During its 100-year history, William Boeing’s company has developed many of the most iconic airplanes ever to take to the sky.
The world’s largest aerospace company grew from a single simple, angular, twin-float seaplane: the 1916 B&W Model 1. Every successful company has to start somewhere, but the remarkable thing about Pacific Aero Products—today known as Boeing—is that it went on to design and build some of the most influential airplanes in the world. And it accomplished that in more different categories of aircraft than did any other company in the history of aviation.
B&W stood for Boeing & Westervelt. Wealthy Seattle lumber company owner William Boeing was the moneyman, George Westervelt the MIT-trained engineer who designed the Model 1. From that floatplane grew a corporation that in the 1920s and early ’30s was the U.S. Army’s and Navy’s prime supplier of fighters. The company that created some of the world’s biggest flying boats and helped make Pan American the world’s most important international airline. That pioneered the pressurized airliner. That designed and built almost half of all the heavy bombers the U.S. flew during World War II. That invented the high-speed jet bomber and the jumbo jet, and created the mold that to this day shapes jet airliners.
Yes, there were stumbles along the way, some of which threatened to sink the company. But time after time, Boeing was willing to bet the farm that its crazy plans would prove profitable.
That first floatplane was a clean-looking airplane for its time, and it grew into a small family of single-engine seabirds. The Navy bought 50 Model 1 derivatives as trainers, and the Boeing Airplane Company was in business.
In 1920 the Army Air Service put out a bid for 200 Thomas-Morse MB-3A fighters, an upgraded version of the original 1919 MB-3. It was the biggest single postwar aircraft contract up to that time. The MB-3A would become the Air Service’s go-to pursuit plane. Boeing outbid everybody, including Thomas-Morse itself, which was so confident of winning that the company had already set up the jigs for the project. But Boeing had its own spruce-producing forests; no need for them to buy the airframe’s wooden parts. The contract saved Boeing from becoming a small furniture-manufacturing firm, a fate that company executives had already begun to explore.
An early-1920s deal to rebuild Army de Havilland DH-4s introduced Boeing to the intricacies of steel-tube fuselage construction. Army officials had examined a steel-tubed Fokker D.VII after the war and quickly saw metal’s benefits over wood. The Army consequently specified that a run of 180 DH-4s be renewed with steel-tube frames as DH-4Ms. Boeing, for its part, discovered the benefits of fast, simple, high-temperature arc welding over the classic oxyacetylene process, and it began to develop the efficient production-line methodology that became one of the company’s hallmarks.
Though Boeing ultimately came to be known as the preeminent big-airplane builder—four-engine flying boats, massive bombers, jumbo airliners—in the 1920s and ’30s it was a fighter company. In 1923 Boeing introduced its Model 15 biplane. The Navy called it the FB-1 (Fighter, Boeing) and the Army went with its own nomenclature, the PW-9 (Pursuit, Watercooled). The FB-2 had a Boeing innovation that survives to this day: a tailhook.
Boeing also went to school on the Fokker D.VII, which lent some of its key features, particularly the steel-tube fuselage, to the Model 15. The new fighter also pioneered a concept that became part of every liquid-cooled American design thereafter: the “tunnel radiator.” Rather than mounting a bluff radiator
core right in the airstream, Boeing designed ducting that eliminated at least some of the radiator’s cooling drag. North American’s P-51 was its ultimate realization, turning what would have been drag into—some claim—a bit of thrust.
Boeing’s remarkable biplane fighter family went on for a decade, with variations on the theme playing into the early 1930s and culminating in the Army’s P-12, which the Navy called the F4B. The Curtiss P-6 Hawk, handsome though it was in its falcon-taloned paint scheme, could hardly compete; Boeing built eight times as many fighters—nearly 600—as did Curtiss.
Boeing’s last production fighter, the all-metal P-26 Peashooter monoplane (a first for the U.S.), had the misfortune of only briefly being competitive before a new generation of retractable-gear, closed-cockpit, cantilever-wing fighters began arriving from Germany, Britain, Italy, Japan and the USSR. The P-26 was light, simple and cheap but slow and possessed little firepower—typically two rifle-gauge guns firing through the prop disc, earning the airplane its nickname.
Meanwhile, Boeing was also pursuing a quite different goal during the fighter years: building an airplane to carry the mail. Mail, not passengers, was where the government contracts were, but Bill Boeing foresaw that if you could make a good mailplane, you could design it to piggyback pax as well. Boeing’s first purpose-built mailplane, and its first commercial design to go into production, was the Model 40, an enormous, single-open-cockpit biplane that could carry a half-ton of mail plus two passengers in an enclosed cabin ahead of the cockpit (later versions seated four).
The 40 was succeeded by the Model 80, a conventional 1928 trimotor biplane that carried 12 passengers in unconventional—for the time—comfort: with hot and cold running water, upholstered seats and earplugs. By this time, Boeing had formed its own airline—Boeing Air Transport, which soon became United Air Lines—to utilize the new passenger plane, and the Model 80 would make history as the first airliner to carry stewardesses.
Boeing made one of its few missteps during development of the Model 247, the world’s first modern airliner. Everybody in the business saw the 247’s advances—a semi-monocoque, all-metal, retractable-gear, monoplane twin—but Boeing wouldn’t sell any until they’d delivered the first 60 to United, their in-house airline. So TWA turned to Douglas and funded the development of what would become the DC-3. Boeing built 74 247s while Douglas ended up manufacturing more than 10,500 DC-3s and C-47/C-53s.
The 247 did contribute one small but important development: the now-ubiquitous instrument panel glareshield. Early 247s had draggy reverse-slant windscreens, intended to eliminate confusing reflections from lighted cockpit instruments. Unfortunately, those beetle-browed windshields instead reflected ground lights, so Boeing went with a conventional windscreen on later 247s and eliminated instrument reflections by creating the glareshield—that overhanging, rooflike panel today found on everything from Cessna 172s to Boeing 787s.
It didn’t help the 247’s reputation that in 1933 one was blown up in flight over Indiana by a nitroglycerine bomb secreted aboard in what was assumed to be a mob murder. It was the first proven case of air sabotage.
The mid-1930s Model 247 interlude also saw Bill Boeing’s not particularly fond farewell to the airplane business. A 1934 government ruling directed largely at Boeing outlawed airline ownership by an aircraft manufacturer, so his corporation was forced to divest itself of United Air Lines as well as a substantial group of ancillary companies (Pratt & Whitney, Chance Vought, Sikorsky, Hamilton-Standard and a few others) that formed the basis for what is today the enormous United Technologies conglomerate.
Furious that the government had accused him of monopolistic practices, Boeing resigned from the company he had formed. He became a thoroughbred horse breeder and established several upscale, strictly segregated housing developments in the Seattle area. Boeing was seen only once thereafter at an aviation event—the May 1954 Seattle rollout of the famous Dash 80 707 progenitor. He missed his former company’s first venture into gigantism, a characteristic that would come to mark a number of Boeing’s most iconic designs, including the Model 314 Clipper, B-29, double-deck Stratoliner, eight-engine B-52 and of course the jumboest of them all, the 747.
The first giant Boeing, however, wasn’t a success. The B-15 was by far the largest and heaviest aircraft to be built in the U.S. at that time. It was designed to be a long-range, four-engine Army Air Corps heavy bomber, but the 850-hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830s radials Boeing was forced to use could never crank out the grunt needed for the intended performance. The B-15 had been designed to mount 2,600-hp liquid-cooled Allison V-3420 W-24s—essentially two Allison V-1710 V-12s on a common crankshaft. That over-hyped engine never achieved mass production, so only one XB-15 was built.
The B-15’s magnificent high-lift wing was so huge that technicians could open a door at the wing root, inside the fuselage, and stroll down an internal catwalk to service the engines in flight. Boeing would become famous for its wings, which aeronautical engineers properly think of as the most elegant part of any airframe.
The B-15’s wing lived on as part of the next great Boeing airplane, the Model 314 Clipper. Despite having no flying boat experience beyond a single tandem-engine patrol biplane that it tried unsuccessfully to sell to the Navy (the 1924 Model 50, one of the first aircraft to use the then-new Clark Y airfoil), the company set out to design and build what at the time was the largest seaplane on the planet.
Pan American Airways needed a flying boat with greater range and speed than the Martin M-130s and Sikorsky S-42s it was operating, and the 12 enormous Model 314s that the airline bought (three of which would ultimately end up in the hands of British Overseas Airways Corporation) turned Pan Am into the world’s farthest-ranging international airline. Boeing Clippers were the first aircraft to establish regular transatlantic service, and they routinely island-hopped around the Pacific.
The Model 314 had one unusual feature that Boeing copped from the German seaplane specialist Dornier. Rather than relying on draggy or complex retractable wingtip floats to keep the airplane upright on the water, Boeing equipped the Clipper with sponsons—a set of small, thick, wing-like projections at the waterline that served as stabilizers, long-range fuel tanks and convenient boarding ramps, and that probably provided a bit of lift, since they were airfoil-shaped. Dornier had patented flying boat sponsons, but Boeing locked in its own design patent for the 314.
The Clippers firmly established Pan Am as America’s “chosen instrument” for international air commerce. Prior to the postwar expansion of air travel, the carrier had a government-supported monopoly on international airline operations in the Pacific, the Far East and Latin America, and the range and capability of the Boeing 314 made that possible.
Until the B-17—the Model 299 in Boeing factory parlance—was laid out, bombers were twin-engined. Four engines were reserved for goliaths that couldn’t otherwise fly, like the B-15, and Boeing’s use of multiple motors simply for increased performance represented a radical departure. When the Air Corps competition for a “multi-engine” bomber was announced in May 1934, Boeing gambled that multi could mean four as well as two—a gamble because there was no compensation for the losers (which turned out to be Douglas and Martin; Consolidated and its B-24, a 1938 contender, were not part of the competition).
Air Corps officials actually believed at the time that the B-17 was too large and complex an airplane for service pilots to fly, and many procurement officers urged that simpler and less expensive twin-engine bombers be bought instead. The B-17 went through several not-ready-for-prime-time variants until the B-17E—the first version with the classic dorsal-fin vertical tail plus top and bottom power turrets and a tail-gunner position—found its footing, and the chin-turreted B-17G became the gold standard.
The B-17 never lived up to its “Flying Fortress” cognomen, despite seemingly bristling with machine-gun positions and turrets, but the cocky name was a piece of PR brilliance that has forever overshadowed Liberators and Lancasters, Mitchells and Marauders. But the B-17 marked the border between the old Boeing and the new. The sturdy old Fort contained elements of Boeing airplanes extending as far back as the Model 247 airliner, and it certainly was a scaled-down XB-15 that shared characteristics with the 314 Clippers. It was a mid-1930s design, with 1930s technology and manufacturing techniques.
The airplane that was to come, the B-29 Superfortress, shared nothing with preceding Boeing designs, and elements of the bomber can be found even in the company’s jetliners today. It was the door through which Boeing stepped into the future of commercial flight.
Development and procurement of the B-29 made it the single most expensive weapons system of World War II, its cost dwarfing even the dollars spent on the Manhattan Project’s atomic bombs. The B-29 borrowed nothing from its predecessors, not even the Model 307 Stratoliner’s pressurization system. (The Superfortress used an entirely new system developed by Garrett AiResearch, bleeding air from the two inboard turbochargers; the 307 had electrically driven compressors.) Boeing built the B-29 around a particularly elegant, high-aspect-ratio wing with high loading—69 pounds per square foot. That wing weight relied on enormous single-slotted Fowler flaps for reasonable approach and landing speeds, and even more sophisticated high-lift devices would become a characteristic of Boeing jetliners decades later.
The heart of the B-29 wing was an airfoil that the company had developed for a very-long-range maritime patrol bomber, the PBB Sea Ranger. The Model 117 airfoil was said by some to be the fastest of its time. Only one XPBB-1 was ever built, in part because Boeing needed the new factory that had been intended for the Sea Ranger so that it could turn out B-29s.
After a pair of B-29s helped put an end to the Pacific War, further Superfort production was canceled. Boeing renamed what was to be the B-29D the B-50—an improved B-29 with better and more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-4360 engines, the infamous 28-cylinder “Corncobs.” The new designation was a ruse allowing Boeing to request appropriations for an all-new airplane.
The best thing the B-50 ever did is begat the double-bubble C-97 cargo plane, which quickly begat the KC-97 tanker and then the two-deck Stratocruiser airliner. Boeing didn’t invent air-to-air refueling, but it introduced the practical technology using modified KB-29s equipped with refueling booms operated by boomers sitting in what was formerly the tail gunner’s pressurized compartment. The KC-97 refined that process.
Boeing believed that it could be a player in what many think of as the golden age of airliners—the last of the piston-engine giants—by converting the Model 367 C-97 into the Model 377 Stratocruiser. Competing with the Douglas “Seven Seas” DC-7C and Lockheed 1649 Starliner, the 377 gained the nickname “Statuscruiser” because of its fancy lower-deck lounge and opulent sleeper berths (in some configurations). It also acquired the handle “best three-engine airliner in the world,” since the Stratocruiser ended many transocean trips with one of its overstressed, undercooled engines caged.
But Boeing’s flirtation with propliners was brief. Everyone could see that jets were the next step, and Boeing had begun work on what would become the Model 450 B-47 Stratojet well before the end of WWII. Initially, the B-47 was to be a scaled-down B-29 with four jet engines. In May 1945, however, Boeing Chief Aerodynamicist George Schairer was part of a team of engineers sent to Germany to data-mine various Luftwaffe research centers, and Schairer soon came across Adolf Busemann’s pioneering research into the effect of swept wings on transonic and even supersonic flight. Schairer immediately cabled Seattle: STOP WORK ON BOMBER.
When work restarted after Schairer’s return from Germany, the XB-47 emerged as a six-engine heavy bomber with wings swept 35 degrees. Its jet engines were buried within the wings, but the Air Force objected to the potential for catastrophic failure if an engine exploded. Schairer came up with the now-ubiquitous concept of podded engines slung on underwing pylons, but if the idea was his, the impetus came from the military.
The B-47 and B-52 were developed largely simultaneously, though it is often assumed that their similar shapes meant the B-47 medium bomber led directly to the B-52 heavy bomber. It quickly became obvious that the B-47’s high fuel consumption wouldn’t allow it to be a global bomber, so the B-52 was originally conceived as a straight-wing, six-engine turboprop. Development of the powerful, efficient Pratt & Whitney J57 led to a course correction that resulted in the eight-engine heavy bomber that is operational to this day as the B-52H, with turbofan engines twice as powerful as those original J57s.
Boeing’s prop-driven tankers couldn’t keep up with the new jet bombers. Air-to-air photos abound of B-47s—and even B-52s—struggling to refuel, gear and flaps down, while a ponderous KC-97 points its nose downhill to build airspeed. What was needed was a jet tanker.
That, in fact, is what also gave us the 707. The yellow-and-brown Dash 80 now in the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center is typically referred to as the 707 prototype, but it was actually built primarily to try to sell the Air Force a cargo plane and aerial-refueling tanker. It was a demonstrator rather than a true prototype. The Dash 80 had few windows, no seats and two big cargo doors. While it bore the logo “707” on its vertical tail, that number disappeared when the Dash 80 was fitted with a tanker boom and put to work refueling B-52s. Though some at Boeing have claimed that the model number 367-80 was a subterfuge intended to disguise work on what would become a four-engine, sweptwing jet, it in fact was the 80th iteration of attempts to turn the Model 367 C-97 into an entirely different airplane.
The Air Force got the KC-135 tanker out of the deal, but what really changed the world was the first productive, profitable, long-range, high-performance, jet-propelled airliner. In reality the production 707 and KC-135 are two entirely different airplanes, though the design streams that created them moved in parallel. Which one was the chicken and which the egg is arguable.
So began Boeing’s career as the manufacturer of the word’s preeminent airliners. In 1950 the company sold less than one percent of the world’s civil transports and lost money on every passenger aircraft it had built. That would change: 707/727/737/747 transports ruled the skies solo until the European Airbus consortium showed up in the mid-1970s, and the 737 remains the best-selling airliner ever. Boeing had by that time become the last man standing in the U.S. airliner industry after both Douglas and Lockheed foundered on the shoals of their big, inefficient, three-engine widebodies, the DC-10 and L-1011. Neither company would ever make another airliner. Douglas was acquired by McDonnell and then Boeing, and Lockheed teamed with Martin Marietta to concentrate on military contracts.
There are two mega-generations of Boeing airliners. One is bookended by the 707 and the 747—aircraft that trace their roots to bomber technology first used on the B-29, including materials, manufacturing methods, systems and aerodynamic concepts. (Few are aware of it, since the characteristic fuselage crease is largely faired over, but all Boeing airliners except the circular Triple-Seven have double-bubble fuselages that harken back to the Model 367 C-97.) The new generation is, at least so far, the 757/767/777/787—twin-engine airliners that use entirely new materials, factory methodology and ever more elegant wings.
Boeing’s iconic 747 grew out of the competition to produce a heavy lifter for the USAF, a contest that Lockheed won with its C-5 Galaxy. It’s often assumed that Boeing simply took its losing design and turned it into an airliner, but that’s not the case.
Two remarkable engines had been created for the Boeing/Lockheed faceoff—high-bypass turbofans unlike anything previously flown. One was the C-5’s General Electric TF-39, the other the Pratt & Whitney JT9D. When Boeing lost the heavy-lifter competition, it took the Pratt engine and designed an all-new airliner around it—the 747. Some say the importance of the heavy-lifter competition was not that it created the troublesome and expensive C-5 but that it led to the engine that turned the jumbo jet into mass transit.
Boeing actually never foresaw that. The company thought the future of passenger travel lay with supersonic transports, and it was already hard at work on its own SST, the soon-to-be-canceled 2707. So Boeing designed the 747 as a freighter that would carry passengers for a few years and then segue to life as a cargo carrier, which is why the jumbo jet has its cockpit awkwardly sited atop the fuselage rather than in the nose. Boeing imagined that when the 747 went into production as a freighter, it would quickly be re-engineered to have a swing-up nose (like the C-5) to allow roll-on/roll-off cargo loading.
Boeing’s most recent airliner, the 787 Dreamliner, is its only new airplane in 20 years. The company has always been good at coming up with endless derivatives of its existing fleet, with nearly 80 versions of its older-generation jets offered at one point. Some have criticized Boeing for its reluctance to pursue all-new designs, and it has sometimes put the company second to its European challenger Airbus.
The Dreamliner, however, has helped to restore Boeing to its number-one position. Built around perhaps the most advanced wing yet to fly, the 787 is a remarkable study in the benefits of the global economy. Virtually all the airplane’s components were subcontracted to overseas manufacturers, and despite many early subcontracting and final-assembly problems plus a spate of lithium battery fires, some claim that this is the airliner that has saved Boeing’s commercial carrier bacon.
Perhaps the biggest question now is: What does Boeing have in store for the next 100 years? And what will they call the airplane that follows the 797?
Contributing editor Stephan Wilkinson recommends for further reading: Boeing, by Guy Norris and Mark Wagoner; The Story of the Boeing Company, by Bill Yenne; Wide-Body: The Triumph of the 747, by Clive Irving; and Boeing Versus Airbus: The Inside Story of the Greatest International Competition in Business, by John Newhouse.
This feature first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Aviation History Magazine. Subscribe today!