Whenever Frank Sinatra sang “Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away,” the image of a Boeing 707, all etched-white vapour trails jetting across some deep blue transcontinental stratosphere, could never be far from mind. This song was from Sinatra’s album of the same name. It was released in January 1958, a month after the epochal, swept-wing jet airliner made its maiden flight. Before the year was out, the sleek 707 was in service with Pan-Am. It was to change the way we fly and see the world.

Curiously, the graphic designer working for Capitol Records appeared to have been behind the times. The artwork for Come Fly With Me shows a snappily dressed Sinatra taking the hand of a girl as he cocks his thumb towards a TWA Lockheed Constellation, the last of the great American piston-engine airliners. Constellations were to be pushed aside by the all-conquering 707, an aircraft synonymous with the new jet age and a design that led, step by rapid step, to the Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo Jet’ and the era of mass air-travel. The 707 might have been one of the most glamorous of all forms of transport when it entered service with Pan-Am, yet its very success led ultimately to the horrendous and heartbreakingly banal conditions the majority of us fly in today.

As for Sinatra, he so admired the new 707 – the aircraft that should have been on the sleeve of Come Fly With Me – that he bought his very own. This was an ex-Qantas 707, built in 1964, that, since 1998, has belonged to John Travolta, Hollywood star and pilot. Travolta’s estate in Florida has its own runway. Some people like to gaze at the curves of their prize classic car, or latest Ferrari: Travolta opts for the sight of a four-engine, 600mph jet.  

The 707 began as a discussion and some sketches in 1949 when Boeing engineers Ed Wells, George Schairer and John Alexander began thinking about a swept-wing jet airliner. Boeing was an innovative company and its military aircraft were second to none. Ed Wells, for example, appointed Boeing’s chief engineer in 1943, had worked on the design of the famous B-17 Flying Fortress bomber of which 12,731 were built. Boeing’s subsequent B-29 Superfortress, B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress bombers were all aviation milestones and commercially successful. In the field of civil aviation, however, Boeing played a very junior fiddle to its rivals Douglas, of DC-3 or ‘Dakota’ fame, and Lockheed, with its pre-war Electra and post-war Constellation. In fact, Boeing had lost money on virtually all its airliners including its latest, and last, piston-engine design, the 377 Stratocruiser of which just 46 were built for a deficit of $13.5m.

Taking off

The British were first to build a jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet. It went into service with BOAC in 1952, but several fatal accidents caused by airframe failure led to its withdrawal. The French and the Russians were pushing ahead with jet designs, but the tussle for the global market was essentially between Douglas and Boeing.

Boeing was first into the air with its 367-80, or ‘Dash 80’, the prototype of the 707 which made its maiden flight in July 1954. Powered by a version of the same Pratt & Whitney turbojets fitted to USAF F-100 Super-Sabre fighter jets and B-52 Stratofortresses, the Dash 80 was very fast. No passenger aircraft had flown at 550mph in level flight before. It could handle, too. In August 1955, Tex Johnston, Boeing’s chief test pilot, barrel-rolled the precious aircraft over Lake Washington. While this is not something any of us would want our pilots to do while we toy with cocktails at 35,000ft over the Atlantic, potential buyers watching from the ground that summer day could hardly fail to have been impressed.

The race was still on, though, between Douglas, which had yet to build its superficially identical DC-8, and Boeing. Pan-Am, the airline forever associated with the 707, ordered 20 707s and, at the very same time, 25 DC-8s. What was holding Boeing back was the fact that the 707 was narrower and slightly smaller than the DC-8. When William Allen, Boeing’s president offered American Airlines an extra half-inch in width over the DC-8, he won an order for fifty 707s. From that moment, the sales success of the Boeing was assured.

Boeing built 1,010 707s for commercial airlines between 1958 and 1978, and a further 800 for the military up until 1991, while Douglas assembled 556 DC-8s between 1958 and 1972. Allen had invested, or, as the media liked to say, gambled, $135m on the 707 programme, or more than the net worth of Boeing at the time. Although 707s were not particularly profitable – there were many variations and the company bent over backwards to please customers – the aircraft’s dominance of intercontinental flight in the 1960s led to profitable future airliners, including the Jumbo, and to a point when three-quarters of all civil airliners were Boeings.

A lyrical promotional film from 1959, The Wonderful Jet World of Pan-American, captures the magic of flying by 707 in an era when passengers dressed up to fly, when aircrews were seen as glamorous and when the age of ‘no frills’ budget airlines was all but inconceivable. What is fascinating is just how much attention Pan-Am devoted to its beloved airliners. Today, the millions of casually dressed passengers squeezed onto lookalike aircraft rarely glance at the machines that will wing them across continents. Airlines, meanwhile, sell themselves through cheap fares, in-flight entertainment and destinations rather than aircraft themselves. Boeing, though, has persevered, promoting its latest 787 as the ‘Dreamliner’, even when most flights are nightmares.

The Boeing 707 had, of course, been designed for a less crowded age. Even so, it was stretched over time with later models seating up to 189 passengers. The airlines it served from the beginning – Pan-Am, TWA – have long gone, while Saha Air, an airline based in Tehran, ceased active operations last year, and with it the world’s last 707s in regular passenger service.

Hugely popular in its heyday, and a symbol of a new, high-flying age powered by forward-looking technology and design, the 707 featured not just in films and songs, but in fashionable product launches like Jantzen’s 1957 ‘707’ swimwear. Films like Boeing, Boeing (1965), starring Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis are probably best forgotten – Come Fly With Me, a British effort from 1963 is far worse – but the aircraft itself remains a superb achievement, a magnificent commercial gamble and a truly great design. “If it ain’t Boeing”, went the cliche, “I’m not going”. The 707 was not perfect – by today’s standards it was a noisy gas guzzler, but for better or worse it changed the way we fly.

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