• Boeing Boeing

    Boeing Boeing

    The image is among the most iconic in aviation - a view out the window of a four engine jet, but with a twist - everything outside is upside down! What on earth, or above it, was going on there?

    Boeing Boeing

    What was going on there, as the pilot of that airplane told his boss, was selling airplanes. And they sold a bunch of them as a result of that maneuver; more than that - they touched off a revolution in travel, and jump started the jet age. But how, you may ask, did it come to barrel rolls in jet transports above hydroplane racers?

    Just prior to World War II, the Douglas Aircraft Company had something of a monopoly on building airliners. Although the Boeing Company had, in fact, raised the bar in air transport design with their ground breaking model 247 in 1933, they were hoisted upon their own corporate petard, as it were, because of their status as part of a larger conglomerate which included Boeing Air Transport, the predecessor of United Airlines. The airline thought it had a good thing going with the advanced Model 247, and managed to corner the market by taking virtually all of the first few years' production. This left competitors, principally TWA, potentially in the lurch. They responded by getting Douglas Aircraft to design and build first the DC-1 prototype, and then the DC-2. This airplane was superior in just about every way to the 247, and when it was further expanded into the DC-3, Douglas' hold on the air transport world was secured, and DC-3's flew all over the world for decades.

    Meanwhile, Boeing found its own niche in the development and construction of large bombers during the war. After the war they created a giant airliner, the Stratocruiser, based largely upon the design of the B-29 bomber. Although they sold only a relative handful of the Stratocruisers as airliners, the USAF bought hundreds of KC-97's, which was an air refueling tanker version of the Stratocruiser. The airline version was troubled, in the beginning, with numerous design issues with the engines and propellers; these planes were, for the most part, retired in favor of Douglas airplanes like the DC-6 and DC-7. But the military version flew all the way into the early 1970's with the Air National Guard - one of my pilot training classmates ended up flying them in Texas in those years.

    The big event at Boeing in the late 40's was the development of a large bomber powered by the new turbojet engines. This was the B-47 Stratojet, which was soon augmented by the even larger B-52 Stratofortress. In those early days of the cold war, these planes (particularly the B-47's) needed to be refueled in the air in order to achieve the range needed to accomplish their strategic bombing missions. This was done, in the beginning, using piston powered tankers like the KC-97, but this was an interim solution and was unsatisfactory.

    Boeing Boeing

    The tankers, at their top speed, were still in the low speed range of the jet bombers, which all had highly swept wings for fast flying, but which performed poorly at low speeds. What was needed was a fast jet powered tanker plane to complement the speedy bomber fleet. Boeing figured this out even before the Air Force did; after all, the planes were all made by them, and they knew better than anyone the weaknesses of the piston powered tankers. But initially they were unable to convince the AF to fund the development of such a jet tanker. So Bill Allen, president of the firm, decided to take an enormous gamble and bet the farm, or in this case the company, to develop the plane themselves. $14 million later (a gargantuan amount in those days), this gamble emerged as a one-off jet airplane, the Boeing model 367-80.

    Boeing Boeing
    Rollout of the 367-80 on May 15, 1954
    Boeing Boeing
    Dash 80 first flight 15 July 1954

    Dash Eighty, as she was affectionately known, was a hand built prototype - literally put together from parts that were mostly custom made. Put first through exhaustive testing, which, as intended, revealed a few flaws which were rapidly corrected, the jet was also taken on a fairly extensive round of demonstrations both at home and farther afield. This was all an effort to arouse some interest in the unique airplane, from both the airlines and the military. The airlines were not at all enthusiastic about anything as new as this, having just coughed up the money to order the latest DC-7's and Super Constellations. Nor was the thought of the inflight explosions of the first jet airliner, the British Comet, far from their minds. Thus there was not exactly a stampede of customers to Boeing's "showroom". So it was that in early August 1955, on the occasion of the annual Hydroplane races on Lake Washington in Seattle, Bill Allen arranged a fly over of the Dash 80 for the benefit of nearly every airline president in the country, all of whom had been invited by Boeing to enjoy the races and the delightful Puget Sound summer weather.

    As it turned out, Allen got more than he bargained for. Boeing's chief test pilot at this time was a colorful character named "Tex" Johnston. Tex decided to put on a real show, the better to "sell" the new airplane. He chose to demonstrate the Barrel Roll maneuver because, if done correctly, it is a one G maneuver, as Bob Hoover spent a career demonstrating at airshows around the world in later years. Tex practiced the maneuver in the Dash 80 at altitude several times the day before, and on the appointed day he flew low over Lake Washington, right over the head of just about every airline CEO in the country, and performed a perfect barrel roll. Then Tex turned the ship around and did it again in the opposite direction! To say that the airline brass was impressed would be the understatement of the jet age - Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern Airlines, who apparently arrived a day later and missed seeing the spectacle, told Tex that had he known of it ahead of time he would have demanded to ride the jump seat!

    Boeing Boeing
    The famous barrel roll, as painstakingly painted by aviation artist Mike Machat
    Boeing Boeing
    Tex Johnston after a flight in Dash 80

    Bill Allen was not so enthusiastic. After having nearly suffered a heart attack (figuratively, not literally, although he reportedly asked one of his lieutenants, who did have heart trouble, for some of his pills!), he called Tex on the carpet the next day and asked him just what in the **** he thought he was doing. "Selling airplanes" was the laconic reply. And that is exactly what happened. In fact, some would place the origin of the "jet age" squarely on that day, August 6, 1955. It is not unreasonable to deduce that, had their confidence in the sturdy construction of the Dash 80 not been assured by those rolls (most of the airline brass were not pilots, and knew nothing of the relatively benign nature of the maneuver), it may have been years before orders would be forthcoming for any jet transports. Tex Johnston literally sold the airplane and the entire concept of jet transportation in that one moment. And according to company lore, just about every Boeing jet, at least through the 767 series, has been rolled at one time or another during testing.

    Boeing Boeing Boeing Boeing
    Rollout of the 707-100

    Almost immediately, Boeing derived two airplane designs from the Dash 80 - the airliner that would be known as the Boeing 707, and the Air Force tanker, called the Boeing 717 internally, but designated the KC-135 by the USAF. These were two largely distinct airplanes, and neither was a clone of Dash 80. The KC-135's were all identical to each other, and were a bit larger than the prototype in nearly every dimension. Most of them, all built prior to the early 1960's, are still flying today, albeit with newer and much more powerful engines. Surprisingly, most of them have less time on their airframes than some of the 777's still in airline service, since they spent a good deal of their time over this 60 or so year career sitting on the ramp on alert. They will not all be retired to the boneyard until around 2030!

    Boeing Boeing
    AA's first 707, N7501A. Although not the first on the property to fly a trip, this airplane was the first delivered to AA, and I flew it twice in the course of my career.
    Boeing Boeing
    N7501A was sold shortly after I flew it, and ended up with Cyprus Airways, where it was written off after this landing accident in August 1979.

    The airline version, the 707, was even larger than the KC-135. Original specifications, based upon the tanker version, had been for a cabin with 5 across seating, similar to the later Douglas DC-9 series. But the airline bosses, particularly C.R. Smith of American, knew that they would need a lot of paying bodies in the seats to turn a profit on these expensive beasts, and so it was that Boeing was "persuaded" (actually, Smith made Allen an offer he couldn't refuse, decades before that phrase became popular) to enlarge the cabin to accommodate 6 across seating, as Douglas was planning to do with their entry into the jet race.

    Boeing Boeing
    Dash 80 today, in proud retirement at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy complex at KIAD/

    The 707 came to be built in a bewildering number of variants, as Boeing, eager to rack up sales, tried to cater to each airline's unique needs. Eventually, the family included three basic types, within which there were a number of subsets. The broad types were the 707-100 series, which were the original model; the 707-300 series which were a stretched long range version better suited to international flights, and another version aimed at shorter range operations from shorter runways. More on that last version later.

    Tags: 707, 720, b707, b720, boeing

    7 Comments
    1. doering1's Avatar
      doering1 -
      Great insight into a very cool read. Always a bonus to see the old photos!
    1. flightman's Avatar
      flightman -
      Always a pleasure to read Tony's articles. I'll definitely try that Boeing 720 sim in XP.
    1. N069NT's Avatar
      N069NT -
      Great write-up Tony... thank you! Anyone can write about airline history about the 707, but few can do so from the memories and experiences of spending a lot of hours sitting in its front office. I even learned something not known or not remembered: that the KC-135 and airline 707 had their own separate design developments from the Dash 80.
    1. valero's Avatar
      valero -
      Not everything Boeing is wine and roses, does anyone remember the huge cover up with the 737 Max? It was when Boeing joined forces with McDonald Douglas and tried to to hide the fact that the plane was NOT ready to be flown without proper pilots training but the cover up was for the company to save money at the expense of more than 340 lives.
    1. daspinall's Avatar
      daspinall -
      I am a 100% Boeing guy.... Remember when Airbus arrived and started killing pilots........
    1. N069NT's Avatar
      N069NT -
      Quote Originally Posted by daspinall View Post
      I am a 100% Boeing guy.... Remember when Airbus arrived and started killing pilots........
      And passengers - all that wonderful automation. But to Tony's point, the MAX situation was Boeing brass being in a rush to beat Airbus' A320neo to the efficiency race and the serious flaw was discovered only after the two crashes. That said, I like Airbus and Boeing equally. But apparently Delta who was a long time major Boeing customer, not so much. They chose the 321neo in 2017 over the MAX 10 before the crashes happened (and who chose the A350 over the 787 for overseas international routes to replace their Covid-killed 777s as they had already inherited A330s from a merger).

      Boeing needs to step it up if they want to get Delta back with another all-new single isle design. The 737 can't just keep getting re-lipsticked, and the 757 which Delta still flies in the mid-market US is past being long in the tooth and now on dentures. They are in desperate need of a clean sheet design as Airbus has hinted on just that set for service in the early 2030s. But for Delta, who clearly is all-in with Airbus these days, it may be too little, too late.
    1. toftedal's Avatar
      toftedal -
      Thank you. Wonderful article. The 707 was indeed a very beautiful bird ... and a much larger aircraft than one might remember.
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