The aircraft that really started the jet age

While not the first jetliner to enter service, the Boeing 707 is often credited with being the aircraft that truly got the jet age going. Key.Aero examines the history of the jet that ended up dominating air travel in the 1960s and ’70s and even continues to fly today

The de Havilland DH. 106 Comet was indisputably the world’s first commercial jet-powered airliner. But while the British-built example was technically the first to climb the mountain, the Boeing 707’s role in getting the jet age going was arguably larger.

Pan Am 707
Pan American World Airways, the launch customer for the jet, operated 127 examples. Wikimedia Commons/Clipperarctic

In fact, with its high-profile crashes and four-year grounding, it could be argued that the Comet actually slowed the adoption of turbine-powered aircraft by airlines who then became wary of non-piston-powered types.

Military Motivations

Boeing was well-known during and after the Second World War for producing military aircraft. The Seattle-based manufacturer had produced innovative and important bombers such as the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-29 Superfortress, B-47 Stratojet and the B-52 Stratofortress.

In the 1950s, Boeing was well-known for its military aircraft, but lagged behind competitors in the civil sector. Wikimedia Commons/Airwolfhound

Despite this success with military contracts, Boeing’s civil aviation departments lagged far behind its competitors as its last passenger aircraft, the 377 Stratocruiser, had netted the company a $15m loss before it was purchased by the US Air Force as a freighter.

Model 80 Origins

The airframer studies various wing and engine configurations, before settling on the 367-80 quad jet prototype aircraft. The jet was built by Boeing to demonstrate the benefits of jet propulsion to airline customers.

The Boeing 707 was derived from a prototype, 367-80 which was dubbed the "Dash 80. Public Domain

The “Dash 80” as it was known, took around two years from project launch to its roll-out in 1954. Powered by Pratt & Whitney JT3C turbojets, the prototype was a proof-of-concept aircraft for both military and civilian use. The US Air Force was the first customer, using it as the basis for its KC-135 Stratotanker.

The Dash 80 was rolled out May 14, 1954. Wikimedia Commons/National Air and Space Museum Archives / Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

The type’s wings are swept back at 35° and like all swept-wing aircraft, produce an undesirable “Dutch Roll” flying characteristic that manifests itself as an alternating combined yawing and rolling oscillation. Already having experience with this on the B-47 and B-52, Boeing had developed a yaw damper system which is used on the 707.

The Boeing 707 first flew on December 20, 1954. Public Domain

This problem was unfamiliar to many pilots who were new to the type, as they were accustomed to flying straight-winged propeller-driven aircraft.

Meteoric Rise

Pan American World Airways became the first airline to order the 707. On October 13, 1955, it committed to 20 examples, whilst also signing for 25 Douglas DC-8s. The competition between these two manufacturers was fierce and Pan Am went on to become the launch customer for both jets.

Douglas DC-8
The Douglas DC-8 was the Boeing 707's main competitor. Wikimedia Commons/Jon Proctor

The Boeing 707 first flew on December 20, 1957, with Federal Aviation Administration certification following on September 18, 1958. By this time, the Comet was out of the picture following its fatal crashes and effective redesign – by comparison, it was smaller and slower than the 707.

Three 707s
The company's first flight with the type was from New York to Paris on October 26, 1958. Public Domain

Pan Am inaugurated 707 services with a christening at Washington/National Airport, 1958, attended by President Eisenhower, followed by a transatlantic flight for VIPs from Baltimore/Friendship International Airport to Paris.

The jet’s first commercial flight was from Idlewild Airport (now New York/JFK) to Paris Le Bourget on October 26, 1958. In December that year, National Airlines operated the first US domestic jet airline flights between JFK and Miami, using two leased from Pan Am.

The 707 quickly became the most popular jetliner of its time, its popularity rapidly led to developments in airport terminals, runways, airline catering, baggage handling and other airport infrastructure. The type’s prevalence also led to air traffic control upgrades to prevent interference with military jet operations.

BEA 707
Even British carrier BEA Airtours used the 707, phasing out its nine Comets in 1974 in favour of the American-built jet. Wikimedia Commons/Steve Fitzgerald

As the 1960s ended, the exponential growth in air travel facilitated by the achievement of the 707, led it to become a victim of its own success. The type was too small to handle the increased number of passengers on the routes it was designed for. Boeing’s answer to this problem was the iconic 747.

Operations of the first-generation jet were also threatened by noise legislation in 1985. A hush kit was developed for the 707 and by the late 1980s, 172 were in equipped with the technology.

Boeing 747
The Boeing 747's development came from a need for a larger aircraft for routes with greater demand than the 707 could cope with. Public Domain

Iran’s Saha Airlines was the last commercial operator of the Boeing 707. It suspended its scheduled passenger service in April 2013 but has continued to operate a small fleet of the type on behalf of the Iranian Air Force.

As of 2020, only a handful of the type remains in service, all of which are military variants acting as aerial refuelling platforms, transport or airborne early warning and control assets.