These days, it’s getting harder and harder to be an old airplane. Or an old aviation writer. But let’s try with this note about major birthday: the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the Boeing 707. It was actually Friday, December 20, 1957 when Boeing test pilots made their first seven-minute flight from Boeing Field (no relation to this blogger) in Renton; the weather in Seattle (they have that a lot up there) forced them to land but they did a 71-minute flight later that day. Boeing notes that this was actually the prototype Model 367-80 or ‘Dash 80,’ which never entered commercial service itself, although it gave birth to the 707 series of jetliners. This marked the point in commercial aviation history “when propellers gave way to the jet age and air travel became affordable and available,” Boeing says.
We are pleased to agree with Boeing - up to a point. Other nations such as Russia and the UK had transports up earlier, but the transformation from propeller-driven planes to the jet age in the the US, the world's largest aviation market then and now, also marks a major compromise. The 707 represents a trade-off between luxury and speed. In the times before the 707, a business trip could take so long that the transportation provider – an airline or even a railroad – had to offer a lot of accommodation such as sleeping quarters and have room for food preparation. The 707 was fast enough that it made the business day-trip possible over longer distances, and so it could be smaller. And the earliest 707 operators found evidence of this: “they didn’t need as many first-class seats as they originally had configured for and could put in more economy-class seats. Travellers accepted the trade-off between room and speed,” notes our good friend George Hamlin, the noted aviation consultant, historian and photographer. His shot of the one of the very first fan-driven 707s is here. This trade-off reached its peak with the Concorde(not at left), a not-very-roomy or luxurious airliner, but one that got you there so fast that you didn’t need the luxury of space. And now with the battle for luxury on long-duration flights, the circle is coming round again.