In the Museum: The Original Airliner

The Boeing 247 was the Dreamliner of its day.

The Museum's Boeing 247-D is displayed with two sets of markings: The right side reflects its time with United Air Lines; the left, the aircraft's 1934 air racing history. (Eric Long)
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When Boeing introduced its 787 Dreamliner, which was delivered to its first customer last September, the company may have been hoping for a reprise of its experience with an earlier revolutionary design.

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On April 2, 1933, more than 15,000 spectators crowded onto Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, to take a look at the world’s first modern airliner, the Boeing 247.

“The 247 was ordered in 1931, 1932, and that was the absolute pit of the Depression,” says Robert van der Linden, the curator of commercial aviation at the National Air and Space Museum. “Yet there were major breakthroughs in aircraft technology from 1927 to 1933, and they all kind of converged on the 247.”

The all-metal, low-wing monoplane featured retractable landing gear, and was one of the first airplanes to have controllable-pitch propellers and de-icer boots. The twin-engine airplane also required two pilots, “and from 1933 up until the Boeing 787, they’ve been building aircraft the same way,” says van der Linden.

“When the 247 entered service,” he continues, “it was 50 percent faster than the competition. That kind of leap doesn’t happen anymore. The competition was the Ford Tri-motor. It did 100 miles an hour; this did 150, almost 160.”

The sleek new aircraft could carry 10 paying passengers in addition to the mail, and cut seven hours off coast-to-coast flying time. “And unlike the Ford Tri-motor,” says van der Linden, “the 247 was equipped with the latest navigational devices, could fly at night, and had two-way radio and autopilot. And its heated cabin was more comfortable for passengers.”

But its low-wing (technically a mid-wing) design led to some problems. “When you climbed into the 247,” says van der Linden, “you’d bump your head for sure. And halfway up the aisle, you’d have to step across one of the main spars.”

The DC-2 came out in 1934, “and it was a low-wing design with a nice flat floor,” he continues. “The DC-2 was a much more comfortable airliner—and faster. And just like that, no one wanted Boeings anymore.”

But that’s not the end of the story. The Museum’s Boeing 247-D is important both as an aircraft type and as an artifact.

In 1934, air racer Roscoe Turner leased the 247-D that is now in the Museum’s collection from United Air Lines for the MacRobertson Race, an 11,000-mile marathon from England to Australia, sponsored by Australian candy maker MacPherson Robertson.

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