707 plane family Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The dominant family of passenger planes made in the twentieth century.

The Boeing 707 Family

The family of jet commercial transport planes developed by the Boeing Company began in 1952, when the company gambled nearly $16 million on a prototype airplane. It was a success and led to a family that grew to over eight thousand airplanes by the turn of the century. By the year 2000, about 65 percent of the world’s commercial jets were members of the 707 family.

The first 707 was not a pioneer. The British Comet, built by the De Havilland Aircraft Company, blazed the trail of commercial jet travel. With a prototype built in 1949 and a first production plane in 1951, the Comet took advantage of the experiences learned by the aircraft industry during World War II. These experiences were not good enough, however. A series of disastrous crashes brought production of Comets to an end in the 1950’s. Most of the Comet crashes were traced to design faults, especially with respect to the integrity of the fuselage covering.

The Comet crashes had damaged the public’s and the airlines’ confidence in jet travel and Boeing realized that it would have to reestablish that enthusiasm before being able to successfully introduce its 707. An extensive period of testing and publicity about safety eventually led to public acceptance, and soon jet travel became the mode of preference, especially for long-distance flights where the jet’s extra speed was important to passengers. The 707 jets succeeded in cutting travel time approximately in half compared to even the fastest propeller planes, such as the Douglas DC-7, the last of the great prop planes.

By the year 2000, the 707 family had grown to nine different named models, most of which had several different versions. The evolution was driven by two considerations: the different requirements of short-range, medium-range, and long-range markets, and the need for improved performance in terms of load capacity, fuel efficiency, noise abatement, and passenger convenience.

The Dash 80

First conceived in 1952, the prototype of the 707 was completed in 1954 and had its first flight that summer. Nicknamed the “Dash 80,” this plane was never sold by the company but was kept for demonstrations and various tests. It was eventually retired in 1972, when it was presented to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. It spent several years parked in Arizona and then was returned to the Boeing Company. In 2000, it was still to be seen on the tarmac at Boeing Field in Seattle, waiting for the construction of a new Museum of Flight facility to allow it to be on public display.

The Dash 80 still looks like a modern airplane. Its design formed the pattern that dominated the commercial aircraft industry for fifty years, a remarkable record. With its swept-back wings, sleek nose, and numerous small windows, its appearance was a hit with both passengers and airlines. Its performance was also impressive. It broke a long series of records for both speed and distance. In 1957, for instance, the Dash 80 flew from Seattle to Baltimore nonstop in just 4 hours and 48 minutes, with an average speed of 612 miles per hour. Its logbook records three thousand hours of flying, all of it for testing and demonstration.

The 707’s

After the extensive and well-publicized test flights of the 707 prototype, the public and the world’s airlines were ready for the first 707’s to fly. Pan American World Airways, then one of the premier intercontinental carriers, ordered the 707 early and began its inaugural flights in 1958. Its first flight, between New York and Paris, was such a success that 707’s were put into service by most large airlines as soon as the planes could be delivered. In the following year, Pan American introduced the first scheduled around-the-world jet service with its 707’s, and the jet age had begun. The first 707 model, called the 707-120, was an excellent plane for medium to long flights, but with a range of only about 4,000 miles, it was considered better for transcontinental flights than for intercontinental. In the late 1950’s, 707’s were scheduled by several airlines for coast-to-coast service. For the Los Angeles-to-New York route, for example, 707’s could cut travel time from more than ten hours to only about five hours. Their use for longer distance travel, however, was restricted by their limited range, which necessitated intermediate stops for such flights as from San Francisco to Tokyo.

In response to this special need, Boeing developed a longer-distance model of the 707 called the 707-320 series, popularly known as the 707 Intercontinental. With a range of 6,000 miles, a larger fuselage, and more powerful engines, the Intercontinental quickly became the most commonly used airplane for long flights, especially transoceanic ones. Many national airlines of the Western world adopted the Intercontinental for its longer flights, and its familiar sleek outline was graced by the insignias of dozens of airlines, such as Air France, Lufthansa, BOAC (later renamed British Airlines), and Qantas.

It was almost impossible to fly in a 707 at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Most of them have been retired or converted to freighters. An example of an especially long-lived 707 is the plane that was used by Air Zimbabwe until well into the 1990’s. It was a favorite of tourists to Victoria Falls until it was replaced by newer Boeing airplanes.

The 720

The 1960’s saw the Boeing 707 and its Douglas rival, the DC-8, take over most of the long-distance air routes of the Western world. Shorter routes, however, still saw smaller planes in common use, especially because the 707 had a large capacity and required a long runway. For that reason, a new model of the 707 was introduced that was somewhat smaller and that was efficient for use on medium-range flights. Called the 720, it had essentially the same design as the 707 and offered passengers the same comfort and speed as its larger sibling.

The 720 was used, for instance, for the north-south routes along the West Coast by Western Airlines, where its characteristics were well matched to the needs.

The 727

The popularity of the 707 and its similarly sized competitors, the Douglas DC-8 and the Convair 880, demonstrated passenger preference for jet travel. However, these big planes demanded long runways and large airports. In spite of attempts to expand airport facilities rapidly, most commercial airports were just too small to handle the jets. In response to this problem, the 727, a smaller, three-engine jet, was developed. With newly designed wing flaps, the 727 could take off remarkably steeply and could land slowly, fitting onto smaller runways. The first 727 was put into service in 1964 by United Air Lines, which flew that one plane continuously for twenty-seven years. The last 727 was built in 1984, at which time 727’s were being used by nearly one hundred different air carriers and were carrying 150 million passengers per year. Near their peak in 1995, the 727’s had flown over four billion passengers on short- to medium-range commercial flights.

As wide as the 707, the 727 began as a much shorter and lighter airplane. Early models had a gross weight of 170,000 pounds, which increased to 210,000 pounds for the later versions. The cabins were roomy and, with the engines behind almost all passenger seats, the interior was relatively quiet, both features that helped the plane’s popularity. A total of 1,832 of the 727’s were built.

Although the 727 had several variants, there were only two main models, the 727-100 series and the 727-200 series. Included was a convertible version that could carry passengers, freight, or a combination of the two. The 727-200F, for instance, carries nearly 60,000 pounds of freight. As the 727’s aged, many were converted to freighters, carrying considerable amounts of mail and express packages.

The 737

By the end of the twentieth century, the Boeing 737 had become the most popular commercial airplane of all time. It had been delivered to airlines throughout the world, including Eastern Europe and Asia, which previously had not been notable customers of American airplane companies. By the year 2000, this airplane had carried over six billion passengers, equivalent to the total population of the world.

The 737 started as the “little cousin” of the 727, intended for shorter flights and even smaller airports. The first planes were delivered in 1967 to Lufthansa, and thirty-five years later, the 737 was still being built and delivered to airlines over the world. As in the case of the 727, Boeing used high-lift devices to provide steep takeoffs and slow landings, making the 737 a particularly versatile plane as far as runways were concerned. It had two wing-mounted engines and thus used less fuel than three- or four-engine planes. It soon became the workhorse of many commercial airlines, making frequent and fuel-efficient short hops to serve a wide range of communities.

As an example of the common use of 737’s, Aloha Airlines of Hawaii has an all-737 fleet, most of which are devoted to the short (less than an hour) trips between the islands. In the year 2000, Aloha 737’s flew more than one thousand flights per week, carrying about five million passengers in the year.

As of 2001, there were nine different models of the 737. The first, the 737-100, carries ninety-nine passengers when used as a one-class airplane, with six-abreast seating and a central aisle. It has an 87-foot wingspan and a fuselage only 95 feet long, giving it a squarish appearance. Each engine can develop 14,000 pounds of thrust for a maximum takeoff weight of 110,000 pounds. Its cruising speed at 35,000 feet is 575 miles per hour and its range is 2,160 miles, although it is primarily used for much shorter flights.

Responding to airline requests, Boeing soon introduced the 737-200 series, with a fuselage that is 6 feet longer than that of the 737-100 and a carrying capacity of 124 passengers when used as a one-class airplane. This series was followed by the 737-300, which was longer yet and had a wingspan of 95 feet. Its range is 2,595 miles. Improvements in fuel efficiency, noise abatement, and speed led to the introduction of the 400 and 500 series, and then Boeing made several additional design changes and introduced the Next Generation 737’s, the 600 to 900 series. The 737-900, introduced in 2001, can carry 189 passengers, almost twice as many as the 737-100. The plane, originally designed for short-haul flights, was by 2001 being used for transoceanic flights, as between California and the Hawaiian Islands. It has a 274,200-pound takeoff weight and a range of 3,160 miles. In wingspan and fuselage length, the 900 is about 30 feet bigger than the 100.

The 747

In the mid-1960’s, the aircraft industry realized that the potential of commercial jet transport included scales of plane size and capacity that would be vastly different from past experience. Pan American World Airways conceived of planes that could carry at least twice as many passengers as the 707 and could travel nonstop over twice the distance. Working with Boeing engineers, Pan Am promoted the idea of the “superjet.” It took nearly five years to bring that idea to fruition.

Under the leadership of chief engineer Joseph Sutter, Boeing designers put together a plan for an airplane that could carry over four hundred passengers and that could fly nonstop for more than 5,000 miles. To ensure the building of such a revolutionary new craft, Pan Am ordered twenty-five of them in 1966. As no existing facility could hold such a giant airplane, Boeing had to build an entire new plant, choosing a site north of Seattle near the small city of Everett, Washington. This plant was said to be the largest building in the world.

The first superjet, named the 747-100, was completed in 1968. It was first shown to the aviation world at the Paris Air Show in 1969. This plane, named the City of Everett, is still in service, being used by the company for various tests of new equipment, and is destined for the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. The characteristic look of the 747, with its forward hump, was the result of a two-deck design in which the cockpit and a passenger cabin were located above the main floor. This idea was not entirely new; Boeing’s pre-jet-era passenger plane, the Stratocruiser, had two decks, incorporating a lower passenger deck, usually used as a passenger lounge, below the main cabin.

The first commercial flight of the 747 occurred in January, 1970, when Pan American flew its first 747 nonstop from New York to London. In the next thirty years, over 1,200 747 superjets were built, flying 33 billion miles in airline service. Most were delivered to non-U.S. airlines for service on long-range international flights. By the year 2000, over 2.2 billion passengers had flown on 747’s.

Four different versions of the 747 were developed in the first thirty years, called versions 100, 200, 300, and 400. Each of these included various special versions, such as freighters, combis carrying both freight and passengers, and convertibles, which allowed airlines to convert from freight to passengers depending on needs such as seasonal demands. The freighters were given hinged noses to allow large objects to be loaded easily. Each version incorporated new features, including increased capacity, better fuel efficiency, and more modern (digital) avionics. For example, the 747-300, introduced in 1982, added about forty-four passenger seats by having an extended upper deck.

The 747-400 has a wingspan of 211 feet and a length of 232 feet, making it about as large a plane as airports can handle. Its tail rises above the tarmac as high as a six-story building. The interior of the cabin is 20 feet wide, making room for ten economy class seats abreast. In a two-class configuration, the 747-400 can carry 524 passengers over a range of 8,430 miles. Each of its four engines develops about 63,000 pounds of thrust so that it can take off with a gross weight of nearly one million pounds.

The 757

The Boeing 757 is a medium-range airplane that was designed to take the place of older jets, such as the 727, by providing a plane that could serve airline hubs efficiently, being capable of flying either short or medium-range flights. It has two engines and a single-aisle interior, with six-abreast seating in the main cabin. With a larger capacity than the 727 (it can carry 239 passengers in a two-class configuration), its improved aerodynamical design and high-bypass-ratio engines mean a quieter aircraft and a fuel savings of about 40 percent per seat.

The cockpit is fully digital, with a flight management control system that provides automatic control and guidance of the plane from just after takeoff to final approach. This system is designed for maximum efficiency, taking into account all flight and aircraft conditions en route. The cockpit design is the same as that of the 767, so that pilots certified for one can fly the other.

By the end of 2000, more than one thousand of the 757’s had been built. Included was a freighter version that had no passenger windows or doors, but instead a large cargo door on the starboard side of the cabin.

The 767

In 1978, United Air Lines expressed the need for a modern wide-body jet that would be highly fuel-efficient for long-distance flights but smaller than the 747 when it ordered thirty of the not-yet-built Boeing 767 airplanes. The first 767 was finished in 1981. It had longer, thicker, and less swept-back wings compared to earlier jets, and it introduced a new feature, raked wingtips, all of which increased the plane’s flying efficiency. With two aisles, it could accommodate seven-abreast seating in economy class, with a passenger count in the two hundred to three hundred range, depending on seating arrangements. The 767 became popular for intercontinental flights, as it was approved for two-engine flights that would take it as far as three hours from the nearest runway. In the year 2000, the 767 was the most common airplane flying the busy North Atlantic route, outnumbering all other jets combined.

In 2001, there were three 767 models: the 200, 300, and 400 series. The 200 is 159 feet long, the 300 is 21 feet longer, and the 400 has an overall length of 201 feet. Combined, more than eight hundred of the three models had been built by 2001.

The 777

During the final decades of the twentieth century, the airplane industry’s emphasis turned to issues of efficiency and passenger comfort. Manufacturers worked to develop more spacious cabins, more fuel-efficient engines, and more lightweight construction materials. At the same time, computers were extensively employed to control both operations and performance monitoring, while modern communication and navigation systems were installed as well. The Boeing 777 became that company’s best example of a plane ready for the twenty-first century. There are five different models of the 777, a two-engine plane that was intended to bridge the gap between the 747 and the 767. The first, the 777-200, was certified in 1995. It has a passenger capacity of four hundred in a two-class configuration. Its two-aisle cabin is designed to give passengers more room than earlier jets. There is built-in flexibility in the cabin: lavatories, overhead storage units, and galleys can be moved readily when configuration changes are needed.

The 777-200 is a large plane. Its wingspan is a full 200 feet and its length is 209 feet. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 545,000 pounds and a maximum range of 5,600 statute miles, allowing it to fly, for example, from San Francisco to Tokyo nonstop. There is an extended-range model that has the capability to fly almost 8,500 statute miles. The 777 was certified to fly as far as three hours from the nearest airport.

The 777-300 model was introduced by Cathay Pacific Airways in 1998. It is thirty-three feet longer than the 777-200 and can carry 479 passengers in a two-class configuration. Its range is 6,600 statute miles. Two new models, the Longer Range 777-200 and 777-300, will be introduced in 2003. The LR777-200 will have a range of 9,750 statute miles, the longest distance that any two-engine passenger plane can fly nonstop.

The 717

Not originally part of the 707 family, the Boeing 717’s ancestor was the popular Douglas DC-9, a fuselage-mounted twin-engine jet designed for short- and medium-range flights. Completely redesigned by Douglas’s successor, McDonnell Douglas, in 1995, the plane was first called the MD-95. When Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, the plane’s name was changed to the Boeing 717. It has a usual capacity of 106 seats and a range of 1,500 statute miles.

  • Bowers, P. Boeing Aircraft Since 1916. 2d ed. Columbus, Ohio: Funk and Wagnalls, 1993. A comprehensive description of Boeing planes, starting with the mail plane built in Boeing’s boathouse in 1916 and including both military and civilian airplanes.
  • Norris, Guy, and Mark Wagner. Modern Boeing Jetliners. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1999. With an emphasis on the later 700 series of planes, this thorough book includes rare photos of the production of the planes as well as good illustrations of the finished products. The BWB (Blended Wing Body) design is included.
  • Redding, R., and B. Yenne. Boeing, Planemaker to the World. 2d ed. San Diego, Calif.: Thunder Bay Press, 1997. A very well-illustrated history of the company with an emphasis on airplanes, but including also helicopters, hydrofoils and Boeing’s aerospace products.



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