The Comet may have pioneered the commercial jet airliner, but it was the Boeing 707 that stole the hearts and minds of the people way back in 1958, and succeeded in bringing continents closer together by way of air travel to the masses. The aircraft’s mixture of sheer style and performance helped to cement it as one of the most iconic pieces of human innovation, a symbol of a brave new world following the darkness of World War II. The conflict was over, now was time to mend bridges, and the 707 became the tool of their success!
Following the end of World War II in 1945, Boeing, who had dedicated the past 4 years to creating military fighters and bombers, found that in the wake of such poignant destruction, there was hope in the form of commercial air travel for the fare paying customer. Prior to World War II, aircraft had consisted of archaic designs such as the Ford Tri-Motor and the Boeing 247, somewhat outdated in terms of performance although the Douglas DC3 had been credited as the world’s first and most successful passenger airliner for the time. However, advances in aviation technology added to WWII bombers such as the B-17 and B-29, including extended range, pressurized cabins and a generally larger size, meant that Boeing were willing to translate such technology
onto passenger aircraft, at first developing a derivative of the B-29 Superfortress, the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.
The outbreak of the Cold War however and the dawn of the Jet Age in the late 40’s and early 50’s however meant that Boeing was quickly wrangled back in to building bombers, including the B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress. However, it was due to this that Boeing somewhat accidentally stumbled into creating their first jet powered commercial airliner. The requirement of extended ranges on their military bombers meant that a new form of air-to-air refueling had to be implemented, and in 1954 Boeing unveiled a prototype airborne tanker known as the Boeing 367-80, better known as ‘Dash 80’. It was powered by the Pratt & Whitney JT3C turbojet engine, which was the civilian version of the J57 used on many military aircraft of the day, including the F-100 Super Sabre fighter and the B-52 bomber. The prototype was a proof-of-concept aircraft for both military and civilian use. The United States Air Force was the first customer, using it as the basis for the KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling platform.
Commercial jetliners however had already began to circulate since the introduction of the De Havilland Comet in 1952, a pioneer in the world of fast and luxurious aviation. It was clear that the technology behind the Comet would soon be the future of air travel, but this future was nearly dashed by a series of horrific and unexplained crashes during the aircraft’s early years. Boeing postponed the development of their jetliner project as they awaited with bated breath the reasons as to why their British adversaries had fallen from the sky. The answer was later determined to be due to metal fatigue, the constant
pressurization and depressurization of the aircraft taking its toll on the frame of the aircraft before eventually finding a weakness at the square passenger windows, resulting in a fracture of the frame and rapid decompression. Boeing responded by having the windows of the 707 rounded to provide all around structural rigidity, one of the many features that is now an integral part of aircraft design. But this was merely the tip of the 707’s innovative iceberg.
Unlike the rival Comet, the 707 pioneered the Pod engine design, with its four Pratt & Whitney JT3C turbojet engines slung beneath the wings. The 132-inch wide fuselage of the Dash 80 was large enough for four-abreast (two-plus-two) seating like the Stratocruiser. Answering customers’ demands and under Douglas competition, Boeing soon realized this would not provide a viable payload, so it widened the fuselage to 144 in to allow five-abreast seating and use of the KC-135’s tooling. Douglas Aircraft had launched its rival DC-8 with a fuselage width of 147 in. The airlines liked the extra space
and six-abreast seating, so Boeing increased the 707’s width again to compete, this time to 148 in. The Boeing 707’s variants allowed the aircraft to carry between 140 and 219 passengers over a range of between 2,500 and 5,750 nautical miles.
Following its first flight in December 1957, the Boeing 707 entered service with Pan Am in October 1958, and immediately took the world by storm. The fare paying public were astounded by the sight, noise and feel of being aboard a commercial airliner that was made for them. While the Comet was aimed for the affluent members of British society at the time, the 707 was for anyone depending on the airline’s preference, and very soon it had been lapped up by nearly every major carrier in the world. Qantas, BOAC, Air France, American Airlines, Trans World Airlines, Braniff, these were among a handful of carriers that bought up this world beating aircraft.
With the advent of the 707 and its competition, the Douglas DC-8, the American aviation industry had almost a full monopoly when it came to mass-produced commercial airliners. While Europe put its money into technological innovations which, even today, the aviation industry is thankful for, the 707 provided carriers with a simple, easy-to-use airliner with a good range, good capacity and was highly flexible for a majority of the world’s airports. And for those places the 707 couldn’t get to, Boeing developed a range of derivatives that would help conquer the domestic market as well, including the Tri-Jet
Boeing 727 of 1963 and the twin-jet Boeing 737 of 1968, which carries many styling cues of the 707 even to this day. Another derivative of the 707 was the ambiguous Boeing 720, a short range variant built as an early attempt at the domestic market in 1960. This aircraft would become something of a forgotten pup following the introduction of the Boeing 727 two years later, with only 154 Boeing 720’s built, and most retired by the 1980’s. The 707’s influence also stretched into the world of military aviation, with warfare variants including the KC-135 Stratotanker, the E-3 Sentry AWACS, the E-6 Mercury Airborne Command Centre, the E-8 STARS Airborne battle management aircraft, and several incarnations of the iconic Air Force One to carry Presidents from their introduction under the Eisenhower Administration in 1958, to their retirement under the George W. Bush Administration in 2001.
The Boeing 707 however suffered many crashes and disasters itself, resulting in a total of 246 major aviation occurrences and, 172 hull-loss occurrences with 3,022 fatalities. Examples include BOAC Flight 911 in 1966 which suffered clear-air turbulence and smashed into Mount Fuji, Japan, killing all 124 aboard and almost the production crew of the James Bond film ‘You Only Live Twice’, who missed the flight due to last minute cancellations in their booking to see a Ninja show; Air France Flight 117 crashed into a hill whilst attempting to land at Guadeloupe in 1962, killing all 113 aboard; Trans World
Airlines Flight 741 was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and flown to Dawson’s Field in Jordan along with four other airliners in 1970, the aircraft later being blown up but thankfully with no one aboard; and one of the later incidents being Avianca Flight 052, which, after poor weather and lengthy delays above New York’s JFK airport, ran out of fuel and crashed into a small suburb of Long Island.
Production of the Boeing 707 ended in 1979, with 1,010 examples built. Most major carriers such as TWA, American Airlines and Pan Am had opted to retire the 707 by either the end of the 1970’s or by the mid-1980’s, with its descendants including the Boeing 747, the Boeing 757 and Boeing 767 taking over its duties. The aircraft would continue to be used by smaller airlines or by the carriers of developing nations until 2013, when the final operator of the Boeing 707 in passenger services, Saha Airlines of Iran, ceased operations. As of 2016, only 10 examples are known to be airworthy, one such example being the property of famed Hollywood actor John Travolta, who pilots an ex-Qantas example named Jett Clipper Ella in honor of his children.
Indeed the Boeing 707 is a very rare sight nowadays, although its military aspects are in abundance depending on where you look, E-3’s and KC-135’s still being a major part of the US Air Force and even the RAF. But even though the 707 has long since disappeared from the glamour routes of the 1950’s and 60’s, it is still embedded in the minds of those who were there to witness it, at a time when new technology and style came together to create the perfect blend of practicality and good looks!