The Dash 80: When Boeing Bet the Entire Company, and Won

In the years after World War Two, the Boeing Aircraft Company placed its future on the line when it invested nearly every dime it had into just one airplane—which it hoped would bring the future of commercial airliners.

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The Dash 80, at the Smithsonian Udvar Hazy Center

In the years after the end of the Second World War, the aviation industry was in the midst of sweeping changes. Just before the war, the Douglas Aircraft Company had introduced the DC-3, the first commercial airliner that could comfortably and safely carry a significant number of passengers over a long distance, economically. During the war, the Army used its own military version of the DC-3, designated the C-47, as its standard long-range transport and cargo plane. The “Gooney Bird”, as the troops called it, flew all over the world.

The war had produced a number of major technological improvements in aircraft and navigation, and passenger airplanes were about to enter a new era. Although still too expensive for most travelers, commercial airliners were becoming bigger, faster, more comfortable, with longer range: and more profitable for the airlines.

But one significant advance in technology had still not been embraced by the commercial airlines–the jet engine. The British and Americans had introduced their military jets in the very last days of the war, but by 1950 the technology had advanced rapidly. The propeller-driven B-17 and B-29 bombers were replaced first with the B-36, which used both propeller and jet engines, and then the B-47, which was the first all-jet bomber. And the successor to the B-47, the eight-engined B-52, was already in the works. But in the commercial airline world, propellers still ruled. Jets were viewed as too expensive to run and maintain, and less economical than props. As a result, all the major post-war passenger planes–the DC-4, DC-7, and Constellation–were propeller-driven. (Although the De Havilland Company in England had produced a jet airliner in 1949 called the Comet, it had some teething problems.) More importantly to the corporate officers at Boeing Aircraft, most of the post-war passenger planes were manufactured by the Douglas company. William Allen, the President of the Boeing Company, wanted to change that.

By 1950, no company in the world had as much experience as Boeing did in building large jet aircraft. All of the major Air Force bombers from the B-17 to the B-52 came out of Boeing factories. But this, Allen realized, placed the company in an unsustainable position. Boeing was too dependent upon military contracts, and needed to diversify into other sources of revenue–such as passenger airplanes–particularly since the military market had been shrunk by postwar budget cuts. And, William Allen concluded, the future in passenger aircraft lay with the jet engine. So in May 1952, Boeing met with his Board of Directors to approve a new project: a four-engined jet passenger plane, that could also be modified to serve as a military transport and mid-air refueling tanker. To hide the project from competitors, it was dubbed the 367-80, disguised as just another variation of the prop-driven Model 367 (which had failed as a commercial airplane but had been adopted by the US as the KC-97 aerial tanker). The new plane became known as the “Dash 80”. Only one protoype would be built. And, in a bold and daring move, Allen convinced the Board to release $16 million in funding for the project: about two-thirds of Boeing’s total cash reserves at the time. They were, literally, betting the entire future of the company on this single airplane.

The Dash 80 was a revolutionary design. At 128 feet long and 130 feet in wingspan, it was larger than any other passenger plane, big enough to hold over 150 passengers comfortably. Like the B-47 and B-52, the Dash 80 had wings swept back at a 35-degree angle, to give it better airflow and improved fuel economy. It would use four Pratt and Whitney JT3 turbojet engines, the civilian version of the well-tested and reliable military J57 used in the B-52 and several Air Force fighters. With ten thousand pounds of thrust, they were the most powerful turbojets in the world, and, to allow the plane to land on short civilian runways, they were made with reverse thrust plates, which swung into place to slow the plane after touchdown. The Dash 80’s engines were to be hung in pods below the wings, giving better balance and easier access for maintenance and repair (as well as allowing more fuel storage inside the wings for better range). The cockpit would use a number of new electronic instrument displays instead of the old mechanical dials. And with its powerful engines, the plane could fly higher–above most bad weather–which also gave it better fuel efficiency.

During testing, the prototype showed problems with the brake system, the tail assembly, and the landing gear, which were soon ironed out. In July 1954, the Dash 80 took off from Boeing’s airfield in Seattle on her first test flight. She flew, her test pilot Tex Johnston said, “like a bird, only better”. A year later, in August 1955, the plane was scheduled to do a fly-by at a gathering of airline execs. In a dash of showmanship, Johnston did two full barrel rolls with the huge airplane–an unauthorized exhibition which made Boeing’s President Allen want to fire him on the spot. But the press loved it.

Even before a single plane had been sold, Boeing was gearing up facilities to produce two versions: the civilian airliner known as the Boeing 707, and the military version known as the C-135. Douglas executives, meanwhile, realized that the future of their company was now at stake, and hurried out their own jet airliner, the DC-8. But the Boeing 707 was clearly the superior airplane, and became one of the most widely-used passenger airliners in the world. The military, meanwhile adopted versions of the Dash 80 as the C-135 transport, the RC-135 reconnaissance plane, and the KC-135 aerial refueling tanker. Over the years, the 707 would spawn the 727, the 747, and the 777, making Boeing one of the dominant forces in the airline industry. (Douglas would stay in the game a few years later with their DC-10.)

Once the 707 went into production, the Dash 80 became a testbed for a number of systems that would be used in the Boeing 727. It was also used for some tests for NASA. In 1970, the aircraft was retired and, after being restored by Boeing to her original specifications, she was donated to the Smithsonian. Today, the Dash 80 is on display at the Udvar-Hazy center.

 

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