Today in Aviation: Pan Am’s Boeing 707 Ushers the Jet Age
Today in Aviation

Today in Aviation: Pan Am’s Boeing 707 Ushers the Jet Age

MIAMI – It is widely known that the jet age began today in 1958 when, on the first of its regular scheduled flights, a Pan Am Boeing 707 took off from Idlewild Airport (now JFK International Airport) to Paris.

The Boeing 707, N711PA, while not the first commercial jetliner in operation, was the first successful wide-scale jetliner. In the 1960s, it dominated passenger air transport and remained prevalent in international, transcontinental, and transatlantic routes, as well as in freight and military applications through the 1970s.

Today, we take a look at this iconic airliner and its first transatlantic flight that ushered in the jet age.

“POISED ON THE FLIGHT LINE in Seattle, Wash., are the first three 707-121 aircraft with Pratt&Whitney JT3C6 engines awaiting delivery to Pan American World Airways in 1958. Aircraft N711PA (foreground) was the jetliner which inaugurated the first regular U.S. jet transport service on Oct. 26, 1958, with a flight between New York and Paris.” Left side view from slightly above of Boeing Model 707-121 (r/n N711PA) on the Boeing factory flight line in Seattle, Washington. In the background are seen r/n N710PA (center) and beyond, r/n N709PA. 1958. Photo: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, R. E. G. (Ron) Davies Air Transport Collection, NASM, Public Domain

The Dawn of the Jet Age

There were many ‘firsts’ that gave way to the jet age. In August 1939, the first experimental takeoff of a jet-powered airplane was that of the German Heinkel He 178. The first commercial flight of the first design, the British de Havilland DH 106 Comet, took place in July 1949 and the first commercial flight of the BOAC was in 1952.

On October 4, 1958, the Comet, redesigned after disastrous crashes, made the first transatlantic flight. Meanwhile, in September 1956, the Soviet Tupolev Tu-104 entered operations. To start a design dynasty, the revamped Comet was too small and unprofitable, and no successor models existed. Only the countries of the Soviet bloc used Tupolev aircraft.

The long-range narrow-body Boeing 707, the company’s first jetliner, is accredited to have kickstarted the jet age due to the fact that it introduced the most prolific design family in the industry, one that advanced relentlessly by adding another 10 models to its diverse lineup.

The first successor, in 1963, was the three-engine Boeing 727; the four-engine 747, launched in 1969, was perhaps the most innovative concept in modern aviation; and the new addition, the 787 Dreamliner, launched in 2011, was the first aircraft to be made of composites of carbon fiber, capable of flying more than 17 hours on routes.

An Army band on the tarmac at New York’s Idlewild Airport serenaded passengers as they boarded the Pan Am Clipper America for its maiden transatlantic flight on October 26, 1958—only 10 days after Boeing delivered the airplane. (NASM (9A03276)). Photo: Pan Am

The First Regular Scheduled 707 Flight

On October 26, 1958, the first scheduled flight of the 707, named Clipper America, was followed by a welcoming ceremony and a speech by Juan Trippe, president of Pan Am. 111 passengers and 12 Crew members had to make an unscheduled stop at Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, Canada.

On the tail of the Boeing 707, an enormous blue globe was painted just for the flight. It was a symbol that meant Pan Am would offer travelers the world; a revolutionary logo crafted especially for the mid-century modern era that Pan Am was ushering in.

That night in 1958, as the passengers reached the air stairs leading to the jetliner at Idlewild Airport, a US Army band serenaded them. Among the first transatlantic jet travelers was a genuine celebrity, the actress Greer Garson, who had won an Academy Award for her performance in Mrs. Miniver 16 years earlier.

After enjoying such onboard luxuries as wines poured into stemware, hot meals served on china, and set on linen-covered tables, the lucky passengers landed eight hrs and 41 min after they had left New York at Paris-Le Bourget Airport. The aircraft would later carry Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye on its return flight from Paris.

By December, the type was flying the route from New York to Miami, and the first transcontinental flights from New York to Los Angeles began in January 1959.

A Pan Am Boeing 707-321B landing at RAF Mildenhall (MHZ / GXH / EGUN). This aircraft is Clipper Yankee Ranger. N418PA (cn 18960/484) is Seen here operating a military charter flight. Photo: 由Mike Freer –,GFDL 1.2,

The Origins of the Boeing 707

The Boeing 707 had a military pedigree, as the company was known then for its military aircraft manufactured during and after World War II.

The Boeing 707 began as an in-air refueling tanker prototype. Further development led to the KC-135A Stratotanker and finally to a four-engine passenger aircraft powered by turbo-jet Pratt & Whitney small-diameter engines, each with a thrust of about 50 kilotons. By comparison, each of the two turbofan high-bypass General Electric GEnx-1B engines powering today’s 787 delivers more than 300 kN at takeoff.

Inspired by the work of Adolph Busemann of Germany, the designers of the 707 swept its wings further back than the de Havilland team swept the Comet’s. As 707’s wings were swept back at 35 °, the aircraft showed an undesirable “Dutch roll” flying characteristic that manifested as an alternating combined yawing and rolling motion.

On the B-47 and B-52, Boeing already had extensive experience with this issue and had developed the yaw damper system on the B-47 that would later be added to the Boeing 707. the new 707 Pilots, accustomed to straight-winged propeller-driven planes, had a hard time adjusting to this instability and getting used to the yaw damper.

Another interesting design decision was that while the Comet’s four engines were embedded in the wing by De Havilland, causing drag, Boeing had a more unusual concept, which it first tested on its Dash 80 prototype and integrated into the 707: it slung the engine pods under the wing. This innovative design made the 707’s pylons direct the airflow over the wing on a straight path.

The first flight of the first-production 707-120 took place on December 20, 1957, and FAA certification followed on September 18, 1958. The Boeing 707s were the dominant long-distance jetliners until the wide-bodies were launched, first the Boeing 747 and then the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and the Lockheed L-1011 in 1970.

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai received President Richard M. Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon in 1972. Nixon renamed one of the two Boeing 707 variants maintained by the Air Force for presidential use “The Spirit of ’76.” It now resides at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Photo: Time Inc.

Legacy of the Boeing 707

The incremental changes that came about from the Boeing 707 family culminated in a vastly superior aircraft, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The first of the type could seat about 100 more individuals in a regular two-class (business and economy) configuration than the 707-120, with a maximum take-off weight almost twice as high and a maximum range almost twice as long.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner also used 70% less fuel per passenger kilometer. Since it was made from carbon composites, to simulate a lower altitude than an aluminum fuselage would allow, the 787 could be pressurized, resulting in greater passenger comfort.

Boeing finally made just over 1,000 707s. In 1983, Pan Am took the aircraft out of retirement for a commemorative 25th-anniversary flight. Most of the original crew flew to Paris as passengers on that flight. This was not the end of service for the. A range of non-US airlines flew various versions until the 1990s, and Saha Airlines (IRZ) of Iran did so as late as 2013.

Pan Am’s Boeing 707s reshaped world affairs, unlike any other aircraft. Economies and commerce, politics and culture, fashion and society were influenced by the airline’s 707. An example is how the requirement of Pan Am to have college-educated and (at least) bilingual flight attendants helped to drive women towards greater social and financial freedom.

While Pan Am’s strict rules regulating their appearance and actions would be unacceptable today, the arrival of a generation of women who traveled the world and received respectable wages remains remarkable to this day.

Featured image: Put back into service and detailed to 1958 livery (including naming “Clipper America”) for 25-year commemoration flight of first U.S. trans-Atlantic jet flight (New York-Paris). Photo: Michel Gilliand (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons. Article sources:,, Boeing, Pan Am.

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