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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Turner made a major modification to the 247: He added extra fuel tanks, which increased the aircraft’s range to 2,500 miles. He and his crew were competing against 20 other aircraft, including three de Havilland DH 88 Comets, built especially for the competition, and a DC-2 flown by K.L.M. (Royal Dutch Airlines).

There were six required stops: Iraq, India, Singapore, and three Australian cities.

On October 20, after leaving Baghdad, the 247 was dangerously low on fuel, and the crew, heading for Allahabad, India, had veered off course. Suddenly, the city’s lights appeared on the horizon. With just five gallons of fuel remaining, “Roscoe set her down like a fly lighting on a juicy morsel of food,” navigator Reeder Nichols recorded in his log.

The navigational error caused a 5 1/2-hour delay; Turner came in third, behind a Comet and the DC-2.

The race results were big news. The fact that a rapidly obsolescent airliner performed as well as anything the British had built was a big shock, says van der Linden: “The Brits had nothing to compare it with. Nothing. It put U.S. manufacturing companies on the map.”

As the London Morning Post put it, “It has been realized with some astonishment that America now has in hundreds standard commercial aeroplanes with a higher top speed than the fastest aeroplane in regular service in any squadron in the whole of the Royal Air Force.”

After the MacRobertson Race, Turner returned the airplane to United Air Lines, which flew it until 1937, then sold it to the Union Electric Light and Power Company of St. Louis, for use as an executive aircraft. In 1939, the U.S. Department of Commerce bought the airplane and turned it over to the Civil Aeronautics Authority, which used it in a variety of tests until 1953, when the agency presented it to what was then the National Air Museum of the Smithsonian.

The 247-D is on display in the America by Air exhibition in the National Mall building.

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