S.S. AMERICA, S.S. UNITED STATES sailing on the 'All American' team to Europe

Boeing 707

DID YOU KNOW ?That one 707 could carry as many people as the Queen Mary ocean liner sailing on an Atlantic crossing? …..How? By shuttling back and forth at jet speed in 6 and 1/2 hours from New York to Europe.




It’s hard to believe, but one of the most popular airplanes of all times started out as a reject. When Boeing President William Allen launched the 707, in 1952, he had no orders. Airline executives turned it down as an expensive gas guzzler. The flying public judged it unsafe.




Boeing, now a leading manufacturer of commercial aircraft, was, at the end of WWII, a non-entity in the business with a market share of 1%. The company knew how to build bombers and specialized in military aircraft sales, success in the commercial market had eluded them. While competitors Lockheed and Douglas were cashing I on the ‘peace dividend’ turning out Constellations and DC 4s, at Boeing they referred to the drop-off in military orders as the ‘Peace problem’.  Caught between WWII and the cold war, military contracts, Boeing’s bread and butter, were down and so were earnings. For his company to survive and thrive, Boeing President William Allen needed a revolutionary airplane to break into the commercial market.

Allen explored the idea of a commercial jet production using the experience gained on the design and building of first jet powered bomber, the B-47, The swept back wings and pod mounted engine concept could be carried over to a new passenger jet.

On his way to the UK for a demonstration of the new British de Havilland jet powered Comet Allen stopped in Wichita for a ride new Boeing designed new b-47. Cruising in the stratosphere at 600 mph was a heavenly experience when compared to the slow, vibrating the DC-6 prop planes he flew on business trips to Chicago. If he wasn’t totally convinced about the future of jets at Wichita, he was after the agonizingly slow return flight over the Atlantic in a propeller-driven plane. “I thought we’d never arrive,” (he must have been flying on one of those lumbering Boeing Stratocruisers). Allen returned to Seattle with a vision for Boeing; jet flight was the future of commercial aviation and Boeing would lead the way using its bomber experience to produce a commercial jet.

The Boeing B-47 Stratojet: Kicked off the jet age in 1947. It’s swept back wings and pod mounted jet engines were a revolution in aircraft design. Every large jet aircraft today is a descendant of the B-47. Photo: The B 47 Stratojet Association

The Boeing B-47 Stratojet: Kicked off the jet age in 1947. It’s swept back wings and pod mounted jet engines were a revolution in aircraft design. Every large jet aircraft today is a descendant of the B-47.
Photo: The B 47 Stratojet Association

THE PROP-LINER BLUES.  From the leading edge of the wing to the cockpit bulkhead engine the pounding of engine cylinders and whirling props mercilessly pounded passenger eardrums. the best seating was located at the rear of the plane.
Photo by permission Propfreak http://www.airliners.net/search/photo.search?id=943006

From the leading edge of the wing to the cockpit bulkhead engine the pounding of engine cylinders and whirling props mercilessly pounded passenger eardrums. Firt class seating was often located at the rear of the plane. Photo by permission Propfreak http://www.airliners.net/search/photo.search?id=943006

Allen, who by all appearance came across as a shy reserved business executive, shook the company up when he decided to stake its future on one airplane. Behind the conservative façade lay the instincts and nerves of a high stakes poker player, ready to double up when the risk looked promising.

William Allen, who served as the president of Boeing from 1945 to 1968, was known as a thoughtful, conservative businessman who also had the instincts and nerves of a high stakes poker player. An understated lawyer who said he wasn’t qualified for the job, Allen transformed his company and the way we fly with his long shot bet on the Boeing 707; an accomplishment that earned him the number 2 spot on Fortune magazine’s 10 Greatest CEO’s of all time. .


Few shared his vision.  Boeing’s competitors, Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed, looked at the development price tag, the risk, financial, and technical, and shelved any serious thought of passenger jets. Boeing was on its own.

Undeterred Allen proceeded with preliminary design and in 1952 announced that its order book was open for the new Boeing 707. Airline executive clicked their slide rulers and shook their heads’; the costs per seat mile were astronomical. Money was tight; airline companies were already mortgaged up to their tail fins paying down new propeller plane purchases. Sticker shock set in; Boeing’s new 707 cost $4.5 million a copy versus $1.8 million for a new prop driven DC 7. American Airline’s president C.R Smith summed it up. “We can’t go backwards with jets… I’m interested in cheap transportation.” (The Chosen Instrument M Bender S Altschul p 170)

Even if they were mildly interested, purchasing aircraft from Boeing required a leap of faith no one was willing to take. The company’s dismal record in commercial aircraft (Boeing had lost money on virtually all its airliners) placed the company on the bottom of the airlines vendor list.

One last problem, – money, Development of a prototype 707 would consume all of the profit the company had made since the end of the World War II.  No customers, no money, no problem, at least for a determined William Allen. Between tax write offs and a raid on equity he scrapped up enough cash to cover development cost. The move came with substantial risk according to Boeing archives, Allen and his management are said to have “bet the company” on a vision that jet aircraft were the future of commercial aviation. The bet; $ 16 million to build one prototype airplane, a large sum in 1952 that drained ¼ of the company’s net worth and left Boeing in a precarious financial position. If Allen got it right, Boeing’s would prosper. If he failed, according to company historian Michael Lombardi, “The Company would be done.”

Under the circumstances Allen could have called the 707 project off; no one would have blamed him if he did. Placing the company’s future on a single product with no orders on the books was reason enough. However that was not the plan, and Allen, who had the instincts and nerves of a high stakes poker player, never wavered in his vision that a new jet age was just around the corner and Boeing was going to cash in.


Boeing DASH 80: Served as a prototype for the future 707 Author Boeing Dreamscape

On May 14 1954 the 707 prototype, nicknamed Dash 80, rolled out of the hangar for its first public viewing. It dazzled the crowd, with its space age looks including pod mounted engines and the swept back wings of a modified jet fighter.  The first test flight took place on July 15 1954. Bill Allen wished the test pilots good luck and walked away – a little stooped noted test pilot Tex Johnston, “At this point, that $16 million gamble was a heavy burden” [1]. When Johnston released the breaks the plane leaped forward accelerated rapidly and was airborne by mid-runway. After a steep climb to 12,000 feet Johnston tested the plane’s controls and handling. It was a dream to fly, quiet and vibration free. Back on the ground a relieved Allen gave the flight crew a warm welcome. “He stood straight and tall as we shook hands,” recalled Johnston. “That $16 million burden had somehow become a bit lighter. The feel of his handshake and his words of congratulation will remain with me forever.” One year later, Johnston took to the air again for a performance that again astonished the crowd and shook Bill Allen to his core – it would be fifteen years before he could talk about it again.

[1] Tex Johnston jet age test pilot p 186




Alvin 'Tex' Johnston

Alvin ‘Tex’ Johnston

From a flying circus aerobat at age 19 to test-pilot of the first U.S. jet fighter to his involvement with the rocket-powered X-1- and Boeing 707, Alvin ‘Tex’ Johnston would go down in aviation history for his famous stunt flying a Boeing 707 prototype over lake Washington. Test pilot Johnson looked the part. Sporting a pencil thin mustache, custom made cowboy boots and a liking for Stetson hats he was a character who came to the job with the “right stuff”, a bit of swagger, courage and daring. Profane, funny, and a natural schmoozer, Johnson was also a natural salesman who knew how to show off a plane. Impressed by his demonstration flight in the DASH 80, General Curtis Le May awarded Boeing the contract to supply the KC- 135 as the Air Force’s primary refueling tanker. His stunts were legendary, including becoming the first, and probably only, pilot to “buzz the tower” and then barrel roll a multi-engine jet bomber. An admiring colleague once said he “could make anything fly”

Test pilot Tex Johnston

Three years after introducing his new 707, William Allen had burned through $16 million of stockholders equity and had yet to sell one plane; his vision stood on the edge of failure. It was about to be rescued by his chief test pilot, a natural showman with a bag of aerial trick perfected during his barnstorming days in a flying circus. Tex Johnston’s plan to make the new 707 famous involved some risk, mainly getting fired, so Johnston kept silent waiting for a chance to show the plane off.

On the afternoon of August 7, 1955, over 200,000 spectators congregated on the shores of gathered on Lake Washington to watch the speedboat races. William Allen ordered ‘Tex’ to take the plane up and give the hometown crowd a look at the new 707. The buying crowd was there also. On a yacht, anchored offshore, Allen and his executive team were entertaining the heads of virtually every major airline in the world. In town for a conference, they came to get a good look at the plane Boeing had staked its future on.

Well they got it. Approaching the lake at a speed of 490mph, altitude 200 feet, Johnston took the big screaming jet over the race course for an for a thrilling up close look. – Then to everyone’s surprise the 707 suddenly started climbing and began rotating on its axis. It’s long, swept-back wings rotating around the body in a barrel roll. Aviation executives gasped as the plane flew briefly upside down in a slow, languid roll. Then, just in case no one had noticed, Johnston made a shallow dive down to 300 feet and  did it again.

A dazed Bill Allen felt sick as he watched his $16 million dollar investment flip through the air flying upside down seemingly out of control. Either something was wrong with the plane or the pilot had lost his mind. He turned to a friend for some heart pills. His distress was understandable; you just don’t do that with an airliner; fighter jets perhaps but not a 128-foot-long, 160,000-pound plane with four heavy jet engines and a 130-foot wing span.

The next day a seething Allen gave Johnston hell. The test pilot held his ground, ” I was selling your plane“ he told Allen, “I didn’t do anything the plane couldn’t’ do…it was never in an unsafe condition.” (100 years of Boeing Russ Banham) No doubt about it, Johnston put the 707 on the map…Or, as an aviation friend reassuringly told Bill Allen, ”Tex has just sold your plane for you.” within a month Boeing received its first order from Pan Am.

Dash 80 air to air photo by Joe Parke

Dash 80 air to air photo by Joe Parke (inverted photo)


PAN AM President Juan Trippe

Pan American President Juan Trippe, the bad boy of the airline industry, clearly foresaw a wave of mass tourism fueled by a rising economy and jet aircraft. The new jet planes provided the formula for growth, increased capacity, lower cost, speed and an enhanced flying experience. A ruthless player, he positioned Pan Am to be the first to fly the 707, get a jump on the upcoming tourist revolution and extract the cream from his rivals business while they were losing their shirts with the slow outdated piston powered planes.

On October 15 1955. he stunned the airline world by announcing that Pan American had gone on a jet buying spree and contracted for 25 Douglas DC-8s and 20 Boeing 707s. The $269 Million order, the largest ever placed by a single airline. Airline executives could no longer afford to sit on the fence. They were headed for the jet age whether they wanted to go or not. Their propeller fleets were instantly out of date and value.

This is the most important aviation development since Lindbergh’s flight,

Pan Am President Juan Trippe


Just as sales of the 707 started to take off, Douglas moved in with a slightly larger DC 8. Donald Douglas strategy was to let Boeing do the heavy lifting then move in with a better plane and steal their orders. in 1955 the strategy was working, airlines were switching their orders from Boeing over to the larger DC 8. A stunned  Allen, who had started the jet race, was not about to let Douglas cross the finish line first.

To gain market share the Boeing president agreed to meet individual airline design demands. Need a bigger engine? We can do that; need the plane stretched, widened, short ranged, long ranged? no problem. Plane by plane Allen wore Donald Douglas and his DC-8 down. By 1956 the strategy was paying off with the 707 outselling the DC-8 by a margin of three to one. The dual was costly but Allen had the deeper pockets and outlasted Douglas. The good news, Boeing would sell over 1,010 707’s, Douglas only 556 of its DC-8 – the bad news, because of the design changes the 707 would never be particularly profitable.

Pan Am good oneIn the long run, Bill Allen’s vision paid off. Boeing went on to become the world’s leader in the design and production of commercial jets. Under Allen’s leadership, Boeing built the 707, 727, 737, and 747–four of the most successful airliners in aviation history.
It takes courage to wager a company’s future on your vision and a new technology. It takes fortitude to stay the course when all looks lost.. When asked why he took those substantial risks, Allen said, “We felt strongly that it was high time some American manufacturers took the plunge and got jet transport off of paper and into the air”(Boeing Frontiers). Allen and the employees of Boeing showed us how it’s done.



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