Boeing innovations: Sometimes lucrative, sometimes a bust

Austin Ballard steadied himself on a wooden ladder and threaded a cable capped with a tiny camera lens into a cylinder on one of the Boeing 247’s engines. With his eyes on the display screen at his side, he guided the camera around the hollow space. He pushed a propeller blade, shifting the cylinder’s piston, the Herald reported.

“I’m glad it’s your last flight, ol’ gal,” the mechanic said to the airplane, which first flew in 1933.

The all-metal, twin-engine plane is in fine shape for the short hop from Paine Field to Boeing Field in Seattle, where the Museum of Flight plans to put it on permanent display. Its days on the air-show circuit are long gone, though, he said.

The plane, dubbed “City of Renton,” hasn’t flown since 1976. For the past 10 years, museum volunteers and workers, including Ballard, have been restoring the sleek airplane for display in a museum. The Boeing 247 is widely considered the first modern airliner. It was not the last time Boeing changed how people travel or how passenger airplanes are built.

All new airplanes introduce some new technology, but not every one changes the industry. In different ways, Boeing’s 247, 307, 707, 747, 767 and 787 each fundamentally changed commercial aerospace. They improved on and found new applications for existing technologies and introduced their own innovations. But technological innovation does not always bring profits. Some of Boeing’s most innovative airplanes have been money-losers.

Boeing 247: The first modern airliner
It started with a crash.

On the morning of March 31, 1931, Transcontinental and Western Air Flight 599 took off from Kansas City, Mo., headed for Wichita, Kansas, the first stop on the way to Los Angeles. Six passengers and two pilots crowded into the Fokker F.10 trimotor. Like nearly all commercial planes of the day, it was loud, slow and made of wood, metal and fabric held together with struts, braces and glue.

About an hour into the flight, the Fokker’s left wing snapped. The plane plunged into an open field. Everyone on board died, including University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. The 43-year-old Rockne was already a national hero and had been traveling to Hollywood, where Universal Pictures was making a movie about him, “The Spirit of Notre Dame.”

The crash grabbed headlines across the country. It also effectively ended the era of wood-framed passenger planes. But the only all-metal plane available at the time, the Ford Trimotor, was slow and expensive to run.

In Seattle, Boeing engineers came up with a design that was unlike any prior airplane: Boeing Model 247. The struts, braces and glue were gone. It was made by riveting panels to a metal frame — the same as modern jetliners. It looked like it was built for speed, but it had been designed around passengers, with room for 10 and a lavatory. Boeing engineers studied the size and needs of the average flyer.

“Passenger requirements were the starting points,” the industry magazine Aviation reported in its April 1933 edition.

The 247 was cheaper to maintain, and bigger and faster — much faster — than any other passenger plane in the air. Instantly, it set a new standard for the propeller era and cemented the place of design features still in use today, including wings held in place with an internal frame.

In Seattle, 15,000 people turned out to get the first public look at the 247 at the United Air Lines hangar at Boeing Field.

United had ordered 60 of the planes. The air carrier was part of the conglomerate formed in the late 1920s by Boeing and engine maker Pratt & Whitney.

Other airlines wanted the new 247, too. But Boeing would not deliver any plane to the competition before United had its 60. So the competition went to other airplane makers. In California, Douglas Aircraft learned from the 247’s shortcomings and developed the DC-2. When it first flew in 1934, the 247 was suddenly obsolete. Douglas followed with the DC-3, which dominated the commercial market.

Boeing sold only 75 of the first modern airliner.

Boeing 307: Flying higher
The 1930s were rough for Boeing. Boeing’s conglomerate, United Aircraft and Transport Corp., was busted up by Congress, which passed antitrust legislation in 1934 that said airplane makers can’t own airlines. The company slashed its workforce from more than 1,700 that year to 613 in 1935. The crackdown prompted founder Bill Boeing to quit the industry altogether.

That year, “everything seemed to be going backward. Everything,” wrote Harold Mansfield, head of Boeing public relations at the time, in his memoir, “Vision: The Story of Boeing.”

The company lost money during much of the 1930s and depended on federal contracts to keep going. Faced with so much uncertainty, Boeing production workers joined the Machinists union. The engineers formed their own union in the early 1940s.

Boeing couldn’t compete head-to-head with the DC-2 and DC-3, so the company leapt past Douglas with the Boeing 307 Stratoliner, the first pressurized passenger plane.

Before the 307, planes were not pressurized and had to fly relatively low to the ground, where they were buffeted by turbulence and weather. Boeing engineers figured out how to regulate the airplane’s cabin pressure, allowing it to smoothly increase and decrease as the Stratoliner climbed or descended.

“That was the key breakthrough,” said Mike Lavelle, an aviation historian and former Boeing employee.

The plane could cruise 20,000 feet above sea level, making for a smoother and faster ride. Few orders came in, though.

The 307 was designed for long routes, but most airlines flew short routes, due to the technological limitations of the era’s planes. While airlines had little interest in the Stratoliner, Boeing couldn’t make B-17 bombers fast enough for the U.S. military, Lavelle said.

Boeing stopped making 307s in favor of warplane production. In the end, Boeing only built 10 307 Stratoliners, including one for eccentric billionaire and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, who helped finance and design the revolutionary airplane.

Boeing put what it learned about pressurization into its B-29 Superfortress, which helped defeat Japan.

Boeing 707: The Jet Age
World War II might have killed the Stratoliner, but it positioned Boeing to dominate the Jet Age.

After the war, the idea of jetliners grabbed Boeing engineers’ imaginations. Boeing exec George Schairer told Aviation Week in 1954: “We couldn’t restrain some of our people from making design layouts at home at night.”

The company considered several designs before settling on what became the Boeing 707. The sweptwing, four-engine jetliner would forever change how people travel and would make the world a bit smaller.

Boeing wasn’t the first airplane maker to introduce a jetliner. British, Canadian, French and Soviet jets flew first. But Boeing turned its tardiness to an advantage. It used lessons learned by those earlier jets to improve the 707. Those lessons included two de Havilland Comets that broke up in flight — the consequence of the industry’s ignorance of the physical stresses that high-altitude jet travel puts on an airplane.

The 707 was “aimed at re-establishing the company at the top of the commercial market in the jet age,” Aviation Week reporter Richard Sweeney wrote in 1958.

The genius of the 707 is that Boeing engineers harnessed the new technologies so airlines could make money.

The 707 introduced the Jet Age, outselling all competitors. Boeing brought jet travel to smaller markets with the 727 in 1963.

Boeing 747: Shrinking the world
The world got a lot smaller in the late 1960s after the Boeing 747 made long-haul flying possible. The powerful four-engine airplane connected far-flung cities.

“It brought in a whole new passenger experience,” said Scott Hamilton, an aviation industry consultant and owner of Leeham Co. in Issaquah.

The plane introduced the powerful and efficient high-bypass-ratio turbofan jet engines, which eclipsed anything else at the time.

Speaking at Boeing’s 50th anniversary in July 1966, Pan Am CEO Juan Trippe called the plane “a bold and gigantic venture in the best tradition of American industry.”

It would be “a great new weapon for peace,” he said. “There can be no atom bomb potentially more powerful than the air tourist, charged with curiosity, enthusiasm and good will, who can roam the four corners of the world, meeting in friendship and understanding the people of other nations and races.”

Boeing 767: Pioneering twinjet travel
In the 1970s, big four- and three-engine jetliners dominated international travel. Regulators did not allow two-engine airliners — or twinjets — to fly more than 60 minutes from the nearest airport, in case one engine failed. That rule meant much of the world was off-limits for twinjets.
In the late 1970s, Boeing began developing its first twin-aisle twinjet, the 767, as well as the single-aisle 757. The planes took advantage of improved aerodynamics and bigger, more efficient jet engines.

As airlines started using 767s in the early 1980s, the aviation industry was starting to reconsider the need for airplanes with three or four engines, which are more expensive to maintain than twinjets. Aviation regulators tapped the 767 to prove that twinjets could safely fly long-haul and transoceanic routes.

The plane proved the case, and regulators doubled how far twinjets could fly from the nearest airport. By the end of the decade, 767s dominated transatlantic flights.

The 767 started to undo airlines’ hub-and-spoke flight system. Airlines could now afford more direct flights, skipping hub airports. The hub-and-spoke system still dominates, but air travel continues to evolve away from it.

Boeing 787: Evolving technology
The super-efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliner has continued the assault on hub-and-spoke systems begun by the 767. Airlines have used the 787 to open dozens of long routes.

The 787 has proven that a big commercial jetliner can be made from composite material, which had been used in smaller amounts for decades. Most of its efficiency, though, comes from new engines from Rolls Royce and GE. Lessons learned from the plane will mean greater weight savings in future airplane designs.

While the 787 is a money-maker for airlines, Boeing has lost more than $32 billion in building and selling the first 363 Dreamliners. Many industry watchers are skeptical Boeing will recoup the full cost of the airplane’s development. Company execs remain optimistic.

It wouldn’t be the first time Boeing lost money on a technological leap. Revolutionary designs don’t guarantee commercial success. Indeed, Boeing has made the most money off the 737 and 777 — great designs, but not revolutionary.

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