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The 80 turns 50

May 15, 2004, by Bill Cawthon

Fifty years ago last Friday was a sunny day in Renton, Washington. Boeing Company founder William Boeing and his wife, Bertha, were among the thousands in attendance as a large yellow-and-brown airplane was towed into view. This was the first public showing of the Boeing 367-80 jet, known in Boeing circles simply as the "Dash 80." The Renton High School Band played the Air Force theme song as Bertha Boeing christened the new plane with champagne.

The Boeing 367-80 photographed at its rollout on May 14, 1954. Image courtesy of Boeing Media.

The Dash 80 was America's first jet aircraft designed for commercial passenger travel as well as military applications. As the prototype for the legendary Boeing 707, it's also the ancestor of the nearly 15,000 Boeing jetliners built since then. As a matter of fact, the Dash 80 set the pattern for almost every large commercial passenger jet flying today.

Development of the Dash 80 was driven by two factors: the end of World War II and the resumption of commercial aviation. With the end of the war, aircraft companies were left without the massive orders for military aircraft. Furthermore, the development of jet engines, led by the Germans and British, meant the writing was on the wall for piston-engined, propeller-driven airplanes. Boeing had the 377 Stratocruiser, a prop-driven airliner based on the B-29 bomber that first flew in 1947. Though it was a vast improvement over prewar planes, the Stratocruiser was not a commercial success and Boeing sold only 56 copies, losing other sales to the rival Douglas DC-6 and Lockheed Constellation. Fortunately for the company's finances, the C-97, a military version of the Stratocruiser, brought in far more orders as a tanker and cargo airplane.

By the time it entered passenger service, the 707 had been lengthened and widened to allow the six-wide seating required by Pan American. Image courtesy of Boeing Media.

Driven by the need to chart a new course for the company's future, Boeing president William M. Allen almost literally bet the farm on the new aircraft. On August 30, 1952, Boeing announced it would go ahead with production of the Dash 80, even though the company had no orders in hand. The project aircraft was called the 367-80 to mislead competitors into thinking the new plane was a refinement of the Stratocruiser. After an investment of $16 million, totally funded by the company and representing almost two-thirds of Boeing's postwar profits, the first plane rolled out of the factory on Friday May 14, 1954.

Two months later, on July 15, 1954, the thirty-eighth anniversary of the Boeing Company, the Dash 80 made its maiden flight.

The Dash 80 was not the first jetliner; that honor goes to the de Havilland DH 106 Comet, which first flew on July 27, 1949 and entered commercial service in 1952. In fact, the U.S. was third to add jet service; the Soviet Union's Tupolev Tu-104, a variation on the Tu-16 "Badger" bomber that even kept the military plane's transparent nose, began carrying passengers in October 1956, two years before the first American commercial flight, despite the fact it had only flown for the first time on June 17, 1955, almost a year after the maiden flight of the Dash 80. However, a series of crashes beginning in 1953, as well as limited range and payload, doomed the Comet and the Tupolev Tu-104 was never adopted outside the Soviet bloc.

The refurbished Dash 80 lifts off for its trip to the nation's capital and a new home at the Smithsonian. Image courtesy of Boeing Media.

With its wings swept back 35 degrees and four Pratt & Whitney JT3 turbojet engines mounted below the wings (a practice Boeing adopted from its successful B-47 and B-52 bombers), the Dash 80 was a vast improvement over the other planes. It was 100 mph faster than the Comet and significantly larger with a range of more than 3,500 miles vs. 1,750 miles for the British jet. It could carry more passengers and cargo than either the British or Soviet jets. The Dash 80 was also easier to service than either the Comet or Tupolev, both of which had their engines mounted in pods next to the fuselage.

Over the next few years, the Dash 80 set new speed records each time it flew. On March 11, 1957, the Dash "dashed" from Seattle to Baltimore in 3 hours 48 minutes at an average speed of 612 mph. One famous feat came earlier, in the summer of 1955. Legendary Boeing test pilot Tex Johnston was at the controls for what was supposed to be a simple publicity flyover of the hydroplane races on Lake Washington. Thousands of spectators and dozens of stunned Boeing executives watched as Johnston decided to demonstrate the plane's strength and performance with an impromptu double barrel roll over the lake.

The Boeing Dash 80 on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. In the foreground is the Boeing 307 Stratoliner. Image courtesy of Boeing Media.

It may surprise you to learn the prototype for the modern jetliner had no seats other than those for its crew of three. Allen had hedged his bets, hoping for military orders, and the Dash 80 was configured for cargo with two large loading doors. Allen's gamble paid off, as one week after the maiden flight, the Air Force ordered 29 of the new planes to be configured as the aerial tanker that would become the KC-135.

Once the plane had been unveiled, there was no longer any need for subterfuge. There would only be one Boeing 367-80. It and all future civilian planes in the line would thereafter be called Boeing 707s.

On October 26, 1958, a longer version of the 707, widened to accommodate the six-across seating requested by Juan Terry Trippe, entered commercial service with Pan American World Airways, flying between New York and Paris, beating the rival Douglas DC-8 by almost a year.

Variations on the original Dash 80 remained in production from 1957 to 1991. By the time the 707 line was closed in May 1991, Boeing had delivered 1,010 707s and 820 KC/C-135s. Even though the last KC-135 left the assembly line in 1965, more than five hundred are still in service as flying filling stations for the Air Force. Special versions of the 707, designated VC-137s, were put into service transporting government officials, including the President of the United States. [Author's Note: An aircraft is only "Air Force One" when the President is aboard. The 707-320Bs used by the President between 1958 and 1990 had tail numbers of 26000 and 27000.]

One of the newest models in Herpa's Wings Collection is this 707 decorated for Air Force One. Original photos courtesy of Herpa/Promotex.

The original Dash 80 took a different route. It became a flying laboratory for Boeing, even sprouting a fifth engine mounted in the rear of the fuselage as Boeing tried out the tri-engine configuration for the first 727. At other times, it was used to test new components like engine-thrust reversers and sound suppressers, radar and radar antennas, and even different paints. Boeing tried flying the plane with three different types of engines installed simultaneously and fitted it with oversize tires to demonstrate it could operate from mud fields barely able to support a car.

In 1972, Boeing retired the Dash 80, donating it to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Until May 1990, the Dash 80 sat in the Arizona desert. Then, by a special arrangement with the Smithsonian, Boeing returned the plane to its Seattle facilities, where a team of retirees and employees began restoring the Dash 80 to its original condition, just as they did with the last surviving Boeing 307 Stratoliner ("An Aviation Legend Lives Again," July 15, 2001).

On July 15, 1991, thirty-seven years after its first flight and in honor Boeing's seventy-fifth anniversary, the refurbished Dash 80 took to the skies once again, making a special flyover of all Boeing facilities in the Puget Sound area.

The Dash 80's final flight began on August 24, 2003, when it lifted off on the first leg of a journey to Washington Dulles Airport. After it landed on August 27, it was transported to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's nearby Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia where it stands near the Stratoliner as part of a collection that will ultimately include 200 historically significant aircraft.

While they don't offer a model of the original Dash 80, Herpa several 707s in both 1:400 and 1:500 in their Wings collection, including Pan Am N880PA "Clipper Emerald Isle". One of Herpa's June new releases will be 707-300 Tail Number 27000, the second 707 to serve as the President's official aircraft. SAM 27000 (SAM stands for "Special Air Missions) replaced SAM 26000 in December 1972. Check out the assortment of Wings 707s while you're here at Promotex Online.

Please note that all images credited to Boeing Media are copyright İ 2004 The Boeing Company.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 25, 2005