Shortly after 3:30 p.m. on July 15, 1954, at Boeing Field in Seattle, a pilot who would have been tall even without his cowboy boots climbed down from the cockpit of Boeing’s Model 367-80 and allowed that “she flew like a bird, only faster.” Alvin M. “Tex” Johnston had just completed the maiden flight of what the Boeing crew had come to call Dash 80, after the final digits in its model number. Now that its first flight had been smooth as silk, the big four-engine jet, the prototype for the country’s first jet airliner, could finally be called an airplane.
Johnston may well have been so nonchalant because he knew that the prototype for the 707 commercial transport and KC-135 aerial tanker was no great engineering gamble. Boeing was the world’s foremost builder of large military multi-engine jets, specifically the B-47 and B-52 bombers, and Dash 80 was a logical descendant. In accounting ledgers, however, it was a huge gamble--$16 million in long-term red ink. After that first flight, and for a good while to come, Boeing would not have a single order to show for its investment.
The gamble eventually paid off, of course, in the sale of thousands of jet transports and tankers, in the domination of today’s market for transport fleets—and in the creation of the remarkable Dash 80, whose performance, usefulness, and longevity as a company aerial laboratory for new designs far surpassed its backers’ visions. In its 16-year flying career, Dash 80 made true believers out of the doubters in the commercial transport industry, who thought jets were uneconomical and ungainly. It flirted with the speed of sound, hung on the air by its claws at speeds as low as 80 mph, and served as the trainer for the first generation of commercial jet pilots. It gave birth to ingenious control surfaces and gave pilots their first look at video display cockpits and scores of other new instruments. It landed in mud as a double for Boeing’s version of the C-5A Galaxy, and it represented its builder in the SST race.
But as spectacular as Dash 80 was at its debut, a swept-wing, four-engine jet was anything but a hot item in the airliner market of the mid-1950s. The airlines had balked at the idea of a jet transport from the late 1940s, when the concept had first surfaced. The air carriers were still paying for the enormous number of piston-engine aircraft they had just bought as replacements for the pre-World War II equipment. Price-conscious airline executives thought jets would cost more to purchase and fly than their current fleet. They doubted that jets would fit into small airports and that an air traffic control system designed for smaller piston-engine aircraft could manage them. They worried that passengers would never accept airplanes without propellers. And these were Boeings. Virtually every airline had been buying Douglas aircraft for years. Boeing built bombers.
Despite the odds, Boeing president William Allen was determined to launch the commercial jet age and put his company in the lead. A reluctant executive, Allen had served as Boeing’s lawyer for 17 years before being virtually dragooned into accepting the president’s job in 1945. Although he had almost no experience in aviation, in a remarkably short time Allen had acquired a grasp of the company’s true position and possibilities. He realized that no competitor had Boeing’s experience in jet design and manufacture, but the company suffered from a near-total dependence on military contracts he knew that another piston-engine airplane would pose no threat to Douglas’ primacy in airliners. What Allen needed was a credible presence in the market.
Boeing’s only commercial transport at the time was the Model 377 Stratocruiser, a wonderfully comfortable but woefully uneconomical failure. A mere 56 had been sold at a loss of more than $13 million. Fortunately, the KC-97 military tanker derived from it had more than covered the bills. If Boeing’s piston-engine aircraft were faring poorly, the jet transport picture was even worse. The Boeing sales force had been soliciting orders for a commercial jet for three years with no luck. On the military side, the Air Force was also pinching pennies. It had refused to participate in the development of a jet tanker that would match the performance of its jet bombers. The Strategic Air Command could jolly well get by with its KC-97 tankers, even though the speed and altitude limitations of these slow, fat flying barges made the task of refueling fast, high-flying jets a dicey proposition for the crews on both ends of the refueling booms.
Believing that an airborne demonstrator would tip the scale in both the commercial and military markets, Allen met with his board of directors in May 1952 and persuaded them to bet every penny in Boeing’s coffers on a one-design, two-market prototype. He pushed for and won a $15 million commitment that later went up another million.
It was probably Allen the lawyer, not Allen the executive, who carried the day at that long board meeting. Although he may have cited the company’s lead in large-jet design and the eventual inevitability of the Air Force switching to jet tankers, it seems far more likely that he concocted a brilliant case designed to woo a jury rather than drawing up a reasoned strategy for investors. The minutes of that meeting remain locked up at Boeing, so very few people know what actually transpired. But whether it was the lawyer or the executive who won, any dissenters on the board would have long since rejoiced that one of them did.
Work got under way virtually the morning after the meeting. The project was code-named 367-80, to encourage competitors to think Boeing was having its 80th go at a variation of the Model 367, the company’s designation for the KC-97 prototype. In fact, Boeing’s preliminary design for a jet transport had been in the works since the late 1940s. Construction of the prototype began in a walled-off corner of Boeing’s Renton, Washington plant in November, and the rollout took place in May 1954—just 18 months later. The next year, Douglas decided to skip the prototype stage and go ahead with production of a four-engine jet called the DC-8.
To those who thought the Douglas DC-7 and the Lockheed Super Constellation were immense, Dash 80’s 128-foot fuselage and 130-foot wingspan were shockingly huge. But it looked like a pretty ordinary piece of work to the folks at Boeing—not that large compared to the B-52, and perhaps even a bit conservative in wingspan.