Seven (Civilian) Planes That Made The Boeing Company (BA) Great

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Beware: I suspect this article will please precisely no one. Consider yourself forewarned.

After two weeks that have seen two The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) planes left burning on the tarmac, I’ve been asked to remind investors of the bigger picture at Boeing — to pen a piece on the seven planes that made The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) great.

Of course, boiling down the history of a century-old plane builder to just seven important models must be an exercise in triage. Do we limit our choices to Boeing qua The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA), or do McDonnell-Douglas (or even just Douglas) birds deserve to roost among these rankings? (Sure. Why not?) Do we count military warplanes, in addition to civilian airliners? (No. At least not in today’s column.) And how far back in time shall we search for the roots of The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA)’s greatness, and how far into the future dare we guess its success may reach?

The only certainty is this: Anyone who knows Boeing at all is going to disagree with at least some of these choices. So be it. Without further ado, here are my nominations for the seven planes that made The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) a great company — and that give us some assurance this company has the staying power to remain great despite its recent setbacks.

Boeing 80

Boeing 80, Source: Boeing.

First flown in 1928, the Model 80 was the plane that got Boeing off the ground. It was the company’s first airplane built specifically for passenger transport, carrying first a dozen passengers, then later upgraded to the Model 80A-1, which could carry 18. It was the plane The Boeing built to compete with rival passenger aircraft from Fokker and (if you can believe it) Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F), and it eventually became the first plane with a stewardess on board to hand out refreshments (a registered nurse, Ellen Church, landed the first stewardess berth in 1930).

In its reconfigured 80A-1 iteration, the Model 80 sported an 80-foot wingspan and could fly as far as 460 miles.

Boeing 314 Clipper

Boeing 314, Source: Boeing.

Perception is a powerful thing. When selling an airplane to an airline, there can hardly be a more potent marketing tool than a line like this: “And did you know this is the plane the president picked to fly on?”

Well, in 1943, in the middle of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew to Casablanca aboard the Dixie Clipper, a Boeing 314 — making the 314 the effectively the very first “Air Force One.” (They didn’t call it that, of course. Not least because at the time, the U.S. didn’t actually have an Air Force.)

The Boeing 314 enjoyed some commercial success as well. It was first flown in 1938, and 12 of the planes were built before WWII broke out. Designed to spec for Pan American World Airways as a “flying boat” capable of carrying passengers to Europe, the 314 could carry 74 passengers in style and boasted a flight range of 3,500 miles. With a wingspan of 152 feet, the deep-chested 314 was more than twice as big as the Model 80.

Douglas DC-3

Douglas DC-3, Source: Boeing.

Sometimes, great mergers create greater companies. If you’ve ever wondered why McDonnell Aircraft bought Douglas Aircraft in 1967, or why Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas 30 years later, the answer can be summed up in one hyphenated word: DC-3.

It wasn’t as big as the Boeing 314, with a smaller wingspan and a shorter range. Yet Boeing modestly calls the DC-3, first flown in 1935, “the greatest airplane of its time,” and perhaps “the greatest of all time.” Many people agree.

Originally built for American Airlines (now US Airways Group Inc (NYSE:LCC) ), the plane soon gained a fan in United Airlines (now United Continental Holdings Inc (NYSE:UAL) ) — and then it went on to win sales contracts at nearly three dozen airlines and to (in alliance with its DC-2 predecessor) capture more than 90% of the air-passenger market. The DC-3 carried 28 passengers, or slept 14, which doesn’t sound like a lot in today’s terms. But it was the first plane capable of carrying enough passengers, and carrying them fuel-efficiently enough, to earn its airline owners a profit.

One testament to the plane’s quality? Hundreds of DC-3s are still flying today, nearly four score years after the plane was first built.

Boeing 707

Boeing 707, Source: Boeing.

Built around the bones of the KC-135 military aerial refueling tanker in 1957, the Boeing 707 got off to a troubled start. Not all that unlike with the 787 today, The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) made a lot of big bets on the 707, and these bets came to define the company — and the industry, in time.

For example, the 707 standardized Boeing and industry practice of putting the passenger door on the left side of the plane, and installing doors both fore and aft. Boeing also gambled big on customizing the base model plane (130-foot wingspan, 3,000-mile range) to the requirements of multiple customers. It built longer-range models for far-off Australia’s Qantas Airways, and it tweaked the plane to accept bigger engines for high-altitude flights among South American airlines. That was quite a change from the old practice of drawing up entirely new airplanes at the request of individual customers such as American and United.

Such tweaks cost some money, sure. But they also helped Boeing grab market share from rival Douglas Aircraft. Ultimately, Boeing sold 856 of the planes.

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