Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Boeing 707 50 years ago

The Boeing 707 shrunk the world in 1958. Its first commercial service was a flight from Idylwild Field (now JFK) in New York City to London on October 26. The flight was a big deal. The 112 passengers were feted in a reception before the flight and were escorted to the plane by stewardesses under spotlights. Before jet service flying between the US and Europe was a 12-hour ordeal. There were stops in Newfoundland, Iceland and Ireland. The aircraft were noisy and vibrated. And they flew at lower levels in the weather. So passengers bundled up with blankets and ear plugs. Instead the trip was 7 hours of quiet comfort. (The first commercial jets had noisier engines that were replaced in a few years by quieter "fan jets".) I was surprised to discover that the inaugural flight had to make a stop at Gander, Newfoundland, due to high winds, so it took 8 hours 30 minutes, rather than the much acclaimed 7 hours. It probably came down to the choice of removing 6 to 10 passengers - looks very bad - versus arriving late. [I found this on an internal Boeing Company web page, but can't find it on the public internet.] The 707 was the airplane that changed the world, but it was not the first in commercial service. The British Comet beat Boeing by several years. But it had a truely fatal flaw. In 3 years four of them crashed. It was discovered that the square-cut windows made a point for metal fatigue to start a crack. The cracks led to structural failure and the fatal crashes. The Comet was reintroduced on October 4, 3 weeks ahead of the 707, but its reputation never recovered from the fatal crashes and it failed in the market. It was also much smaller, carrying only 80 passengers versus 112.

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