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The Wonders of Jet Planes and How They Have Changed!

Updated on September 4, 2013

Contemporary commercial passenger jet Airplanes have been a big part of my life. I enjoy riding on them. Flying on a jet plane brings back pleasant memories, particularly from my early childhood. Many people are put off by the aroma of airplane fuel. I, on the other hand, may weep over the memories this fine smell brings back to me. When I was young I used to travel a lot overseas with my parents: so the smells of jet fuel, the engine noises and the yellow signs that light up Heathrow Airport were all in my earliest memories. (Sometimes I in fact worry that the British airports will rid themselves of their yellow signs. A few of the British airports seem to lack these signs from photos I have seen of them. Many of the larger ones, however, with the exception of Manchester International Airport still seem to have these signs. Let’s keep it that way.) The fact that I can have these experiences more than thirty years later shows that airports and airplanes have not changed that much.

The 707, which made its first flight in 1954 and went into the transatlantic service in 1958, has been the basic model for most subsequent commercial passenger jet planes. When you fly on a jet plane today, the plane will look fairly similar to the 707. The fuselage has that particular round shape the 707 had. Additionally, the plane may even be similar in size to the 707. (The 757 is 155 feet, which is only ten feet longer than the 707.) A modern jet, furthermore, will still make the same basic engine sound, even though they are designed to be quieter than the early passenger jets.

Commercial jets that you see today also travel at pretty much the same speed that a 707 would travel. When I studied International Relations in college, I remember a professor discussing how the time it took to travel from London to New York was reduced over time. Until the mid-19th Century it took several months on a boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The invention of steam ships reduced it to about five days. Then came the early trans-Atlantic planes from the early 1930’s, which took about 14 hours. When the 707 started its London to New York service in 1958, the travel time went down to six and half hours when going to New York from London. It took only five and a half hours traveling from New York to London. (East traveling tailwinds will push a plane heading for Europe forward, but will create headwinds for a plane traveling from Europe to the United States.) Today a trip from London to New York and a trip from New York to London respectively will still take almost precisely the same amount of time as it did with the 707.

The Vickers VC-10, that came out in the mid-1960’s, cut that time down by about half an hour. That, however, is not a whole lot.

When the British and the French worked together to create the Concorde in the late 1960’s, they had hoped to develop a supersonic passenger jet that would change the shape of aviation as much as the 707 did. The Concorde cut down the time required to travel from London to New York down to three hours. Traveling on the Concorde, however, was very expensive. Only a few people, mainly the elite, would travel on the Concorde. Many of the people likely only did it once just out of the interest in experiencing a ride on the Concorde. Almost from the start of the Concorde’s service, they could see its shortcomings. An overwhelming majority of travelers chose the longer but more economical travel on a regular passenger jet. That explains why the Concorde has been in retirement for ten years now.

The cruising altitude is another thing that has not changed a whole lot since the introduction of the 707. A 707’s maximum cruising altitude is 42,000 feet, whereas a 747’s maximum cruising altitude is 45,000 feet. Once again, the Concorde was an exception, which could travel up to 60,000 feet. Of course the Concorde needed to travel close to such an altitude when it was traveling at twice the speed of sound.

What has changed with commercial jet planes since the inauguration of the 707? Size is one thing that has changed. The 747 and now the Airbus A380 are the prime examples. While there are aircraft similar in size to the 707 today, there are a number of aircraft that have greatly exceeded the size of the 707. You have other wide-bodied jets besides the 747 and the Airbus A380: the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and MD-11, the L-1011, the Airbus A300 followed by the Airbus A310, A330, A340 and finally the A350; then Boeing has the 767, 777 and 787. So there is a better ability to transport more passengers than when the 707 came into being.

Some commercial jet planes are actually smaller than the 707 too. The Airbus A318 and A319, along with the 737 are prime modern day examples. One thing these small jets can do is serve small airports that do not have large runways. Boeing developed the 727 because the 707 could not handle small runways. It needed a lot of runway space before it could become airborne. So another innovation since the 707 is developing planes that require less runway space.

Another reason to use smaller jets is that it is not necessary to have large jets when there are not that many passengers. They can save fuel by using a smaller jet that weighs less.

Fuel efficiency is another innovation since the invention of the 707. Fuel efficient engines allow planes to burn less and less fuel. The 747SP was made to transport people long distances, such as between California and Australia nonstop. It was a reduced size from the original 747, which decreased the weight of the aircraft so that it could hold more fuel. Newer more fuel efficient engines allow for a fully sized 747 for such long distance trips. It does not require as much fuel as originally required. The 787 and the Airbus A350 are the latest innovations in fuel efficiency.

Computerization of airplanes is one of the biggest innovations since the days of the 707. The first 747 came out in 1969. Having a computer layout since 1969 has noticeably changed its cockpit. Making aircraft rely more on computers has been a somewhat gradual process. The L-1011 that was made in the 1970’s and 1980’s was known for having an elaborate computer system in its day. Since then aircraft, however, have no longer had to rely on a flight engineer. The computer does the work of the flight engineer for them. One difference between the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and MD-11 is that there is no flight engineer on an MD-11. Additionally, computers can take-off, fly and land a plane all by themselves.

There have been a few other changes here and there mostly related to safety, and little bit in regards to noise. I may be the only person to have noticed this, but the oxygen masks in the cockpits of the more modern jets are less noticeable. The first thing I noticed about the cockpit of a 727 is its oxygen masks. Most of the other early jets have pretty noticeable oxygen masks in their cockpits too. It can give passengers an uncomfortable feeling that the cabin is likely to depressurize. I have not noticed the oxygen masks in the cockpits of more modern jets. The original 747, for instance, had visible oxygen masks on the cockpit ceiling. The oxygen masks are no longer in that place on modern 747’s. They are somewhere in the cockpit and the crew can easily grab them, but they are not biting you in the face. Having less conspicuous oxygen masks can make passengers less anxious and cockpits more welcoming.

Should we continue to use the 707 as the basic model for commercial jets? It would be nice to improve fuel efficiency even more. That would cut down on costs and be better for the environment. We should work on producing jet fuel that does not pollute. (It should still smell the same for my sake.) That way we can view airplanes as technological beauties, rather than the leaders in climate change.

The Concorde showed that improving speed is not worthwhile. Most passengers do not want to pay the extra expense of saving a few hours. Only if we can develop safe non-polluting planes that can take a person from London to New York within an hour would it become worthwhile to improve the speed of commercial aircraft.



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