Boeing Gives Birth to the Jet Age

On this day in business and aviation history...

December might just be Boeing's (NYSE: BA  ) favorite month. Many December aviation milestones have helped lay the foundations for its present-day dominance of the industry, including both the first flight in history, the first flight of the legendary Douglas DC-3, Boeing's acquisition of former rival Rockwell International, and the first flight of Boeing's next-generation passenger jet, the 787 Dreamliner. It shouldn't be too surprising, then, that Boeing celebrates another major milestone in December, reached on Dec. 20, 1957 -- the first flight of the prototype 707. This was the aircraft that some say started the Jet Age.

An article in Time waxed optimistic about the jet's transformative potential a year after its first successful flight, and shortly afterwards, Pan Am became the first airline to put 707s into service:

The jet will fly nearly twice as fast and nearly twice as high as the present piston planes, pack 40 times the power in its turbine engines. It will shrink the world by 40%, making no spot on earth more than a day's distance from a jet airport.

Manhattan businessmen will be able to commute to San Francisco for lunch, be back home after an afternoon's work in time for bed. Weekend flights to London and Paris will be as easy -- perhaps easier -- than weekend drives to the country in jam-packed Sunday traffic. 

These are certainly true statements, although such a daily commute might quickly become exhausting to all but the hardiest of travelers. The flight time for a nonstop trip between John F. Kennedy International to San Francisco International is just more than five hours today, which allows that businessman to get to the West Coast before noon if his flight leaves at nine in the morning. A flight from JFK to Heathrow in London is barely six hours -- but you'll still have to work your way through customs.

The 707 led to rapid developments of the global airport infrastructure, including all forms of technological and comfort improvements for travelers and air traffic controllers. The first 707s were powered by four of United Technologies (NYSE: UTX  ) subsidiary Pratt and Whitney's J57 turbojets, the same design used in the legendary Boeing-built B-52 Stratofortress. Boeing built 878 commercial 707s between 1958 and 1978, with more than 100 military variants pushing the total to more than 1,000 before the line was shut down for good in 1994.

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  • Report this Comment On December 20, 2013, at 4:15 PM, dblevins wrote:

    I'm a retired Boeing employee but your history is off:

    ever heard of the Comet:

    several years ahead of the 707, tho it had many problems.

  • Report this Comment On December 20, 2013, at 5:48 PM, TMFBiggles wrote:

    @ dblevins --

    The "Jet Age" here refers to an era of passenger travel in which the vast majority of people traveled on jets. In that sense, the 707 was the aircraft that led to that era, not the Comet, which had a production run about a tenth the size of the 707.

    Think of it like you would think of smartphones. Blackberry was clearly making smartphones before Apple, but the iPhone is always looked at as the phone that created the "Smartphone Age."

    Hope that clears things up.

    - Alex

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