Best of Boeing: 10 revolutionary aircraft

Best of Boeing: 10 revolutionary aircraft

As Boeing launches its new 747-8 Intercontinental, here's a look at the company's passenger planes through the years
boeing 747-8i first flight
Bigger but quieter than previous incarnations.

It started with a seaplane made of wood, wire and linen in 1916.

Most recently, Boeing opened the latest chapter in its aviation innovation with the 747-8 Intercontinental's maiden commercial flight. The Lufthansa flight flew from Frankfurt to Washington D.C. last week.

The world's longest passenger jet, the 747-8i also reduces the noise footprint of its predecessor, the 747-400, by 30 percent according to Boeing.

And it’s not the first time Boeing has played a role in altering the commercial aviation landscape.

Here are 10 of the company’s greatest planes, with thoughts from Tom Ballantyne, award-winning aviation journalist and chief correspondent at Orient Aviation magazine.

Also on CNNGo: What passengers thought of the first 787 flight

Also on CNNGo: Boeing Business Jets -- luxury offices in the sky

 

Boeing 80

boeing model 80Air technology was better than photo technology back in the 1920s. First flight: July 27, 1928

Accommodation: Three crew, 18 passengers, 408 kg of cargo

Top speed: 222 kph

Range: 740 kilometers

Ceiling: 14,000 feet
It doesn't look like much and it was probably about as comfortable as riding a camel over speed bumps -- the Model 80, built in 1928, was America’s first airliner designed specifically to transport passengers on a scheduled service.

The fuselage was covered in fabric, the interior included leather seats, reading lamps, hot and cold water and pilots used to open-air cockpits complained about the enclosed flight deck.

Ellen Church, a nurse, became the world’s first female flight attendant earning US$100 for 100 hours flying a month.

Tom Ballantyne: “The Model 80 biplane was the plane that really set Boeing on the road to becoming today’s commercial aircraft manufacturing giant. A steel and aluminum tube construction covered in fabric, it had a well-appointed cabin and flew at relatively high altitudes for its day. It cost a mere US$140,000.”

Boeing 247

boeing 247The last airworthy Boeing 247, in United Air Lines markings at Paine Field, Washington. First flight: February 8, 1933

Accommodation: 3 crew, 10 passengers, 182 kg of mail

Top speed: 322 kph          

Range: 1,198 kilometers

Ceiling: 25,400 feet
Being faster, safer and easier to fly is probably not so tough if you have the likes of the Model 80 as a comparison. But the 247, the world's first truly modern airliner, was also the first to incorporate and combine advances such as retractable landing gear, an autopilot and de-icing equipment.

It took the 247 20 hours to fly from New York to Los Angeles, including seven stops. But this was still 7.5 hours shorter than any previous airliner.

Tom Ballantyne: “The Boeing 247, a twin-engined passenger plane, is regarded as the first aircraft to fully incorporate advances such as all-metal (anodized aluminum) semi-monocoque construction, a fully cantilevered wing and retractable landing gear. Other advanced features included control surface trim tabs, autopilot and deicing boots for the wings and tailplane.”

Boeing 314 Clipper Flying Boat

boeing 314The "Jumbo" of the seas. First flight: June 7, 1938

Accommodation: 10 crew, 74 passengers

Top speed: 320 kph                                       

Range: 8,369 kilometers

Ceiling: 19,600 feet
When Pan American Airlines wanted something it screamed and stomped and held its breath, so to shut it up Boeing built the long-range, four-engine flying boat -- the 314 Clipper.

The “Jumbo” of its time, the Clipper made the first scheduled trans-Atlantic flight in 1939. It also featured regular service from San Francisco to Hong Kong, which took six days to complete one way. 

Tom Ballantyne: “The Boeing 314 Clipper was the plane that helped defeat the tyranny of distance. A long-range flying boat and one of the largest aircraft of the time -- it cemented regular scheduled flying on the long-haul routes from North America across the Pacific to Asia and the across the Atlantic to Europe. Its well-appointed cabin also heralded the real birth of in-flight service. Twelve Clippers were built for Pan Am, although three of those were ultimately sold to Britain’s BOAC before delivery.”

Boeing 307 Stratoliner

boeing 307Sometimes it feels like passenger comfort has gotten worse over the years. The hat doesn't seem too comfortable for a flight though,First flight: December 31, 1938

Accommodation: 5 crew, 33 passengers

Top speed: 396 kph                                       

Range: 3,846 kilometers

Ceiling: 26,200 feet
The 307 wasn't happy cavorting with the aviation hoi poloi, so it was fitted with a pressurized cabin to allow it to fly above the rest, the clouds and also therefore bad weather.

Howard Hughes bought one, and turned it into a “flying penthouse” with a bedroom, two bathrooms and a lounge area. The 307 was also the first to employ a flight engineer responsible for technical duties, leaving the pilot to focus on flying.

Tom Ballantyne: “Based on the B17 military bomber, the Boeing Model 307 Stratoliner was the first commercial transport aircraft with a pressurized cabin, allowing it to cruise at an altitude of 20,000 ft (6,000 meters), well above bad weather. That brought additional comfort to the five-strong crew and 33 passengers it could carry. Deliveries to airlines began in 1940, although the aircraft’s production was quickly interrupted by the outbreak of World War II.”

Boeing 707

boeing 707The cockpit of the world's first commercially successful passenger jet plane. First flight: December 20, 1957

Accommodation: Up to 181 passengers

Top speed: 966 kph                                       

Range: 4,828 kilometers

Ceiling: 41,000 feet
Kind of like the original iPod, the 707 doesn't look like much now but it did start off the 7-series of Boeing planes. 

The dominant passenger airplane of the 1960s, it was intended as a medium-range transport but made scheduled flights across the Atlantic and across the North American continent.

A smaller version, the 720, was created for short-to-medium routes with a fuselage nine feet shorter and turbofan engines.

Tom Ballantyne: “The four-engine Boeing B707 was not was not the first jet to enter commercial airline service but it was certainly the first to be commercially successful. It dominated air passenger travel through the 1960s and into the 1970s and is generally credited with being the plane that really ushered in the jet age.”

Boeing 727

boeing 727The biggest produced jet liner for a decade. First flight: February 9, 1963

Accommodation: 131 passengers

Top speed: 966 kph                                       

Range: 5,005 kilometers

Ceiling: 36,100 feet
Boeing struck gold with the launch of the 727. Just 250 were planned originally but demand was so good a total of 1,832 had been built by the time production ceased in 1984.

Just think what it could have done if it had included free ear-plugs -- the 727 is one of the noisiest jets around. 

The most distinctive of Boeing’s early jets with a T-shaped tail and a trio of rear-mounted engines, the 727 was designed to use smaller, less developed runways, making it amenable to a host of out-of-the-way and third-world airports.

Tom Ballantyne: “For over a decade, more were built per year than any other jet airliner. Its sales record for the most jet airliners ever sold was broken in the early 1990s by its successor, the Boeing 737.”

Boeing 737

boeing 737737 -- the 747's tiny sibling. First flight: April 9, 1967

Accommodation: 2 crew, up to 107 passengers

Top speed: 933 kph                                       

Range: 1,850 kilometers

Ceiling: 35,000 feet
Chances are if you fly, you’ve flown on a 737. The best-selling jet in aviation history had a major USP -- six-abreast seating, allowing more passengers per flight. Boeing has delivered 6,887 planes throughout the world.

The number of seats was increased by moving the engines under the wing. This also reduced vibrations and made it less noisy.

Flight engineers were made redundant with the 737’s technology and a two-crew cockpit became standard in the industry. 

Tom Ballantyne: “The B737, entering service in 1968, became the plank on which today’s short-haul flying was built. A single-aisle, twin-engine workhorse, it allowed airlines to build up extensive domestic and short-haul regional networks with an affordable, cost effective aircraft. Regular upgrades see it continue today as one of major aircraft in the fast expanding fleets of low cost carriers.”

Boeing 747

boeing 747-8The longest jet liner ever made. First flight: February 9, 1969

Accommodation: 33 attendants, 374 to 490 passengers

Top speed: 1,029 kph                                       

Range: 9,656 kilometers

Ceiling: 45,000 feet
The most iconic jet of the 20th century. If lucky enough, who can forget their first visit to the upper deck of a Jumbo?

It came about through another demand from Pan Am, which thought bigger planes would be the answer to passenger congestion in airports.

The 747 was 2.5 times the size of the 707 and the world’s first wide-body aircraft. Its distinctive front bulge came from placing the cockpit on an upper deck, allowing a freight-loading door in the nose cone.

Pilots were trained to taxi this beast by sitting three stories high on a moving truck. 

Tom Ballantyne: “First flying commercially in 1970. the Boeing B747, or ‘Jumbo Jet,’ was the plane that changed the course of aviation history. It is not only credited with opening up air travel to millions of people who previously couldn’t afford to fly, it also altered the economics of flying for airlines, clearing the way for them to fly huge numbers of passengers around the globe at reasonable cost.”

Boeing 777

boeing 777This plane inspired the naming of a flower. First flight: June 12, 1994

Accommodation: 305 to 440 passengers

Top speed: 990 kph                                       

Range: 6,775-13,309 kilometers

Ceiling: 37,900 feet
It sounds great to know the “triple-seven” was the first aircraft to be pre-assembled on a computer, until you ask: "What was everything else being designed on? Napkins?"

Bad jokes aside, this was the widest, most spacious jet liner in its class. Carriers have increasingly used the 777 as a fuel-efficient alternative to other wide-body jets, particularly for long-haul trans-oceanic flights. It has also had a rose named after it.

Tom Ballantyne: “The Boeing 777 is the world's largest twinjet, carrying over 300 passengers up to 9,380 nautical miles (17,370 kilometers), depending on the model. It bridged a capacity difference between smaller jets and the likes of the 747, allowing airlines to expand their networks by flying on longer, thinner routes unable to fill a jumbo jet. It was Boeing’s first fly-by-wire jet and was the first entirely computer-designed commercial aircraft.”

Boeing 787 Dreamliner

boeing 787The 787. What will the 797 bring?First flight: December 15, 2009

Accommodation: 210 to 250 passengers

Cruising speed: Mach 0.85
If you haven't heard about the 787 yet, get back on board your Jumbo. The Dreamliner is said to have revolutionized jet liner design and brought commercial aeronautics into the 21st century.

Its “plastic” fuselage makes it lighter and 20 percent more fuel-efficient than similar-sized aircraft, while it claims to enhance the passenger experience with bigger windows, more space and extra comfort.

It received a record number of pre-orders when it was announced with nearly 800 planes due for delivery. The first commercial flight took off from Narita, Japan on October 26, 2011 landing in Hong Kong around three hours later.

Tom Ballantyne: “The first delivery of a B787 to Japan’s All Nippon Airlines last month ushers in another new era for airline operations. The jet is super-efficient and brings the economics of larger jet transports to the middle of the market. It also has an extra-large cargo compartments, critical to airlines which make a large percentage of their revenue from belly freight in passenger jets.”

Originally published October 2011, updated June 2012

As senior producer for CNN Travel, James commissions stories, writes for, edits and manages the homepage of the site. 

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