Boeing Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The world’s largest builder of commercial aircraft.

Early History

In 1903, the same year that the Wright brothers completed their first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, William Boeing left Yale University’s college of engineering for the West Coast. After accumulating a considerable amount of money trading in forest lands around Grays Harbor, Washington, Boeing moved to Seattle, Washington, in 1908.

Boeing had always been curious about air travel, which was in its infancy during his youth. In 1910, he attended the first American air meet in Los Angeles, California. He sought a ride on one of the airplanes shown at the meet, but not one of the dozen aviators participating would do him the favor. Little did the early pilots realize that they were refusing a man whose name would become synonymous with commercial aviation around the world.

In 1916, Boeing formed the Pacific Aero Products Company, which was renamed the Boeing Airplane Company the following year. He and G. Conrad Westerveldt developed the B & W seaplane. World War I brought Boeing lucrative contracts for Navy trainers and flying boats. However, by 1919, after the war’s end, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. Boeing scrambled to keep his workers busy making furniture, repairing Army planes, and building speedboats that would become popular with local bootleggers during Prohibition.

Boeing also earned money by pioneering airmail service. The Air Mail Act of 1925, also known as the Kelly Act, authorized the U.S. Post Office to contract with private carriers on designated routes. On September 15, 1926, Vern Gorst’s Pacific Air Transport (PAT) delivered Seattle’s first bag of domestic airmail to a Boeing airstrip. The following year, Boeing purchased PAT and introduced larger Model 80 and 80A trimotors. The cabins, carrying up to eighteen passengers, were attended by registered nurses who became the first flight attendants.

On February 1, 1929, William Boeing and Fred Reutschler, president of the Pratt & Whitney engine manufacturer, formed the United Aircraft & Transport Corporation (UATC). It quickly acquired other aircraft companies, including Stearman, which established Boeing’s presence in Wichita, Kansas. In March, 1931, this carrier, a pioneer in commercial aviation, would be incorporated, along with numerous others, as United Air Lines.

The years immediately following the end of World War II were filled with changes for Boeing. After the military canceled its bomber orders, Boeing factories shut down, and 70,000 people lost their jobs. The same day the plants closed, attorney William M. Allen took over as company president. Allen promised to start hiring people back as soon as airlines ordered the Stratocruiser, a luxurious commercial airliner version of the company’s four-engine C-97 troop transport first flown in 1944. The Stratocruiser did not provide Boeing’s hoped-for financial windfall, however. Instead, Boeing earned substantial profits by adapting its C-97 air freighter as both a propeller-powered troop carrier and the KC-97, an aerial fuel tanker.

In the meantime, wind-tunnel data discovered in Germany as the war ended helped Boeing engineers design the country’s first multiengine, swept-wing jet bomber, the XB-47. After World War II, Boeing also applied the technology of jet bombers to revolutionize civilian passenger airline travel.

As early as the 1940’s, Boeing 707-120B’s used to transport government officials had been given the call sign Air Force One. Boeing 707-320B airframes later were adapted specifically for use by the U.S. president, designated VC-137C, and officially called Air Force One. VC-137C’s served as presidential aircraft until 1990, when they were replaced by two new aircraft using Boeing 747-200 airframes.

Role in Space Exploration

In 1961, U.S. president John F. Kennedy committed the United States to landing a person on the Moon before the end of the decade. At that time, the far side of the Moon remained a mystery. Because Boeing president William Allen believed in the space program, he loaned 2,000 executives to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to coordinate activities. Boeing also provided overall systems integration for the entire Apollo project.

Boeing-built orbiters circled the Moon and sent photographs of the Moon’s surface back to Earth, so NASA could select safe landing sites for the astronauts. Boeing also built the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), which astronauts used to explore the Moon on the last three Apollo missions. Boeing often shared space-program construction responsibilities with other large aerospace companies. For the Saturn launch vehicles, for example, Boeing built the S-1C’s first stage, North American Rockwell built the second, and McDonnell Douglas the third.

Despite the success of the space program, Boeing was buffeted during the mid-1960’s by the loss of several crucial defense contracts. The company also launched its new 747 jumbojet on the eve of a depression in the airline industry. The company’s workforce, once numbering more than 100,000, declined by more than 60,000 workers during the ensuing “Boeing Bust.” A billboard erected in early April, 1971, teased, “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights.”

Boeing’s Influence

On August 1, 1997, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas merged and began operations as a single company with more than 220,000 employees. Phil Condit remained as chief operating officer and chairman of the new Boeing board of directors. Harry C. Stonecipher, formerly McDonnell Douglas president and chief executive officer, became president and chief operating officer of The Boeing Company.

Boeing announced on March 21, 2001, that its headquarters, employing about 1,000 people, would depart Seattle, the city that had been its corporate home for eighty-five years. However, many other Boeing manufacturing plants in the area would remain there. Dallas, Chicago, and Denver were listed as likely new Boeing headquarters locations before Chicago was chosen in early May. The surprise announcement came as a shock to many Seattle families that had sent several generations to work in Boeing’s assembly plants in the Puget Sound area. Despite the loss of Boeing’s headquarters, nearly 80,000 company jobs would remain in the state of Washington, but it was feared that some of those would leave as well. A few weeks after announcing the headquarters move, Boeing said it would move the assembly of its 757 jet fuselage to Wichita, Kansas, from Renton, a suburb of Seattle, transferring five hundred jobs.

Before the founding of Microsoft, Boeing was the Seattle area’s signature, and singularly dominant, industry. Employees of the aircraft manufacturer influenced the city’s traffic patterns, housing prices, and even department store sales, which coincided with Boeing’s holiday bonuses. The famed World War II icon Rosie the Riveter was a Seattle-area Boeing assembly-line worker before her image was featured nationally on war posters.

Boeing is also a large-scale defense contractor as well as a commercial aircraft manufacturer. During 2001, the company competed with Lockheed Martin to build the Joint Strike Fighter. At an expected worth of about $300 billion, the defense contract was the most lucrative in history. Each of roughly 3,000 aircraft was expected to cost $25 to $30 million.

Boeing employees also have irrigated an eastern Oregon desert, managed housing projects for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, built a desalinization plant that converted sea water to fresh water for a resort in the Virgin Islands, and built voice scramblers for police departments. The Boeing Company also produced light-rail vehicles for the cities of Boston, Massachusetts, and San Francisco, California, introduced personal rapid transit in Morgantown, West Virginia, and built three gigantic wind turbines in the Columbia River Gorge.

Future Boeing Projects

For sale after 2007, Boeing planned to build a new 700-mile-per-hour Sonic Cruiser, which will reduce the current seven-hour transatlantic airline journey by one hour. Boeing also planned to increase aircraft speeds significantly with an entirely new engine technology using a mixture of conventional jet fuel—derived from oil, a fossil fuel—with clean-burning hydrogen. Prior to Boeing’s new tests, the top speeds of commercial aircraft had been stagnant since 1970, when the record for the fastest civilian aircraft (1,600 miles per hour) was set by a Russian Tupolev Tu-144. Typical jet aircraft speeds (500 miles per hour) had not changed since the 1950’s.

In 2001, Boeing unveiled a prototype superfast aircraft that could fly passengers between London and New York in forty minutes. In May, the Hyper-X, “a flying engine that looks like a surfboard with fins,” designed jointly by Boeing and NASA, was tested over the Pacific Ocean 75 miles off Los Angeles.

In the engine test, the Hyper-X was bolted beneath the wing of a B-52 bomber. The B-52 released the “flying surfboard” at 20,000 feet, as a conventional booster rocket drove it to about 2,000 miles per hour. Revolutionary scramjets then cut in and, for ten seconds, the hypersonic plane reached a maximum speed of 5,000 miles per hour, making it the fastest aircraft in history.

Ordinary jet engines are propelled by blades that drag air into a chamber, compress it, mix it with jet fuel, and explode it out of the rear to create forward momentum. Scramjets have no blades, but depend on previously generated speeds to force air through an oval-shaped mouth into a copper chamber, where it mixes with hydrogen to produce a much more powerful explosion.

The Hyper-X can fly at speeds of up to 5,000 miles per hour, more than three times as fast as the next-fastest airliner, the thirty-year-old Concorde, which had become technologically obsolete by the year 2000. Other tests were foreseen with prototypes able to fly as fast as 7,000 miles per hour. Such vehicles could circumnavigate the earth in fewer than four hours. Boeing intended initially to design such aircraft for the U.S. military and then to build a bigger version for cargo operators. After all tests were completed, Boeing would build a version for commercial customers, such as British Airways, starting in 2016.

Boeing’s hypersonic aircraft would be much smaller than the jumbojets that comprised parts of many airline fleets during the late twentieth century. The bigger planes lack the structural integrity required to withstand vastly accelerated speeds. The development of hypersonic aircraft also has been made possible by advances in the strength of manufactured metals. For structural reasons, the new airliner probably will have no windows. Passengers will be protected from a gravitational force of 6 g’s by a highly pressurized cabin. The aircraft also will accelerate and decelerate slowly to lessen the effects of changing gravity. Such aircraft also will produce sonic booms as they accelerate, so routes will need to be configured to avoid large population areas at the point of transition to hypersonic flight.

Bibliography
  • Bauer, Eugene E. Boeing in Peace and War. Enumclaw, Wash.: TABA, 1990. A concise summary of Boeing’s history.
  • Bowers, Peter M. Boeing Aircraft Since 1916. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1989. A good source for technical material on aircraft manufactured by Boeing.
  • Norris, Guy, and Mark Wagner. Boeing. Osceola, Wis.: MBI, 1998. A twentieth century history of Boeing.
  • Rodgers, Eugene. Flying High: The Story of Boeing and the Rise of the Jetliner Industry. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996. Boeing’s development in the context of the aviation industry.
  • Serling, Robert J. Legend and Legacy: The Story of Boeing and ItsPeople. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. An excellent history of Boeing for the general reader.

Air Force One

Airplanes

Bombers

Hypersonic aircraft

Jumbojets

Manufacturers

McDonnell Douglas

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Orbiting

Seaplanes

707 plane family

Spaceflight

United Air Lines

X planes

Categories: History Content