Boeing's Post-War Commercial Aviation Activities
By Judy Rumerman, U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
When World War II ended in August 1945, the U.S. government cancelled
most orders for bomber aircraft, which had been a mainstay of the aircraft
industry. Total industry production dropped from 96,000 airplanes in 1944
to 1,330 military aircraft in 1946. Companies like Boeing turned to the
commercial market to try to supplement whatever military orders they could
find, as well as find ways to diversify into entirely non-aeronautical
activities such as building automobiles.
The Stratocruiser, a luxurious version of the C-97 transport plane, was
Boeing's first commercial venture after the war. First flying in 1947, it
was moderately successful—55 were sold—but it was not quite enough to
pull the company out of its post-war slump. The company's doldrums were
further aggravated by a strike of 14,800 union members in April 1948 over
the issue of seniority. The strike lasted into September and virtually
shut down production.
Boeing's first successful commercial aircraft in the post-war era was
the 367-80, called the Dash 80. Its development
began in 1952, and the plane first flew in July 1954. This plane combined
features of the military B-47 and B-52 with a large cabin size. Although
the Dash 80 was a gamble—Boeing sank $16 million of the company's
profits into its development—it was a success. It became the model for
both the KC-135 Stratotanker and the Model 707-120,
Boeing's first commercial jet airliner and a direct competitor to the Douglas
Pan American Airway's Juan Trippe
ordered the first 707s after their 1957 introduction. He ordered 20 at the
same time that he ordered 25 DC-8s from Douglas. The 707 was soon flying
across the Atlantic Ocean. Two 707s, designated VC-137C, were specially
adopted for use as Air Force One, and remained in service until 1990. It
also was modified for use as the E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System
(AWACS), produced until 1991.
The 727 airliner followed in 1963. This plane was
designed to serve smaller airports and could operate on shorter runways
than the 707. It was Boeing's only tri-jet and its sales started out
slowly. To help create interest, Boeing sent the plane on a 76,000-mile
(122,310-kilometer) tour of 26 countries. The gamut worked and more than
1,800 planes were sold, many more than the 250 Boeing had originally
planned to build.
The president flies a
Boeing 747. Here Air Force One is seen flying over
The 737 debuted in 1967. Smaller than the 707 and
727, it faced heavy competition from the Douglas DC-9
and the British Aircraft Corporation BAC-111. It
was quieter and vibrated less than earlier planes and could be flown with
just a two-member flight crew. On June 12, 1987, orders for the plane
surpassed the 727, making it the most ordered commercial plane in history.
Boeing's most famous aircraft is undoubtedly its 747
wide-body jumbo jet. Conceived in the spring of 1965, largely at the
instigation of Pan Am's Trippe, the first 747 rolled out on September 30,
1968. The first flight took place on February 9, 1969, and it entered
service in January 1970. In 1990, two 747s became the new Air Force One,
replacing the 707s that had served in that role for almost 30 years.
About the same time that Boeing was sinking its money into the 747, it
was also attempting to develop America's first supersonic transport (SST).
In the early 1960s, fearful about being left behind in the SST race, the
U.S. government asked its aerospace companies to submit a design to
compete with Europe's future Concorde. At the
end of 1966, the government chose Boeing's design over Lockheed's,
and the company began work on a prototype. Hard economic times and
mounting environmental concerns, though, combined to force the program's
cancellation in March 1971, after more than $500 million of federal funds
had been sunk into the program.
From 1968, Boeing carried out a major internal restructuring.
Eliminating some divisions and creating others, its Commercial Airplane
Division remained the largest in the company. Thornton "T"
Wilson became president in 1968 and had to deal with the problems
associated with the 747. In 1969, company profits declined to only $10
The 1970s were extremely hard times for Boeing. The United States was
in a recession, and sales of commercial aircraft were slow. The 747 had
not yet established itself in the market, and the company went for one
18-month period without a single new domestic order for any of its
airliners. In the Seattle area alone, Boeing's workforce plummeted from
80,400 in early 1970 to 37,200 in October 1971. All of Seattle suffered,
and a billboard on the city's edge read: "Will the last person
leaving Seattle turn out the lights." Wilson remained as president
until 1972, when Malcolm Stamper, who had led the 747 program, took the
post, which he held until 1985. Another reorganization at the end of 1972
resulted in the formation for three largely autonomous companies: Boeing
Commercial Airplane, Boeing Aerospace, and Boeing Vertol for helicopters.
The country began to recover by 1983, and airlines once again began
buying Boeing aircraft. The environment had changed, however, during the
downturn. Fuel prices had risen and environmental concerns had come to the
forefront. Planes had to be faster, quieter, and more energy efficient.
The export market also grew, and in 1988, Boeing was ranked third among
all industrial exporters, with $17 billion in sales. Cost control was a
high priority, and Boeing cut its workforce from a 1989 peak of 165,000 to
below 120,000 by 1993.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Boeing concurrently developed the 767
The 767 served in the medium to long-range market, carrying about 220
passengers. Like the 747, it was a wide-body plane with two aisles but
with the efficiency of the smaller 757. In December 1991, a modified 767
was adopted to carry the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System)—an
airborne system of radar and electronic equipment that allows control of
the total air effort in a battle area. The twin-engine 757, designed to
replace the 727, rolled out in 1982. It could seat about 200 passengers in
its original model and up to 290 passengers in its newer model. Orders for
the two planes were slow after their initial group of orders but increased
significantly in 1980 when Delta Air Lines
ordered 60 757s.
The model 777, first flown in June 1994 and delivered in May 1995, was
the first entirely new Boeing airplane in more than a decade. It
represented a major advance in being designed almost entirely by computer.
A large twin-jet, it could hold more than 400 people, about the same as
the 747. About the same time, Boeing introduced updated 737 versions with
various passenger capacities. Total 737 orders neared 3,000 in 1996.
At the end of 1996, Boeing surprised industry observers by announcing a
bid for acquisition of McDonnell Douglas, one of Boeing's main
competitors. McDonnell Douglas agreed to the merger, and a single company
with more than 220,000 employees was formed. In 2001, Boeing remains the
only American provider of commercial aircraft, competing with Europe's Airbus
Industrie for the world's airliner market.
Note: This article was commissioned by and
first appeared on NASA's U.S. Centennial of Flight web site. It
appears here with permission. We gratefully acknowledge both the author