A History of Commercial Airliners
From 1913 a young Russian designer, Igor Sikorsky, set his mind to develop large aircraft. Sikorsky invented a giant airplane (the Grand) with four engines and a wingspan of 88ft 7in. Naysayers said it would never fly, but fly it did, with eight passengers on board.
Sikorsky outdid himself with the "Il'ya Muromets." 77ft long, with a wingspan 105ft, it weighed over 12,000lbs fully loaded and could carry sixteen passengers. Passengers could relax in a heated cabin with electric lights, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a balcony for viewing the spectacular sights from aloft. In 1914, it flew eight hours non-stop on its way to completing a 1,600 mile, 26 hour roundtrip flight between St. Petersburg and Kiev. In this plane, Sikorsky had invented the forerunner of passenger airliners and heavy bombers.
Igor Sikorsky (1889-1972) was born in Kiev, Ukraine. As a boy he was fascinated by Jules Verne and Leonardo da Vinci. In 1918, he escaped the Bolshevik Communists and moved to America, where he was to pioneer the mass production of helicopters in 1939.
Passenger Airline Service
Daily scheduled airline service began between London and Paris in 1919—with passengers braving the open cockpit through freezing cold, bone-shaking vibrations, deafening noise, and sickening turbulence. The main attraction was the thrill of soaring into the heavens and looking down at the earth below.
The 1919 Convention of Paris dashed the hopes of early aviators that the skies above the earth would have no boundaries—a "free and universal thoroughfare." Instead it was decreed that each country had "complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory."
Germany emerged as the world leader of passenger air transport in the 1920s, with the most advanced technology. In 1926, the German government formed a national airline, Lufthansa. The governments of France (Air France, 1933) and Britain (BOAC, 1939) followed suit.
The earliest national airline had been founded by the Netherlands in 1919, KLM. By 1929, KLM was regularly flying the longest scheduled route in the world—an eight-day trip from the Netherlands to Jakarta, Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies).
The Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited—thankfully shortened to Qantas—was founded in 1920 as a private company by a pair of pilots.
Lufthansa pioneered the in-flight movie in 1925. The fact it was a silent movie was just as well since one could not have heard the sound above the deafening roar of the engines anyway.
The Curtiss Condor was the first aircraft to offer a soundproof cabin. It was so quiet inside that people could carry on a conversation or listen to the radio. This seemed a miracle to passengers. In addition, the wide fuselage allowed for 12 sleeping berths. By 1938, a Lufthansa Condor airliner was conducting nonstop flights from Berlin to New York in 25 hours.
The Lockheed Model 10 Electra was unveiled in 1934, the most stylish and fastest of the first generation airliners. It would cruise at 190mph with a full load of ten passengers plus mail and freight. 149 of the Model 10s were built before the Model 14 Super Electra took its place in 1937—one of which Howard Hughes flew around the world in less than four days.
In 1930, a young nurse from Iowa named Ellen Church, who was a flying enthusiast, persuaded Boeing Air Transport to hire her and seven other nurses as stewardesses. Church made the case that since virtually all of the pilots and passengers were men, the presence of females on board—particularly licensed nurses—would encourage people to regard flying as safe. The idea of women looking after the needs of air passengers, and their comfort, quickly spread throughout the industry.
The first stewardesses worked on the Boeing 80s, which had passenger cabins similar to a luxury Pullman railroad car. The passengers sat in plushly upholstered seats surrounded by gorgeous wood paneling and exquisite lighting fixtures. Stewardesses would point out landmarks along the way to the mostly earplug-wearing passengers.
The landmarks were easy to see because airplanes flew much slower and far lower than they do today. Back then, they could not fly above bad weather and bumpy rides were the norm. The stewardesses stood ready with "burp cups" for those who got airsick.
Donald Douglas (1892-1981) was a Scots-American born in Brooklyn. After spending two years at the US Naval Academy, he graduated from MIT with a degree in aeronautical engineering.
At the age of 23, Donald Douglas designed the first American bomber as chief engineer for the Martin Company. Five years later, he quit his high-profile job and moved to California to start his own aircraft manufacturing company.
In the 1930s, the Douglas Company created some of the finest aircraft in the world. The DC-1 (Douglas Commercial aircraft # 1) was developed for TWA after the terrible crash that killed football coach Knute Rockne in 1931. The crash happened because the Fokker F-10 Trimotor had a serious airframe design flaw that ended its life and nearly that of TWA, too.
Only one DC-1 was built before a modified version came out as the DC-2 in 1934, which quickly set 19 speed and distance records.
The 21 passenger DC-3 debuted one year later and by the late 1930s had proved that a profit could be made in aviation by transporting civilians.
The DC-3 was a fabulous aircraft and virtually indestructible. It was reliable and easy to service. An entire engine could be replaced in two hours. The DC-3 could land and take off on nearly any flat surface.
In World War Two, the DC-3 was the workhorse of the Allied forces. Before production stopped, more than 10,000 DC-3s had been built.
Bill Boeing (1881-1956) was born in Detroit, Michigan. He studied engineering at Yale, and then joined his father's lumber business that soon purchased extensive holdings of timberlands around Seattle, Washington. Bill Boeing decided to move to Seattle to run that part of the business.
Boeing bought a seaplane for fun in 1914 but as an engineer found serious fault with its design. So he designed one himself and formed the Boeing Company to manufacture it.
Only ten Boeing 307 Stratoliners were made, but they changed commercial aviation forever. Introduced in 1940, the 307 was the first airliner to feature a pressurized cabin—it could fly above bad weather.
The Boeing 307 Stratoliner cruised at 20,000ft, with turbocharged engines. This gave passengers the smoothest ride in history at the time.
The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser came on line in 1949, but it was so expensive to purchase and had such exorbitant operating costs that it fizzled out after only 55 were sold.
Trans World Airlines (TWA) was founded in 1930 and operated airline service until 2001. Howard Hughes became the majority stockholder in the 1940s. Hughes pushed Lockheed to develop a 40-seat, 3,500 mile-range transcontinental airliner. Lockheed did so, and Hughes helped Kelly Johnson design the finished product: the graceful, elegant, stylish, comfortable Constellation ("Connie") with the extraordinary triple tail. After 1946, TWA challenged Pan American Airlines for global supremacy.
Howard Hughes was wrong in his belief that plywood not metal represented the future of aircraft construction. He did build the largest airplane ever made—before or since—the Spruce Goose. It had a wingspan of 320ft and eight engines. On its only flight in 1947, it made it almost a mile and reached an altitude of 70ft.
Commercial Airliners After Wwii
World War Two produced enormous advances in aviation navigation, radar, and communications. The four-engine DC-6 was a major success for Douglas Aircraft. 700 were manufactured between 1946 and 1958. A few are still flying freight today.
The DC-7 came on line in 1953. It proved to be a superb flying machine as well. 338 were sold by the time production stopped in 1958.
In the 1950s, Qantas and Swissair surprised most with their great success. Between 1945 and 1955, three hours were lopped off the coast-to-coast travel time over the United States. Some planes were now built with bunk beds, or a lounge at the end of spiral staircase.
The British de Havilland Comet was the world's first jet airliner, making its maiden voyage in 1949. Tragically, many of them crashed due to metal fatigue primarily caused by its square windows. All pressurized aircraft have had oval windows ever since. The de Havilland Comet was grounded in 1954.
For the next four years, the only jet airliner operating in the world was the Soviet Tupolev Tu-104.
By 1957, more people crossed the Atlantic Ocean by plane than by ship for the first time. This required fuel stops at Gander, Newfoundland and Shannon, Ireland—places well embedded in aviation folklore. From California and the West Coast, airliners would fly over the North Pole on the way to Europe, cutting the flying time from London to Los Angeles to 19 hours.
A turboprop uses the hot gas inside a turbine engine to drive propellers. This produces far greater power and speed than a piston engine, while achieving better fuel economy than a pure jet engine.
The Vickers Viscount was the first turboprop airliner, and became extremely popular for its smooth, quiet ride. It debuted in 1950 with a 50-passenger configuration. A quarter of all European passenger flights in the 1950s were booked on the Vickers Viscount.
Not to be outdone, the Soviets unveiled the largest airliner in the world in 1957, the turboprop Tupolev Tu-114. It carried 170 passengers with a range of 5,500 miles, and had a cruise speed of 480mph.
The Boeing 707
The era of the passenger jet arrived to stay with the introduction of the Boeing 707 in 1958. The 707 was a huge gamble by Boeing, which invested half the value of the company in its development. Boeing would eventually surpass Douglas as the world's leading airline manufacturer.
The Boeing 707 featured four jet engines and immediately began flying transatlantic routes. It was fairly quiet inside but monstrously loud for people who lived near airports. The 707 cruised at 600mph, nearly cutting long-distance travel times in half. By 1962, its range was up to 4,500 miles.
In the 1960s, Boeing followed up with the enormously successful three-engine 727 and two-engine 737. The Boeing 727 appeared in 1963 as a short-range jet for smaller airports. 1,831 727s were sold by the time they quit making them in 1984, making the 727 an incredible success story.
The 737 is a short, fat jet that debuted in 1967. It is the best-selling jet airliner in the history of the world. 6,638 737s have been delivered and more than 2,000 are on currently on order.
Douglas Aircraft countered with the twin-jet DC-9. After Douglas was sold to McDonnell, a modified DC-9 came out as the MD-80 and then MD-90 and finally as the Boeing 717. 2,400 of the DC-9 and its descendants have been sold.
Commercial Airliners in the 1960s
In the decade of the 1960s, passenger miles flown on airliners more than quadrupled. This produced a massive amount of construction activity at airports to handle the increasing number of passengers. Air Traffic Control also had huge adjustments to make as the hitherto empty skies began to fill up with aircraft.
The term "jet set" was invented by some newspaper men to describe the starlets, pop stars, and their more wealthy followers for whom jet airliners were the "in" thing. They were catered to by glamorous stewardesses, who were purposefully all young, gorgeous women with great bodies.
Eastern Airlines operated from 1926 to 1991. It was once owned by General Motors, which sold it to famous flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker in 1938.
Eastern Airlines, based in Miami, became the most prominent air carrier on the east coast in the 1960s. It was the first airline to put into service the Boeing 727 and the Airbus A300.
The Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet
The Boeing 747 was introduced in 1970. This airplane was so big; it carried three or four times as many passengers as any airliner before the debut of the Airbus A380 in 2007. The 747 is 210ft long and the tail stands six stories high. Most people are still amazed that it can leave the ground.
The Boeing 747 came to be because of two visionaries: Boeing CEO Bill Allen and the legendary Pan Am boss Juan Trippe. Both bet the future of their companies by investing in the creation of the largest, heaviest, most powerful airliner known to man. The 747—nicknamed Jumbo Jet— has a maximum capacity of 490 passengers. With around 1,500 of them sold, the 747 is an incredible success story.
The Wide Bodies Cometh
Airports had to reinforce runways to accommodate the huge new jets. In addition, they had to enlarge their capabilities of handling passengers and baggage from a single flight. Food preparation crews were not prepared to make so many meals at one time.
To answer the Boeing 747, Douglas Aircraft designed its final commercial aircraft, the DC-10. The DC-10 could hold 380 passengers and land on shorter runways—and therefore more airports—than the 747. 446 were built from 1971-1986, including 60 for the US Military. After Douglas Aircraft was sold to McDonnell, 200 more airliners were built as the modified MD-11. In 1997, McDonnell Douglas was taken over by Boeing.
Lockheed countered with the L-1011, but its sales were very disappointing (250), and Lockheed never built another airliner again.
Airbus of France entered the fray with the introduction of the 266-seat A300 in 1974. The Airbus A300 sold well. By the time production ceased in 2007, 561 had been put into service. Since the 1980s, Airbus has mounted an aggressive challenge to Boeing's worldwide dominance, and in recent years the two companies have run neck-in-neck.
The Airbus A380 is the world's first Super Jumbo, with half again the floor space of a Boeing 747, and a maximum capacity of 853 people. The A380 is by far the largest airliner ever made and began commercial flights in 2007.
The Concorde may be the most remarkable aircraft ever built. 100 passengers could soar 11 miles high, moving faster than a rifle bullet. Some call it a miracle.
The Concorde was a long-term joint project between the governments of France and Britain. Conceived in 1962, the prototype flew in 1969, the first production aircraft in 1973, and scheduled service began in 1976 by both Air France and British Airways.
The Concorde was born of the belief that airliners would continue to go faster and faster, as had been their history. Unfortunately, the Concorde was extremely loud and thus banned from most of the airports in the world. It also got pitiful gas mileage and was therefore horribly expensive to operate. The only way to turn a profit was to charge $9,000 per seat. Only 16 were ever put into service.
For those who could afford it, the Concorde offered a once-in-a lifetime experience in a beautiful machine that is an engineering marvel still unmatched. The Concorde would take you from Europe to New York in 3 1/2 hours.
The Concorde had an impeccable safety record until the Paris crash of 2000, which killed all aboard. Commercial service came to an end in 2003. The reason jets do not continue to get faster is the sound barrier. They may never go faster than they do today because when a jet breaks the sound barrier is creates a great disturbance on the ground—thunderous sonic booms and shattered windows.
The Boeing 757—that's the skinny one—entered service in 1983 with the late, great Eastern Airlines. It was the replacement for the 727. Production ended in 2005. By that time, well over 1,000 757s had been sold. They hold a couple hundred people comfortably.
The wide-bodied Boeing 767 entered service in 1981. About 1,000 of them have been built, and it is still in production. The 767 can be configured to hold about 300 souls. It was primarily designed to replace the aging fleet of 707s.
The 21st Century
The Airbus A320 was the first airliner to replace all those old dials and gauges in the cockpit with color displays—called the "glass cockpit"—and to feature a fly-by-wire flight control system. The modern pilot is now the manager of the autopilot and other computers.
The A320 was launched in 1987, the first airliner with a fully computerized cockpit. This 150 seat Airbus product set a new standard by which all future airline designs would be judged.
In 1995, Boeing debuted its first comparable cockpit in the new 777. It was the first digitally designed airliner and the world's largest twinjet, with room for 400 passengers. The 777 (nickname "triple seven") boasts the longest range of any airliner and holds the world record for flight distance by a commercial aircraft—13,422 miles (halfway around the world nonstop).
The design of engines has advanced to make them more fuel efficient and much quieter. Operating range continues to increase; the 747 can now fly 7,000 miles with 400 passengers on board.
Four million people are in the air each day around the globe. People are going to places they never dreamed they would see in person.
My primary source of information used to research this article is Flight: The Complete History by R.G. Grant. This article is a companion piece to my article published last week entitled: A History of Aviation.