Like perhaps no other single technology, the jet engine revolutionized air travel around the world. Unlike the old propeller-driven planes that were powered by piston engines, jet planes could fly at tremendous speeds, thus cutting down travel time. Jet-equipped airplanes also could climb faster and fly higher. Both the U.S. Air Force and civil aircraft builders found these capabilities attractive in the years after World War II when international contacts stretched across the globe. There were, however, major concerns about transferring jet engine technology to the commercial aviation sector. Airline executives in the postwar era were aware that, although jet engines were simpler than the old piston engines, they also had high operating temperatures that required very expensive metal alloy components that ultimately would affect an aircraft’s longevity and reliability. Moreover, jet engines used far greater amounts of fuel. The initially low takeoff speed would also require longer runways. All of this added up to increased costs. As a result, U.S. passenger air carriers did not support the building of jet airliners in the immediate postwar years, and adopted a “wait-and-see” approach before embarking on this risky path.
The British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC), the national British carrier, first introduced a commercial jet airliner into service. The 36-seat Comet 1, built by De Havilland, flew for the first time on July 27, 1949. BOAC inaugurated the world’s first commercial jet service on May 2, 1952. Initial flights took passengers from London to Johannesburg in South Africa, with stops in Rome, Beirut, Khartoum (in Sudan), Entebbe (in Kenya), and Livingstone, near Victoria Falls. At the time, the top cruising speed of the most well known piston-engine aircraft, the DC-3, was about 180 miles per hour (290 kilometers per hour). With the Comet, passengers could travel comfortably at 480 miles per hour (772 kilometers per hour), making it a revolutionary leap in air travel. The Comet also provided conditions that contrasted sharply to piston-engine planes: the planes were vibration-free and relatively quiet.
Unfortunately, the Comet was the victim of a number of tragic accidents, and BOAC suspended flights within two years. Engineers found that the planes suffered from metal fatigue, especially around rivet holes, due to the need to repeatedly pressurize and depressurize the aircraft. In 1952, Pan American Airways had already put in an order for the new 76-seat Comet 3, but the crashes of the earlier Comet put the contract into doubt. By this time, domestic U.S. companies had begun their own programs to build jet airliners. Several factors, such as improved jet engines, now convinced these companies to reconsider their initial reluctance to build commercial jet planes.
Of all the airlines in the United States, Pan American, which the U.S. government considered its “chosen instrument” to represent the American commercial air fleet abroad, was undoubtedly a pioneer in embracing jet aviation. Juan Trippe, the airlines’ legendary chief executive officer, had early on expressed a keen interest in operating a passenger jet service capable of flying nonstop across the North Atlantic. Having seen the bright promise of the British Comet fade, Trippe played off two of the biggest domestic airplane builders, Boeing and Douglas. Both companies vied to appeal to Pan American’s needs and offered the Boeing 707 and DC-8, respectively. In October 1955, Trippe signed contracts with both companies to buy 45 of these jets (20 707s and 25 DC-8s). Exactly two years later, Boeing rolled out the first operational 707, a Boeing 707-120, and on October 26, 1958, amid much fanfare, Pan American inaugurated its New York-London route, ushering in a new era in the history of passenger aviation. On the very first flight, which made a stopover in Newfoundland, there were 111 passengers, the largest number ever to board a single regularly scheduled flight. Coach fares were $272, about the same as one would expect to pay for a piston-engine flight across the Atlantic.
At first, BOAC competed hard with Pan American. In fact, in order to preempt the Americans, BOAC had rushed ahead and inaugurated its own transatlantic service on October 4, 1958, just three weeks ahead of Pan American. BOAC used the new De Havilland Comet 4, which incorporated improvements to remedy the problems with the older Comet 1. Although BOAC fared quite well, its success was nothing compared to Pan American’s. With its rapidly expanding use of the Boeing 707, especially on the transatlantic route, Pan American began a period of almost unchallenged success in the international airline industry. The airline, for example, was the first to recognize the importance to passengers of nonstop flights on long trips; it negotiated with Boeing for a version of the 707 that could fly for a longer time without refueling, known as the 707-320.This allowed the airline to introduce true intercontinental service with nonstop London-to-New York flights on August 26, 1959. This was a perfect case of a dominant air carrier playing the lead role in defining the characteristics of a new class of jets that the industry would produce. The 707-320 was eventually adopted by as many as eleven other airlines within a year.
Within the United States, National Airlines became the first to begin jet service, using leased Boeing 707s, on December 10, 1958. American Airlines offered the first domestic jet service using its own aircraft on January 25, 1959 with a flight from New York to Los Angeles. With this coast-to-coast service, American had a big competitive coup; the two other major domestic U.S. airlines, Trans World Airlines (TWA) and United Airlines, had not anticipated the imminent use of jets for domestic service. TWA quickly scrambled to catch up, and using a single Boeing 707, it joined the coast-to-coast flight market in March 1959. The last minute move helped keep TWA afloat through a difficult period of economic loss.
Not all airlines pinned their hopes on the Boeing 707, however. Douglas had unmatched experience in building the best passenger airliners of the world. United Airlines and Delta both began flying the DC-8 passenger jets in September 1959—latecomers to the domestic jet market precisely because they had depended on Douglas, which introduced jets after Boeing. Eastern Airlines joined them in domestic jet services in January 1960.
One of the more unusual aspects of the coming of the jet era was the speed with which airlines internationally adopted these new aircraft. Partly because of Pan American’s example, airlines from all over the world replaced piston-engine aircraft with jets at an unprecedented pace. The Soviet national airline Aeroflot was part of this explosion. In fact, Aeroflot held the distinction of offering the world’s first regularly scheduled and sustained passenger jet service with its Tupolev Tu-104 aircraft. Aeroflot opened service from Moscow to Irkutsk (in the Soviet far east) in September 1956. Elsewhere, by 1961, just three years after Pan Am’s first jet flight, jets were flying routes over the North and South Atlantic and the Pacific; in the domestic United States, Europe, and East Asia; North-to-South America routes; Europe-to-Africa routes; Europe-to-Australia routes; and even to the Arctic regions. International airlines such as Air France, Lufthansa (Germany), KLM (Netherlands), Iberia (Spain), QANTAS (Australia), SABENA (Belgium), Air India, SAS (Scandinavia), Swissair, El Al (Israel), and JAL (Japan) were all using the Boeing 707, the DC-8, or in lesser numbers, the Corvair CV-880 jet on major international routes.
Although many other airlines were the first to offer regular services on various international routes, it was Pan American Airways that set the standards for service in the new jet era. Pan American’s pioneering partnership with Boeing, its ambitious routes—such as its round-the-world jet service inaugurated in October 1959, its flashy advertising campaigns, and its reputation for good service, all made the company a leader and a trendsetter.
Jet travel revolutionized air travel throughout the world. For the airlines, jet travel forced them to establish much higher standards of maintenance that required better facilities on the ground and highly trained employees. For passengers, flights meant more comfort, less noise, and most important, less travel time. Once again, as with the introduction of piston engines into civil aviation in the 1920s, a new revolution in technology made the world an even smaller place.
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