In some respect, you might say that the bookkeepers at the Boeing Corporation were hedging their bets. The leading builder of large multi-engine military aircraft was about to enter the market of commercial passenger air travel. The engineering staff had already successfully ventured into the realm of large aircraft with multiple jet engines, most famously the B-47 and B-52 bombers.
In the early 1950s, the executives were right to worry about how the major airline companies, and their customers would accept jet aircraft. The airlines had already spent considerable sums to replace the pre-World War Two piston-engine powered airplanes with updated versions of the same type of aircraft. Boeing, itself, would also be entering airspace that had been largely occupied by Douglas Aircraft. Douglas built passenger airplanes; Boeing built bombers.
There were restrictions over the airports and traffic control systems that were designed for the smaller piston powered planes. There were also public relations concerns that customers might not accept airplanes without propellers.
Boeing’s president, William Allen, had been an aviation industry outsider for years, so he had a different view about his company’s role in the industry. He understood that Boeing needed to enter the airline market. He also knew that simply building another propeller airliner wouldn’t put a dent in Douglas’ dominance in that market. Boeing’s lone entry into commercial air travel had been their Model 377 Stratocruiser propeller plane. Only 56 had been sold, losing the company over $13,000,000. Yet, Allen wanted to diversify away from Boeing’s reliance upon military contracts.
At the same time, the military market was getting dicey for Boeing, too. The US Air Force was in budget cutting mode. The government was not eager to spend money to develop a jet tanker that could match the speed and performance of the jet bomber fleet.
Allen believed that his company had to make a landmark change in direction in order to survive and dominate commercial and military aviation. Allen called the Boeing board of directors to a meeting in May of 1952. He pitched his idea of a one-design, two market prototype aircraft. The board eventually accepted a $16,000,000 commitment.
Right after the meeting, design staff began work on project model 367-80. The development turned out to be just in time, because Douglas Aircraft would also be working on their own jet airliner, the DC-8. So, work began, in earnest on the 367-80, nicknamed “Dash 80” after the last two digits of its project number.
The size of the airliner would include a groundbreaking fuselage of 128-feet and wingspan of 130-feet, though conservative compared to that of a B-52. The designs and shapes of the wings and tail were a radical departure from those on conventional passenger aircraft. The 35-degree sweep was borrowed from the B-47 and B-52.
Engines and how they were mounted, differed from those of bombers, too. Instead of pairing the engines, the Dash 80 design called for a single engine per pod, for safety reasons. Spreading out the placement of engines, allowed for lighter wings. Also, the engines were more accessable for maintenance by mechanics.
The finishing touches of the Dash 80 were completed in July of 1954. On the afternoon of July 15, 1954, at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, Dash 80 completed its maiden flight. Test pilot Alvin “Tex” Johnston gave the airplane his words of approval. The commercial version of the aircraft was named the “Boeing 707”. Even though the plane was a technical success Boeing would have to wait for even a single order to begin to recoup the project expenses.
At last, the first orders for the new aircraft arrived on October 13, 1955, with the request for 20 of the 707s for the fleet of Pan American World Airways. The first production 707-120 flight took place on December 20, 1957. The Federal Aviation Administration certified the craft on September 18, 1958. The age of jet travel began on October 26, 1958. Pan Am flew 111 passengers on its first 707 “Clipper America” from New York’s Idlewild Airport to Paris in eight hours and 41 minutes. This, despite a refueling stop in Newfoundland.
Variants of the Dash 80 prototype led to production of the Air Force’s KC-135 refueling tanker in 1957. Another modification became the C-135 Stratolifter used for domestic transport of military staff. In 1958, the Air Force ordered three VC-137 variants of the 707 for the Presidential fleet. An additional plane was added in 1962. These airplanes transported Presidents throughout the terms of John Kennedy to Bill Clinton.
Meantime, the original, often modified, Dash 80 had tested many aircraft componants and design features for many other aircraft models, including the landing system for the space shuttle. It was finally time for its retirement. Following completion of the space shuttle landing gear tests, on January 22, 1970 Dash 80 was retired. It had logged a total of 1,691 flights for a total of 2,349 hours, 46 minutes over some 16 years.
Two years later, the Dash 80 reenacted the plane’s first cross-country flight and landed at Washington DC, where it was given away to the National Air and Space Museum. After the ceremony, the Dash 80 was ferried west to the Arizona desert waiting for its slot at the museum.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that the name “707” was selected because the originally designated model number “700” seemed bland and mundane. They skipped ahead to “707” because the reiteration sounded catchy.