How Boeing changed the world

Crashes, barrel rolls, high-stakes gambling: A new book details how your daddy's Boeing came to dominate commercial aviation and put globalization on the fast track.

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Crashes, barrel rolls, high-stakes gambling: A new book details how your daddy's Boeing came to dominate commercial aviation and put globalization on the fast track.

One thing I don't recommend is reading Sam Howe Verhovek's new book, Jet Age (Avery, $27), on the plane at night 35,000 feet over the Pacific, as I did. While it's a brisk narrative with no headwinds, laying out the battle to dominate the skies at the dawn of commercial jet aviation, it might test your faith. And faith is what being an air passenger is all about.

As my Seattle-to-Tokyo flight chased the setting sun and I sped through Verhovek's tale, I began to question little things around me. I'd been reading about how an earlier model of jet, the de Havilland Comet, which beat Boeing to the punch in commercial jet service in early 1950s, had an inconvenient knack for disintegrating in mid-flight, to the dismay of its builders and the inconvenience of its dead passengers.

It turns out the crashes weren't flukes, bombings, or pilot errors but rather were due to major design flaws, and one was relatively trivial. I'll only say that my attention was drawn to the shape of the aircraft windows and I began to think how improbable modern air travel really is when it rides on a million details like this.

Those windows, which we take for granted, are just one of the many Achilles-heel problems engineers had to solve in building the first viable commercial jet aircraft, and among many refined in subsequent aircraft generations. But they also are a symbol of the faith we put in complex technology. At night on a long flight, the shades are drawn so passengers can sleep or, more importantly, be cocooned from the reality that they are, in fact, hurtling at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour through thin, frigid air above a vast forbidding ocean in a narrow metal tube. I've found it best to sit back, relax, and forget the details.

The fact that flight is so commonplace that you can so frequently do that is a testament to the ingenuity of Boeing's engineers and executives. The subtitle of Verhovek's gripping read is "The Comet, the 707 and the Race to Shrink the World," and it reminds us that the Jet Age as we know it was not inevitable nor was it clear that the Boeing Company would come to dominate it. Hard to imagine for those of us raised in this company town where fathers, mothers and uncles worked at "Boeing's."

In the late 1940s, commercial interests began to adapt World War II technologies, like the jet-propelled fighter plane launched late in the war by the Germans, to civilian purposes. Yet some questioned the need or viability of speedy intercontinental air travel. As the book reminds us, even as late as 1958, most people traveling between the U.S. and Europe did so on ships.

And let's not forget that air advances made during wartime do not always find happy endings during peace: Witness the fate of another German aviation innovation that once seemed destined to replace the trans-Atlantic liner, the zeppelin.

Boeing, which had filled the skies with planes that won the war, now had what executives referred to as "the peace problem." In one two-month postwar stretch, Verhovek tells us, Boeing laid off some 38,000 workers, lost $1.5 billion in contracts and had to shut down a Wichita plant. In addition, U.S. aircraft companies were behind competitors (like Britain's de Havilland) in getting commercial jets into development. To do so required an exceptionally steady hand at making a high-risk gamble, both in engineering and in sales: Not for the last time did Boeing bet it all on a new product, in this case what became the 707, and win.

There was a virtue in not being first. The de Havilland Comet both braved the new frontier and was defeated by it. But others could learn from de Havilland's mistakes, and leverage them into research and development. In Boeing's case, one driver to build a large jet wasn't providing passenger service, but the possibility of an Air Force tanker contract (do things ever change?) that could propel the company into the jet era. Boeing made the decision to take that leap in 1952.

Because of the Comet's high-profile crashes (though as Verhovek points out, non-jet passenger aircraft also killed a high percentage of pilots and passengers), public confidence in jets and Boeing had to be won. The most famous incident occurred when company test pilot Alvin "Tex" Johnston barrel rolled a 707 prototype over Seafair's Gold Cup hydroplane race course in August 1955 (see an excerpt of that chapter here). For Seattleites, it's a familiar story, and if you weren't there, Verhovek will make you feel like you were.

It wasn't just public confidence that Johnston won that day, but the confidence of Boeing's potential customers for its plane. When an angry Boeing President Bill Allen demanded of Johnston what he thought he was doing by engaging in such a risky stunt, Johnston replied, "Selling airplanes."

Jet Age is about technology, but mostly it's about people and their ambitions, for that's what makes a "race." Verhovek manages to put flesh on the bones of Boeing's Allen, the lawyer-turned-aerospace exec who was the antithesis of Johnston's cowboy, yet played the company's biggest hands. And so, too, aviation pioneer Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, driven, visionary and, like many British heroes, tinged with tragedy. Not only did he lose aviation's great race, but two of his sons died test-piloting planes, one a de Havilland jet.

Verhovek's story also reminds us about the transformative effect of the Jet Age. While Seattle's old "Jet City" moniker is decidedly retro (more so since Boeing moved its headquarters to Chicago), it is largely because the world has moved on and embraced as ordinary the ability to fly anywhere at anytime at high speed. But it is no less remarkable, given how Boeing has helped to shrink the world. 

Verhovek is the right man to tell the story. We became friends during his tenure as a Seattle-based correspondent for the New York Times, when Verhovek demonstrated a voracious curiosity and a knack for finding and telling important stories about the region. He took to Seattle, left for a short time to work for the Los Angeles Times in Shanghai, but like many who travel the world and stop over in Seattle, he found it impossible to bring himself to leave. He's been an airline nut since childhood when he collected, along with the normal baseball cards he's quick to point out, airline timetables. He says he used them to launch imaginary flights around the globe on such "fallen flag" carriers as Pan Am, TWA and Western Airlines.

Still, despite his being an aviation nerd since his boyhood in Boston, Jet Age is not written for fellow nerds but is in the best storytelling style of Verhovek the reporter, finding the drama, putting the story of the passenger jet in context, yet never getting trapped in minutiae. My only criticism is that the book felt too short. In a weird tribute to his prose style, he left me wanting to know even more about the engineering, and I can't remember ever feeling that way about a book. Verhovek, I know, could make it interesting even to a non-techie like me.

While you and I might take jets and Boeing for granted, for many people they have wrought a miracle. Some years ago, I was talking with Bill Asbury, then the state's protocol officer, responsible for squiring around foreign VIP visitors to the state. I asked him what the guests most wanted to see — the Space Needle, Mount Rainier? No, he replied, they wanted to visit the Boeing plant in Everett to see the place that connected them to the rest of the world.

Verhovek offers some numbers that make the case for the unanticipated impact of the popularity of safe jet travel. In 1958, the year the first commercial 707 flew, 171,367 people visited Hawaii, he writes. Today, more than 7 million do, virtually all by jet. Those who doubted the economics or worth of jet travel were unable to anticipate how much it would change the way we see the world and distance. Now we can't imagine one without FedEx and our ability to deliver ourselves or our packages to the remotest corners of the earth.

Yet Verhovek points out that there is also something little changed about jet travel itself. People no longer wear coats and ties to fly on jets, as my father and I did when taking a new 707 to New York in the Mad Men era. The security lines are long. But the basic experience of getting on a plane, the speed, the comfort, the forward-facing seats, the neat rows of windows, the flight attendants, the (diminishing) amenities are in many respects much as they were when Pan Am first started flying 707s. The experience is somehow archetypal. You can't say the same about your original calculator or personal computer or even your car, where the "user experience" has likely changed dramatically. In short, Boeing managed to create something cutting edge, transformative, and enduring even in the world of rapid change that it helped to usher in.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.