days of aviation, with a technical crew of as
many as six - captain, pilot, copilot, navigator, flight
engineer and radio operator.
This quickly reduced to
five, with the captain and pilot duties being merged. Then the
radio officer position was eliminated. Then the navigator. And
then the flight engineer; all modern planes fly with a crew of
And Bigger Planes, too
For ten years the 707
reigned supreme as the largest plane Boeing made. But with the
increasing popularity of air travel, the airports and even the
air lanes in the sky were becoming congested.
A solution to this problem
was suggested in the form of a much larger plane, and so Boeing
made a quantum leap into the future, in the form of the 747 - a
plane that was to carry more than twice as many passengers as
Boeing's largest 707, weighing more than two and a half times
the weight of the heaviest 707, and with a range that quickly
exceeded that of the 707 as well.
Boeing offered the 747 for
sale in March 1966. Pan Am quickly ordered 25, at a cost of $20
million each. Other airlines also placed orders, and so in July
that year, Boeing committed to build the plane. By the end of
the year, Boeing had 88 orders on its books, for a project that
was costing them $1 billion to develop. By the time the first
plane rolled off the production line, a short 16 months later,
158 planes had been ordered.
The 747 project was worked
on by a team of 50,000 people. Boeing was able to 'recycle' a
lot of the research and development it had invested in bidding
on an Air Force project for a very large transport aircraft - a
project eventually won by Lockheed with its C-5A Galaxy, but
even so, developing this revolutionary plane that was full of
new challenges in such a short term is an achievement
unsurpassed in aviation history.
Boeing introduced the 747 to
the rest of the world at the Paris Air Show in 1969, where it
was displayed alongside the first Concorde, presenting the world
with two very different ideas of the future of aviation.
The end of the 1960s - and the
ending of an Era
As the 1960s drew to a
close, Boeing seemed invulnerable and the king of the skies.
Going in to the 1970s, it had a broad product range, from the
venerable 707, through the most popular plane in the world (the
727) and the plane that would take that title from it (the 737)
and culminating in the largest plane in the world, the 747.
In terms of competition,
Lockheed was no longer a major force. Its only passenger jet,
the L1011, was introduced in 1972, but was never particularly
The 707 was preferred to the
Douglas DC-8 by most airlines, and although the DC-9 competed
with the 737, it also was not as popular. For mid-sized planes,
the 727 had no major competitor, and for very large sized
planes, the 747 reigned unchallenged.
Meanwhile, in Europe,
aircraft manufacturers unsuccessfully struggled to build
anything other than small planes at a loss, and ended up with
several such failing companies merging into a new company that
seemed to offer little promise for any future real competition
in 1969. This company gave itself the unglamorous name of
After a staggering decade of
development and success, Boeing could be forgiven for feeling
complacent as it marched confidently into the 1970s.
What could possibly go
Read more in the rest of this
five part series
Part 1 : Boeing's early
Part 2 : Boeing's best
Part 3 : Boeing in decline
Part 4 : Does Boeing have
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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12 Dec 2003, last update
30 May 2021
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