Home Safety Apparel FreightWaves Classics: The commercial jet age began in 1959

FreightWaves Classics: The commercial jet age began in 1959

The first transcontinental commercial jet flight in the United States occurred on January 25, 1959, inaugurating the jet age for passenger and cargo aircraft.

At 12:01 p.m. an American Airlines Boeing 707 departed Los Angeles International Airport on its way to New York City. To mark the occasion, Bernice Brown, the wife of California Governor Edmund G.  Brown, pressed the buttons to start the airplane’s jet engines. 

The festive and historic west-east flight across the United States lasted just over four hours for the 112 passengers on board. The Boeing 707 landed – “like a snowflake,” according to one newspaper account at the time – onto an icy runway at Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport). 

During the welcoming ceremonies at Idlewild, world-famous poet Carl Sandburg addressed those in attendance. “We salute the intelligence and the daring of man that has wrought this strange and blessed device, now so familiarly known as the passenger jet plane,” he said. “And don’t we all know this is only a beginning and a promise.” 

At the conclusion of the ceremonies, the aircraft and the same passengers were flown back to Los Angeles by a different American Airlines crew. Because of headwinds, the east-west return flight lasted six hours and 22 minutes.

About the Boeing 707

A long-range, narrow-body airliner, the Boeing 707 was developed and produced by Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The company’s first jetliner, it was developed from the Boeing 367-80, a prototype airplane first flown in 1954. 

The first 707 flight took place on December 20, 1957. Pan American World Airways started 707 service on October 26, 1958. 

Variants of the 707 were manufactured until 1979. The 707 had a swept wing with four podded engines. Its larger fuselage allowed seating for six passengers per row in the economy section, a feature that was retained in the later Boeing 720, 727, 737 and 757 models.

At one time, Air Force One (the airplane that flew U.S. presidents) was a Boeing 707. 
(Photo: airforceone-ny.tripod.com)
At one time, Air Force One (the airplane that flew U.S. presidents) was a Boeing 707.
(Photo: airforceone-ny.tripod.com)

Although the 707 was not the first commercial jetliner in service, it was the first to be purchased in large numbers and is often credited with being the airplane that began the Jet Age. The 707 dominated passenger air transport in the 1960s, and remained in use through the 1970s. The aircraft were used by airlines on domestic, transcontinental and trans-Atlantic flights. The 707 was also used for cargo and military applications. 

The 707 also helped Boeing become a dominant global aircraft manufacturer. The first 707 model, the 145-foot-long 707-120, was powered by Pratt & Whitney JT3C turbojet engines. “The shortened long-range 707-138 and the more powerful 707-220 entered service in 1959.” The 707-300/400 series had a longer range and were heavier aircraft. Therefore, they were fitted with a larger wing and were 8 feet longer than the 707-120. Equipped with Pratt & Whitney JT4A turbojets, the 707-320 entered service in 1959. The 707-420 was equipped with Rolls-Royce Conway turbofans and entered service in 1960.

Boeing also introduced the 720, a lighter short-range variant, in 1960. The 707-120B was introduced in 1961 and the 707-320B was introduced the following year. Both were equipped with Pratt & Whitney JT3D turbofans. The 707-120B was capable of flying 137 passengers in two classes or 174 passengers in one class. It was capable of flying over 3,600 nautical miles (nmi). Carrying 141 passengers in two classes, the 707-320/420 could fly 3,750 nmi, while the 707-320B was capable of flying up to 5,000 nmi. 

Boeing 707s were also used as air cargo freighters, like the one above used by Reliant Airlines. (Photo: airline-empires.com)
Boeing 707s were also used as air cargo freighters, like the one above used by Reliant Airlines. (Photo: airline-empires.com)

In 1963, the 707-320C convertible passenger-freighter model began service. Over the decades, many passenger 707s were phased out of passenger service and converted to freighter configurations. Military variations of the 707  included the E-3 Sentry airborne reconnaissance aircraft and the C-137 Stratoliner VIP transport. 

A total of 865 Boeing 707s were produced and delivered. In addition, 154 Boeing 720s were manufactured and delivered to customers.

While the 707 may seem primitive now when it is compared to the commercial aircraft of the 2000s, it was the airplane that revolutionized the airline industry.

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