The first 707 model, the -138 used by Qantas
The first 707 model, the -138 used by Qantas

Boeing turned 100 this week, and some of us might yet recall some of the airplanes, to use its preferred term, that changed our lives at key moments in recent history.

Before the 707 went into service in 1958 for Pan American and became the world’s first commercially successful jet airliner, there was the Boeing Stratocruiser, a derivative of the war time B-29 Superfortress.

This opulently outfitted but commercially unsuccessful competitor to the likes of the Lockheed Constellations and Douglas DC-6Bs was a regular but somewhat unreliable visitor to Sydney for Pan American, whose main competitor for the US-Australia trade wasn’t Qantas but the Matson liners, the Monterey and Mariposa, which took more than 14 days when sailing their fastest voyages across the Pacific, and had sown that game up since the early 30s.

Most childhood memories of the Stratoclippers, as Pan American called them were of their approaching Kingsford Smith Airport low over the working class part of the then unfashionable oceanic eastern suburbs of Sydney with only three engines turning.  Which was also true of the Constellations and later Super Constellations flown by Qantas.

To my chagrin, I never flew in those airliners. But in 1955 there was a sudden appearance of a number of extraordinary aircraft in Australian east coast skies, including a demo by the Boeing Dash 80, the precursor to the 707.

…sometime in 1955 the original Boeing 707 ‘precursor’ the Dash-80, flew over Clovelly Primary School. We didn’t know it was coming either. Something I had seen in Popular Mechanics or Life magazine materialised over the ‘queue’ for the tiny bottles of milk that were distributed at play time. A flying saucer couldn’t have caused more astonishment, including among the teachers.

Boeing's original Dash 80 precursor to the 707 line
Boeing’s original Dash 80 precursor to the 707 line

The 707 changed the world. It ended the age of the great trans Atlantic liners, and on long distance routes, like those to Africa, South America, and Australia, it also saw the rapid eclipsing of the passenger services sailed by P & O Orient and others. Soon to be joined by the Douglas DC-8s, these single aisle four engined jets were sumptuously outfitted by today’s standards in economy class,  in terms of ample seat pitch and catering, but with shorter range than airliners used for such routes today, so they stopped more, for reasons of operational requirements as well as commercial opportunities.

Going to the US meant landing at Nadi, and Honolulu, and to London, sometimes involved stops in Darwin, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Calcutta, Karachi, Tehran, Beirut, Athens, Rome, and Frankfurt. (Darwin was a stop for BOAC Comet IV flights).

The Dash 80’s  appearance was like the Shape of Things to Come suddenly materialising, and even more so in the case of the 707s, as the Space Age had just started.

First class on 707s and DC-8s wasn’t however as opulent as today, in fact it scarcely approached the amenity of a good premium economy cabin in current service on Qantas and some of its competitors, and business class didn’t start happening until the late 70s.

But these were faster jets than now, with their wings more swept back to notch up the cruising capability, and speed was the selling point, while fuel economy wasn’t a preoccupation.

That speed differential became really noticeable in hindsight when Australia finally joined the domestic jet age at a time that suited Reg Ansett, in the mid-60s, using 727-100s and not long after that,  -200s that were around 45 minutes or more faster between Perth and the east coast capitals than today’s airliners.

Many might agree that the Boeing 727 T-tail tri-jet was the sleekest looking Boeing jet ever, but it was also almost as noisy outside as the smaller but astonishingly loud Fokker F28s that were for a while flown by Ansett group carriers and East-West.

The Boeing 727 was the last commercial western airliner designed with a flight engineer station in the cockpit, apart from a brief period when Boeing was pressured to put one into some 767s.

The Boeing 767 was another potent design for change, in that it pioneered ETOPS operations for wide body twin engined designs in the 80s, starting with North Atlantic routes and very rapidly, almost everywhere else that wasn’t at that stage too long, or remote, like the extreme latitude northern polar routes.

The 767 occupied a notably practicable zone for many airlines. It’s wing span was compatible with many gates today that are too tight for Boeing 787s, 777s and A300s and A330s and A350s. It’s seven across economy cabin had an amenity not found in its larger new replacements. But it was unable to compete with the economics of the larger A330s, or even in some operations, 757s, and the final straw was the rise of high carbon fibre designs like the 787s and A350s and the things some carriers do to higher end single aisle Boeings and Airbuses in cramming in additional passengers in the pursuit of lower per seat operating costs.

For its sheer presence, the Boeing 747 that began commercial flying in 1970, really demonstrated what could be achieved by continued improvements to an airliner design through refinements to their airframes and engines. It became the unchallenged leader in terms of capacity, cabin diversity, and range up until ultra long range versions of the 777, 787 and the A340, and the A380, became available this century.

There are today, A330s, 777s, and of course A380s, that very largely eclipsed the 747, and some would argue that includes the final small selling passenger version,  the 747-8 Intercontinental. But a 436 seat A330 or 458 seat multi-class 777 is not from an amenity point of view, any improvement on a well set up 747.

The earlier configurations of the 747 had a spacious economy cabin, and some carriers even included a lounge in ‘coach’. But they lacked long distance capabilities, and their economics in those formats reflected more privileged, less competitive times, when mainly state owned international airlines had to compete on comfort not fares.

What the next ten years holds in the second century of Boeing airplanes is very difficult to predict, as is equally true for its competitor.  Geopolitical instability is the wild card that threatens market forecasts, combined with a real and growing shortage of pilots, runways, and in places, airspace.

The passing of the 707s and 727s and 767s is to be regretted (although some MoM design concepts look like 767s) but they made a huge difference to the way older readers flew. If the same visions that drove Boeing back then come alive in the next ten years, the future may become something everyone will like.

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