The jet airliner offered more than an advance in speed. It revolutionized the cost and comfort of flying. Greatly reduced maintenance costs resulted in lower fares. Smooth flight above most turbulence attracted passengers otherwise wary of flying.
The De Havilland "Comet," designed and manufactured in Britain, was the first jet airliner, first test-flown in July 1949. The Comet began commercial service with the British Overseas Airways Corp. (BOAC) in May 1952, establishing a route from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, with five intermediate stops. By 1954, BOAC Comets - cruising at nearly 500 mph - were flying to the Mideast, India, Singapore, and Tokyo, as well as other destinations. Several U.S. airlines expressed interest. But tragedy struck in 1954, when two BOAC Comets, three months apart, disintegrated in the air and fell into the sea west of Italy. The cause was found to be unexpected metal fatigue, even though the Comet had been the most thoroughly tested commercial aircraft in history prior to its production (structural tests included).
The Boeing Co. had received a government contract to design an aerial tanker for the US Air Force. This jet design was much larger than the 44-passenger Comet, which was significantly smaller than the piston-engine Douglas DC-7, one of the most advanced propeller-driven commercial aircraft of the day. Boeing's prototype of its jet design, the "367-80," flew first in July 1954, a few days shy of five years after the first Comet test flight.
The Boeing prototype led directly to the KC-135 air refueling tanker for the Air Force and the 707. The first commercial production version, the 707-120, flew in late December, 1957, and began entering service the following year. By 1958, the Comet was out in a new commercial version, the 81-passenger Comet 4. In fact, BOAC and the Comet 4 won the "great race" to establish trans-Atlantic commercial jet flight, beginning service between London and New York in early October, 1958. About a month later, the U.S. carrier, Pan American World Airways, began flying the same route with its first 707-120 models.
The much larger size of the 707-120 accommodated half-again more passengers, and thus the 707 was more economic and productive than the Comet 4. Comets flew in commercial service for several airlines, ending in 1980. But soon into the 1960s, Boeing 707s and Douglas DC-8s (introduced after the 707) came to dominate jet passenger flight for airline companies throughout the world. In 1960, two years after the 707 began flying commercially, air travel accounted for 42 percent of U.S. commercial passenger travel. By 1980, it was 84 percent.
To learn more about the way the jet revolutionized air travel, visit the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum or visit its website, www.nasm.si.edu.