Franklin Roosevelt called Dec 7, 1941 - a Day of Infamy.

July 15, 1954, was a Day of  Monumental Change.  Aviation change, that is.  World change.  Today is the Anniversary of that event - an event that changed the course of commercial aviation, the world, and certainly of the Boeing Airplane Company.

It is the 60th Anniversary of the First Flight of the 707 Prototype - the Dash 80.  The product of a bunch of engineers who probably lived in Bellevue, Washington, wore wing-tipped shoes with argyle socks , white shirts with pocket protectors, and carried K & E slipsticks (slide rules.)  They produced a machine that - on a dozen levels - changed the world.

But the first flight of this matriarch of Boeing's long line of descendant jet transports, as advanced as it was, might have led to a very different outcome.  And, a very different Boeing.

The story of the $16 million gamble, betting the company by building the 707 with Boeing's own funds and no customers, has been told often.  But, there was more to the story.

On Saturday, July 12, I led a walk-around tour at the Museum of Flight - covering the history of Boeing jetliners.  My thrust was perhaps a little different from that which some in my audience may have expected.  For me, the success of Boeing's jet transport line was not the designing, and building, and flying of the 707 - it was something else - a subtle but profound attitude change inside Boeing.  And the critical event was not the kick-off order for the 707 from Pan Am, but rather the later order from American Airlines.

Although involved in designing and building commercial airliners for 25 years, Boeing had never really hit the jackpot when it came to putting their technical genius into widespread service with the airlines.  Instead, they had proceeded, in fits and starts, with genuine technical marvels, that seemed  destined for great things, yet became somehow stuck in the starting blocks of their development cycle.  Body Stretches, newer engines, more payload and range - these all seemed to not have happened.  I've often wondered aloud if it was not the Henry Ford mindset - "Any color as long as it's black."

In 1933, the 247 was - following the Model 40 and 80 - a mold-breaking leap into the future - truly the world's first modern airliner.  And yet, only 75 were ever built.  The design never really went anywhere.  The competing Douglas DC-2 sold almost 200, and, with a new body, morphed into the B-18 Bolo bomber. 

    Boeing 247

And, of course, the DC-2 became the DC-3, with a wider cabin, increasing capacity by 50%, and addition of a cargo door producing the legendary C-47 - more than 10,000 built.  And it also got a new body becoming the B-23 Dragon bomber.

The 1934 Lockheed Electra, was quickly offered with shorter and longer bodies, and then yet bigger fuselages and wings and engines, as Hudson and Ventura patrol bombers - ultimately selling almost 7000 airplanes.

Boeing continued to lead the way - technically - with the 307 Stratoliner - world's first production pressurized airliner.  But only ten were ever built and only nine entered service.  The somewhat competing unpressurized DC-4, became the military C-54, then the DC-6 and DC-7 series, selling thousands of airframes.


The Boeing 314 flying boat - the Clipper - again revolutionized air travel - this time on long range over-ocean routes.  But only 12 were ever built - all for essentially one customer - Pan Am.  Despite the production of thousands of flying boats for WW II - many large like the Clipper, the 314 never saw a bomber or reconnaissance or follow-on transport development.

    314 Clipper

When the B-29 sprouted a new body called the C-97, a civil version was produced called the Stratocruiser.  Douglas's evolving line of DC-6s and Lockheed's Constellations, kept getting bigger and longer, and faster - the Stratocruiser languished with  just a few customers, and little change from its roll-out configuration.  It's future lay with the Air Force, as only 56 Strats were ever built for a few airlines while almost 900 were built for USAF.


That COULD have been the future of the Dash 80.  An instant replay of the KC-97 experience,  with a few commercial airplanes built for a few customers, and the bulk becoming KC-135s for USAF.  Once again, Boeing could have been first with the most, but last at the commercial dance.  And, in fact, it almost DID play out that way.


There was divided opinion within Boeing as to whether the commercial market, which had eluded the company for so long, was even worth pursuing.  Many thought selling to the government was just fine.  Others, looking at the success of Lockheed and Douglas, felt the company needed the balance of a dual customer base.

The decision ultimately came down to just a few inches.  Would we, or wouldn't we?  Was it to be Henry Ford's way, or the highway?

   Dash 80

After the 707 began flying, there was a lot of interest by the airlines in the airplane.  And certainly interest by the competition.  A couple of twists of fate, like football blockers, had served to allow Boeing to slip through the line and gain a jump of several years on the other guys.  Lockheed had won the transport competition that ultimately resulted in the C-130 Hercules.  That tied up their resources during the Dash 80 design and build window.  And, ironically, C.R. Smith, President of American Airlines, had twisted Donald Douglas's arm long enough, and hard enough, as he had with the DC-2 and DC-3 - until Douglas agreed to build a follow-on to the popular DC-6 series, that became the DC-7.  With their engineers all tied up, Douglas had to play catch-up football after the 707 rolled out and began flying.  Their entrant was the DC-8 and it was badly behind the 707.

Still - it had several possible advantages - on paper, anyway - a bigger wing, more powerful engines, and greater range.  It also had the unshakable confidence of most of the world's airlines, who had decades of experience with Douglas and their airplanes and knew the Douglas's - Senior and Junior intimately.

Oh!   It also had one other advantage - which turned out to be a big one - it was wider.

Not by much - but enough for the airlines to put in six-abreast seating.  They wanted that.  Boeing didn't.  Boeing had already changed the body diameter once.

    Roll-out of 1st 707

With the Dash 80, they had started out at the Stratocruiser cabin width - 132 inches - good for four abreast.  They had designed it, built it, and test flown it.   The drawings were released and the tooling was under construction.  But then the Air Force, which became the first customer with an order for 29 airplanes, wanted it 12 inches wider - 144 inches - Boeing reluctantly agreed, and that was the 707 that Pan Am bought.  Five abreast.

But the DC-8 was 147 inches.  United wanted wider.  Boeing was already re-doing all the engineering and tooling for the Air Force.  Pan Am - Boeing's traditional kick-off customer, bought into 144 inches.  Why not United?   It was the Henry Ford moment for Boeing - and Boeing said No.  Any color as  long as it's black.  Or 144 inches.  United bought the DC-8.

After Tex Johnson rolled the Dash 80 over the hydro races, Eastern's President, Eddie Rickenbacker, had told the upset Boeing prez Bill Allen "He just sold your airplane for you."  Maybe - but Capt. Eddie also bought the DC-8.  Actually - so did Pan Am.  After buying 20 707s with great fanfare in Seattle to kick off the jet age, Juan Trippe went down to L.A. the next day, shocking Boeing, and bought 25 DC-8s - making clear that the DC-8 was the preferred future airplane for PAA - the 707 would be just a short term interim machine.  For Trippe, it had only one advantage - timing.  It allowed Pan Am to beat the rest of the world with jets.  But - it didn't have the range.  It was too small.........

..........and it was too narrow.

Boeing had a big jump on the competition, time wise and technology wise, but it was starting to look like the 247, and the 307, and the 314, and the Stratocruiser all over again.  The 707 appeared destined to be another KC-97 story - an Air Force tanker with a couple of commercial customers and a short, sweet  production run.  Douglas seemed destined to continue their dominance of the commercial airplane business.

Dual Rollout - the Last KC-97 and the First KC-135

That's when the real turning point came.  Boeing's Ed Wells went to Tulsa, Oklahoma to try to sell the 707 to American - a long time Douglas customer that flew everything they ever made.  American was 90% sold on the 707 - they really liked the fact that Boeing had all this B-47 and B-52 multi-engine jet experience, and that the Dash 80 was flying.  They liked everything about the 707, except for one thing.  They wanted it wider.  4.5 inches wider.  They wanted it to be 148.5 inches wide - wider even than the DC-8.

This was gut check time.  Everything that followed, all of Boeing's commercial business over the next half-century hung in the balance - although the participants could not have known that.  The dominance that would de-throne Douglas and make the word Boeing a generic dictionary term for jetliner.

Boeing had the right two guys involved - engineer Ed Wells and company president Bill Allen.  Boy, this commercial world could be brutal, they thought - customers could be so demanding.  Maybe they also sensed that everything was slip-sliding away.

Boeing blinked and became a whole new company.  American got their 148.5 inches.  They ordered 50 airplanes.

Having jumped into the pool, Boeing now went hog-wild in customer responsiveness.  The DC-8 had a bigger wing and more range.  Boeing designed a new bigger wing and called it the -320 Intercontinental.  The 707 was too small - Boeing stretched it.  The DC-8 had the more powerful JT-4 engines - Boeing installed the more powerful engines.

Pan Am ordered 15.  Seems the DC-8 might not be their airplane of the future -- after all.

Boeing now actually had TWO  707 airplanes - a smaller, shorter range one (-120) and a bigger, longer  range one (-320.)  The Henry Ford contingent inside Boeing had clearly lost their argument - Big Time - now it was ANY color the customer wanted, and then some.

Things even started to get out of hand - but the NEW Boeing agreed to anything an airline wanted.  Braniff said we like the small airplane, but want the big engines from the big airplane.  Boeing said "Sure".  The -220 was born.  Only five were ever built.  The financials must have been mind-boggling.  QANTAS said, we like the small airplane, but it's TOO big - make it shorter.  Boeing said "Sure", and the -138 was born.  Only 13 of those were ever built.  BOAC said we like the -320, but we don't want those "Yank"  engines from
Pratt & Whitney.  We want good old Rolls-Royce engines.  Boeing said "Sure", and the -420 was born.

Eventually, a lighter shorter range airplane seemed needed - maybe to cut Convair off at the Pass, with their new, smaller 880.  So the 720 series was born.  And United and Eastern bought it.  So did DC-8 operator Northwest, who eventually converted into an all 707/720 fleet.

    720s at Renton

New Fan engines came out, and were installed.  Myriad revisions were made to leading and trailing edge flaps, the vertical fin, assorted ventral fins, horizontal stabilizers, cargo doors and floors, for convertibles, freighters.  

Boeing was reborn.  In two years, Douglas had lost the lead - for good -  in the airliner business - never to regain it.  Boeing responded to nearly every customer request and niche.  The accountants might have not liked it, but the airlines sure did.

Within just a couple of years, the 727 trijet came along, essentially uncontested in the marketplace, and then the 737, and the jumbo 747.  In the 10 years from 1956 to 1966, Boeing had remade itself, and  the commercial airplane world, and  Planet Earth.

   Today - in the Smithsonian

A new King had been born.  And although the first flight of the 707 Prototype - the Dash 80 -  60 years ago today - could be viewed as the seminal event, from my knothole, this technical triumph had to be matched by a paradigm shift in customer responsiveness.

And, it all came down to Ed Wells, and Bill Allen, ...... and 4.5 inches.

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