However you look at it, 1970 was an epoch-making year for commercial aviation. The revolution in aircraft design heralded in that year would be the springboard for the airline industry to accelerate capacity growth in a way it could only dream about previously.
Until 1970, jet airliner cabins came in one size – now generally referred to as single-aisle – with seats up to six abreast (or very occasionally seven). But that all changed on 22 January 1970 when a Pan Am Boeing 747 arrived in London from New York on its inaugural flight with its twin-aisle seating arrangements up to nine abreast. Suddenly, cabins more than doubled in width and capacity effectively tripled.
But the 747’s introduction was only the start of the revolution. During the course of 1970 two more widebody types would take to the air – the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 in August and the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar in November. And before the end of the year, a fourth player also confirmed its intention to crash the widebody party. The Airbus Industrie consortium officially opened for business in December 1970 as it geared up to create the world’s first twin-aisle twinjet, the A300B.
The concept of the widebody or “air bus” as the high-capacity airliner ideas were often referred to in the 1960s really began as manufacturers explored ways of increasing seat counts without stretching fuselages to their extreme.
The ultimate narrowbody “air bus” was created by Douglas with its DC-8 “Super 60” family. Introduced in 1967, the DC-8-61/63 still hold the crown for being the longest single-aisle aircraft, at 57m (187ft).
While Douglas’s Super 60 was the ultimate high-capacity narrowbody, there were also various studies to achieve the same result by mounting single-aisle fuselages one above the other. An old favourite among aviation historians is BAC’s proposed “Super VC10 Superb” which would have seated almost 300 passengers by way of an additional six-abreast cabin installed in a larger lower fuselage lobe.
Boeing originally examined the traditional “stretch” route with its 707 series, ultimately proposing the extraordinarily long “707-820”. However, the manufacturer’s ambitions were thwarted by something very simple – the 707’s stocky landing gear design which, unlike the lankier DC-8, provided insufficient ground clearance (at rotation angles) for any major fuselage extension. Seattle was determined never to be caught out again like this, which is why the 757 has such long undercarriage legs.
In parallel with higher-capacity airliner studies, all three major US commercial manufacturers – Boeing, Lockheed and Douglas (which was taken over by McDonnell in 1967) – were vying to win the US Air Force’s CX-HLS airlifter competition. This requirement – eventually won by Lockheed with the enormous C-5A Galaxy – changed the game both around aircraft and aero-engine size and capability.
Indeed, the high-bypass turbofan technology first developed for that airlifter requirement would become a foundation stone for the first generation of widebody airliners. The two US aero-engine powerhouses – General Electric (now GE Aviation) and Pratt & Whitney – both developed their high-bypass designs as part of the CX-HLS competition. GE would end up victor on the Galaxy, while P&W’s offering, the JT9D, would ultimately become linch pin for Boeing’s giant commercial proposition.
Seattle losing the CX-HLS competition was actually key to the 747 being the first widebody airliner launched, in early 1966. In an article published in 1989 to mark the 20th anniversary of the jumbo’s first flight,Flight International explained how the very day Boeing lost the airlifter competition, Joe Sutter, then chief engineer, technology, was recalled from vacation to start a series of studies into a high-capacity jet transport.
Sutter, who became known as the father of the 747, sadly passed away in 2016. He told Flight in 1989: “I was given about 100 engineers, and we put a brochure together. We looked at three sizes, 250, 300 and 350 seats, and then we made a pretty rapid circuit of the key airlines. Most of them leaned towards the higher size.”
Sutter became the project’s chief engineer in October 1965 and finally ended talk of a stretched 707, which with about 200 seats, would be too small: “We reached the conclusion that we could spend a lot of money stretching the aeroplane, and it might meet the requirement for a few years, but it wouldn’t last very long. The economics were good, but it looked like a halfway job.”
Before adopting the familiar shape that makes the 747 instantly recognisable, Boeing examined a double-deck design with two narrower twin-aisle cabins one above the other, each incorporating seven-abreast seating. In fact, it was late in the day – early 1966 – when a wide single passenger deck configuration was adopted. This optimised the 747 for both passenger and all-cargo roles – with the final piece of the design jigsaw being the ability to offer the freighter with a hinged nose-door, requiring the cockpit to be incorporated in its now trademark upper-deck “hump”.
“Many of the airlines were convinced that the SST [supersonic transport] was coming,” Sutter told Flight in 1989. “And many people here at Boeing thought that the 747 was an aeroplane with a limited future, because the SST was going to take all of the business. I even had difficulty getting people to work on the 747.”
So the 747’s designed-in cargo-carrying capability was effectively a hedge against the SST threat – be that from within Boeing itself or across the pond.
The widebody era was launched into production in March 1966 when Boeing’s board decided to go ahead with the 747. This was made public on 13 April when Boeing revealed that Pan Am had placed an order for 25 aircraft.
“It was much before we engineers wanted to commit, but Pan Am said they wanted an aeroplane for introduction in 1970,” said Sutter.
Exactly as Pan Am and Boeing were launching the 747, an American Airlines executive – Frank Kolk, who was vice-president for engineering – issued a requirement for a high-capacity “air bus” that utilised the emerging breed of high-bypass turbofans, to serve the US domestic market. The requirement was for a 300-seat twin-aisle twinjet capable of flying up to 1,850nm (3,420km) at Mach 0.8. This paper would be the spark that ultimately led to the triumvirate of first-generation medium-capacity widebodies – the DC-10 and TriStar trijets, and the A300B twinjet.
While both US airframer rivals both began their campaigns to meet the American requirement with twin-engined designs, as they adapted their thinking to the wider needs of more US airlines, it became clear that a third engine would be a better option. This addition would enable greater payload/range and what Flight described as “improved operational flexibility for over-water routeings”.
|Widebody deliveries by type|
|Source: Cirium fleets data (August 2020)|
|McDonnell Douglas DC-10/MD-11||646|
|Lockheed L-1011 TriStar||250|
The two US trijets were launched in 1968 and looked very similar in concept – albeit with quite different solutions to the tricky centre-engine installation. Between them, the TriStar and DC-10 carved up the US major airlines – the former taking Delta Airlines, Eastern and TWA, and the latter American Airlines and United Airlines (and subsequently Northwest Orient). For McDonnell Douglas, it was an important statement of intent that Douglas in Long Beach would continue its long line of “DC” airliners with a widebody offering; for Lockheed it was a last roll of the dice to return to the commercial sector after missing out on the first era of jet airliners.
The DC-10 was launched with GE power in the shape of the CF6 – which evolved from the Galaxy’s TF39 – while Lockheed went international by selecting the Rolls-Royce RB211. While not offering the cabin width of Boeing’s jumbo, the two trijets did promise to transform the passenger experience on shorter-haul flying the way the 747 would on longer sectors.
But with the 747 being considered too large for many operators, the two smaller widebody protagonists looked set fair to battle for an impressively-sized market: a Flight International article in February 1969 quoted a 20-year market estimate for medium-range trijet widebodies as being as high as 1,500 aircraft.
Meanwhile over in Europe, interest was growing in a home-grown alternative to the US widebody offerings – although the American Airlines requirement would also play a crucial part in shaping the first Airbus.
The cornerstone for what would become the A300B was laid at the end of 1965, when an Anglo-French Ministry Working Party published its report, dubbed Outline Specification for the High-Capacity Short Haul Aircraft, identifying the need for a 200- to 225-seater with a range of 800nm. With German industry also undertaking “air bus” studies, the three European nations formally joined forces in 1966, with R-R on board as the engine partner.
Roger Beteille, an engineer with France’s Sud Est, was involved in the project from the early days and was appointed technical director in 1967. The French aerospace legend, who went on to become Airbus president, passed away last year.
Beteille recalled to Flight during an interview in 1997 how widebody developments across the Atlantic drove Europe’s disparate industry to organise a fightback that was successful, eventually.
“There was no European manufacturer that had ongoing designs or manufacture of an aircraft that could effectively compete worldwide with the American products,” he said. “The launch of an entirely new family of widebodies by Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed could be seen as ringing the death knell of any hope of European recovery in this field.”
Beteille also recognised how crucial Kolk’s American Airlines specification was to the European programme: “He was a real expert in the selection of aircraft. Kolk and his team had written a detailed specification for the 200- to 300-seat requirement and their ‘ideal’ aircraft was a twin. Much of it formed the basis for the A300 design.”
By the time the Airbus partnership was formally signed off at the Paris air show in May 1969, the UK had become unconvinced about the market for a “big twin” and abandoned participation as a major airframe player. Likewise, R-R had decided to make the TriStar its focus for the RB211, prompting Airbus to adopt what was effectively the DC-10’s CF6 propulsion system for the A300B.
So as the 1960s drew to a close, the various widebody programmes were each on development trajectories that would converge to make 1970 arguably the most significant year for the twin-aisle category of aircraft – certainly during the 20th century.
The 747 started the 1970 steamroller during the first month, making its service debut on 22 January 1970 with Pan Am. In fact, Boeing had shipped the first four 747s to customers (Pan Am and TWA) the previous December to enable them to begin preparations.
Just prior to the 747’s introduction, Pan Am’s vice-president of service, Harold Graham, explained to Flight how the original widebody seating configuration came about: “The designers asked us how many seats abreast we could sell. The figure of nine-abreast came up because it gave us the best combination of passenger groups. We have a row which runs like this: window, three seats, aisle, two seats, central partition, two seats, aisle, two seats, window. In this way the fewest possible people have a middle seat.”
Strangely, California would be a vital ingredient in the advent of all three US widebodies, as the state laid claim to two of the final assembly lines (Douglas in Long Beach and Lockheed in Palmdale), while much of the 747’s fuselage was produced in a Los Angeles suburb by Northrop (which later became Vought and finally Triumph). So it was into the bright California sky that the DC-10 flew on 29 August 1970 at the start of an 11-month flight-test programme, which culminated in the first deliveries to American and United on 29 July 1971.
|Widebody deliveries - top 10|
|Operator at delivery (not adjusted for operator mergers), Source: Cirium fleets data (August 2020)|
|All Nippon Airways||300|
|Delta Air Lines||242|
The TriStar followed its rival into the air, this time from the California desert, on 16 November 1970. By this time the programme was in a crisis that slowed testing and delayed certification and deliveries until April 1972. Lockheed had been crippled by cost overruns on the Galaxy as R-R suffered development problems on the RB211 and mounting financial issues that would lead to bankruptcy in 1971. All these factors would conspire to blunt Lockheed’s ability to develop the TriStar into a true competitor to the DC-10.
The final piece of 1970’s widebody jigsaw was laid in on 18 December when Europe’s new consortium was formally created as Airbus Industrie under French law as a French partnership. The embryonic business – still considered not much more than a minor irritant by US rivals at the time – had landed its breakthrough deal the previous September when Air France emerged as the first customer, with a letter of intent for up to 16 A300Bs.
The Airbus prototype made history on 28 October 1972, becoming the first widebody twinjet to take to the air and started a trend that would eventually become extremely fashionable. Air France became the A300B launch operator in May 1974.
So that’s how 1970 was at the frontier of this new age in aviation. And the legacy of that year continues to this day: While the TriStar is gone from the skies (apart from one used for air launches), 747 production continues (until 2022), every Airbus A330 that rolls out shares the nose and fuselage cross-section of the original A300B, and the DC-10’s military cousin, the KC-10 Extender, is still in widespread use with the US Air Force.
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