when did the jet age begin? -- 12/12/22

Today's selection -- from Numbers Don't Lie by Vaclav Smil. The jet age began in 1958 with the transatlantic flight of a new Pan Am Boeing 707, the first regularly scheduled flight from New York to Paris:

"Dating the dawn of the jet age is hard because there were so many different 'firsts.' The first experimental takeoff of a jet-powered airplane was that of a warplane, the German Heinkel He 178, in August 1939 (fortunately, it entered the service too late to affect the outcome of the Second World War). The first flight of the first com­mercial design, the British de Havilland DH 106 Comet, was in July 1949, and its first British Overseas Airways Corporation commercial flight was in 1952. But four disasters (in October 1952 near Rome; in May 1953 in Calcutta; in January 1954, again near Rome; and in April 1954 near Naples) grounded the Comet fleet, and a re­designed airplane made the first transatlantic flight on October 4, 1958. Meanwhile, the Soviet Tupolev Tu-104 entered domestic service in September 1956.

"But you can make a strong argument that the jet age began on October 26, 1958, when a Pan Am Boeing 707 took off from Idlewild Airport (now JFK Inter­national Airport) to Paris, on the first of its daily scheduled flights.

An Army band on the tarmac at New York’s Idlewild Airport serenaded passengers as they boarded the Pan Am Clipper America for its maiden transatlantic flight on October 26, 1958 -- only 10 days after Boeing delivered the airplane.

"Several reasons justify that choice. The redesigned Comet was too small and unprofitable to begin a design dynasty, and there were no successor models. Meanwhile, Tupolev's aircraft were used only by the countries of the Soviet bloc. The Boeing 707, however, inaugurated the industry's most successful design family, one that pro­gressed relentlessly by adding another 10 models to its varied lineup.

"The three-engine Boeing 727 was the first follow-on, in 1963; the four-engine 747, introduced in 1969, was perhaps the most revolutionary design in modern avi­ation; and the latest addition, the 787 Dreamliner series introduced in 20n, is made mostly of carbon fiber com­posites and is now able to fly on routes longer than 17 hours.

"The 707 had a military pedigree: the plane started as a prototype of an in-air refueling tanker, and further development led to the KC-135A Stratotanker and finally to a four-engine passenger plane powered by small­-diameter Pratt & Whitney turbojet engines, each with about 50 kilonewtons of thrust. By comparison, each of the two General Electric GEnx-1B high-bypass turbo­fan engines powering today's 787 delivers more than 300 kilonewtons at takeoff.

"The first scheduled flight of the 707 Clipper America on October 26, 1958 was preceded by a welcoming ceremony, a speech by Juan Trippe (Pan Am's then­ president), and a performance by a US Army band. The 111 passengers and 12 crew members had to make an unscheduled stop at Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, Canada, but even so they were able to land at Paris-Le Bourget Airport 8 hours and 41 min­utes after leaving New York. By December the plane was flying the New York-Miami route, and in January 1959 it began to make the first transcontinental flights, from New York to Los Angeles.

"Before the introduction of the wide-bodies -- first the Boeing 747, and then the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and the Lockheed L-1011 in 1970 -- Boeing 707s were the dominant long-distance jetliners. One of them brought me and my wife from Europe to the United
States in 1969.

"Gradual improvements in the Boeing family resulted in a vastly superior plane. In a standard two-class (busi­ness and economy) configuration, the first Dreamliner could seat about 100 more people than the 707-120, with a maximum takeoff weight nearly twice as great and a max­imum range almost twice as long. Yet the Dreamliner consumes 70 percent less fuel per passenger-kilometer. And because it is built from carbon composites, the 787 can be pressurized to simulate a lower altitude than an aluminum fuselage will allow, resulting in greater comfort for passengers.

"Eventually, Boeing made just over a thousand 707s. When Pan Am brought the plane out of retirement for a 25th-anniversary commemorative flight in 1983, it flew most of the original crew as passengers to Paris. But that was not the end of 707 service. A number of non-US airlines flew different models until the 1990s, and Iran's Saha Airlines did so as late as 2013.

"Although today the 707 can be found only in jet junk­yards, the plane's place in history remains secure. It represents the first effective and rewarding step in the evolution of commercial jet flight."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Vaclav Smil


Numbers Don't Lie: 71 Stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World


Penguin Books


Copyright 2020 by Vaclav Smil


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