Frank Whittle
Hans von Ohain
Heinkel He 176
French ramjet experiment
commercial jet aviation
in search of speed
the Cold War
the B-52 Bomber
the Soviet Blackjack
Soviet vertical takeoff efforts
Curtiss LeMay and SACs
the aircraft carrier
cold war fighters
the B2 bomber early programme
US bombers - the future
post war British air defence
French nuclear deterrence
current air capability of China
helicopters at war
'small' wars
guided bombs
cruise missiles

commercial jet aviation

The effect of the war was to telescope decades of development in aviation—in materials and structure, navigation and communication, flight procedures and ground support—into half a decade. There was, at this point, nothing unusual about flying, even if the experience of flight did not get any less unsettling. It was clear that landing mechanisms and procedures developed during the war had made the flying boats unnecessary; the luxuriant British Saunders-Roe “Saro” Princess flying boat was obsolete the day it was unveiled in 1952. The importance to a city of having an international airport nearby caused city governments to build striking airports as a stimulus to business and as symbols of status.

At first, airlines used converted and enhanced World War II planes and pre-war models, such as the Douglas DC-3s (which flew in the war as the C-47 transport), and  the four-engined Lockheed Constellation (the “Connie”) and the less refined, but still serviceable DC-4. Boeing developed a four-engine competitor to the Connie based on the B-29 Superfortress, the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, and Lockheed came back with the Super Constellation in 1950.


 The two major builders of aircraft for commercial aviation were Douglas—which produced the Iegendary twenty-one-passenger DC-3 and the DC-4 (Above). with a seating  capacity of forty — and Lockheed, manufacturers of the Constellation series, including the C-12 I (Below, which became President Eisenhower’s official plane (Roosevelt and Truman had used Douglas planes). Boeing was a distant third at the war’s end with the 377 Stratocruiser (adapted from the B-29 bomber). The three companies established the United States as the leader of post-war civilian aircraft production.

This gave the  United States three sizeable prop aircraft, richly appointed with comfort and convenience, yet with sizeable passenger loads, which met the newly-created demand for long- distance air travel. Great Britain, after some careful but misguided analysis by the Brabazon Committee, which met during the war to plan postwar development of commercial aviation, countered by plunging into the development of jet-powered commercial airliners. The first offering, the Vickers Viscount, a turboprop, was popular with carriers for short distances. Two other efforts inspired by the Brabazon recommendations—the Saro Princess and the Bristol Brabazon,  an ambitious attempt at creating a huge turbojet that had to be abandoned after eight years of fruitless development—were not as fortunate.

The problem seems to have been that the Brabazon Committee tried to guess what the market would be like a decade hence and to plan accordingly. The American approach was to listen to what the market was saying right now and meet those needs. The result was that the British kept building aircraft no one asked for, while the seats on the American planes were full. When the British did create a fully jet-powered passenger aircraft, the de Havilland Comet, it was a sleek, elegantly streamlined and appointed four-engine plane with a respectable passenger load. The first Comet model was  put in service in 1949, and it went through four models, each lengthening the fuselage to allow a larger passenger load.

Britain’s entry into the high-stakes long-distance sweepstakes was the de Havilland D.H. 106 Comet, a jet aircraft of incomparable design and performance that was years ahead of its time when unveiled in 1952. Were it not for a fatal flaw, which was known by both the manufacturers and the British government, it might have established England as a major manufacturer of large jet transports

In 1954 two of the earlier models  crashed in the Mediterranean and service on the plane was suspended. An investigation determined that the problem lay in metal fatigue around the square- cut windows, a problem easily correctable, but the shock caused by the crashes could not be so easily assuaged and the entire program was put on hold while new fuselages could be designed with round window holes.

By always looking to develop its planes further, Douglas stayed  in the forefront of the market in the years following the war.  Here, four generations  of Douglas airliners are parked at the Douglas factory  in Santa Monica, California (from the rear): the DC-3, the four-engine DC-4,  the DC-6,  and the DC-7, the last of the prop line.

At the time, the United States enjoyed 80 percent of the commercial airplane market and more than half of that was from the Douglas Company. The DC-6 had replaced the DC-4 and it was in turn replaced by the DC-7, the definitive prop model of the line. Donald Douglas watched and waited to see how the Comet fiasco would be resolved before leaping into jet transport. This was the opening Boeing was looking for. In 1954 Boeing introduced its new passenger jet aircraft, the Boeing 707, an airplane that used the same basic design specifications as the B-52 the company was building for the U.S. Air Force. The initial reaction to the 707 was not enthusiastic; its first orders were not received until a year after the prototype was unveiled. But with the support of a large  order from Pan Am, by the time the 707 began commercial service in 1959, the orders had rolled in, and Boeing took the lead in the market. Douglas countered with the DC- 8, and the Convair Company entered the market with the 880/990 series built for Delta Airlines and TWA, but neither could shake Boeing’s dominance of the market.

Europeans remained a step behind the American manufacturers, creating the Vickers Viscount, a turboprop that had wide use as a short-haul airliner.

A new generation of jet airliners arrived in 1963 using the fuel-saving technology of the turbofan engine; again Boeing led the way with the Boeing 727, the most successful series of passenger jetliners of the past fifty years. The 707/727 not only has outsold any other single model, but also has been adapted into the most number of models (more than a thousand) and applications of any commercial jet in history. Not being able to compete with Boeing and Douglas in the long- haul market, other builders in the 1950s looked to create better airplanes for the short-haul carriers.

Several models produced in Europe and the United States found popular support in the market: the much admired French Caravelle, based on the Comet fuselage but with engines attached to the rear of the fuselage and not built into the wing (which was both a positive and a negative for the Comet); the British Aerospace Corporation’s BAC 111 and its close rival, the DC-9; and the Boeing 737.

Two aircraft that proved popular for very short trips and for commuter routes were the Fokker F-27 Friendship, produced under license after 1955 by Fairchild, and the de Havilland Twin Otter. In 1969 Boeing again struck out into the unknown by producing the 747 Jumbo Jet, a wide-body commercial jet based on a Boeing military aircraft proposal (not realised), the C-S Galaxy, and powered by four Pratt & Whitney JT9D turbofan engines. This time, Boeing was so certain of its reception in the market that it did not bother with a prototype but used its first production models for test flights.

Boeing 747

The 747 can seat five hundred passengers, though it usually holds 385. It cruises at about six hundred miles per hour (965.Skph) and has a nonstop range of seventy-two hundred miles (11,585km). It often is designed to have a forward first-class (or “business class”) section and a second level on which the cockpit and a lounge are located. The 747 is an expensive airplane, and the cost overruns on the engines, borne by Boeing, nearly bankrupted the company. But twenty-five years of service have proven it to be a durable plane, and it has paid the airlines that use it—and thus Boeing—handsome returns.

The Fokker F-27 Friendship, a fifty-passenger short-distance aircraft, remained in production longer than virtually any other commercial airplane

Boeing’s chief American rivals, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas (the amalgamated company taking shape in 1967), responded to the 747 with large planes of their own. The Lockheed L-1O1 1 Tritar is a somewhat smaller airplane (four hundred-passenger limit) with three Rolls-Royce turbofan engines.

The long-distance market belonged to Boeing, makers of the 707, which was produced in the most designations and for more applications (here, as an in-flight refueller) than any other airplane.

(The cost overruns of the L-lO1 1 engines bankrupted Rolls-Royce.) The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 is smaller still and uses three General Electric turbofan engines. Although cheaper than the 747, these planes have never mounted a serious challenge to Boeing’s dominance in the passenger airline market. The only rival that has emerged is the Airbus A300 series, built by a consortium of French, British, and German government and industrial interests. Smarting from having lost the early rounds in the commercial airplane building market, BAC and the French firm Aérospatiale joined forces in 1962 and planned a supersonic transport (SST) to be called the Concorde.

Douglas DC 10

Americans had been through this before with the Brabazon Committee, and they settled back to watch. Their studies indicated that without large government support, the market would not make an SST profitable, and lengthy hearings in the U.S. Congress indicated that such support was not forthcoming. American builders also anticipated protest from environmentalists over noise and air pollution that would result from any SST. The Concorde was built (there are actually fourteen models in existence, with rarely more than two in use at any one time), and, as predicted, it failed to make anything close to a profit.

Boeing 777

The French and British governments maintained the service strictly for the prestige value, finally terminating in October 2003. In the late 1970s the Soviet Union had built an SST of its own, the Tupolev Tu-144 (dubbed the “Concordski”). It briefly saw limited service between Moscow and Vladivostok and was promptly mothballed after it was involved in a disastrous crash at the 1973 Paris Air Show.


The inroads made by the Airbus A340 in the wide-body passenger jet market have prompted Boeing to forge ahead again and develop the 777, reputed to be the first commercial passenger airplane created completely by computer and without paper.

The 777 uses the most sophisticated electronic communications, navigation, and digital display, and provides a higher standard of passenger comfort (but is still impoverished compared to the airliners of the 1930s). The important issue in the 1990s in commercial aviation is the management crisis that plagues many airlines and the industry as a whole. Twenty years of labour difficulties, mismanagement, airport congestion, rising fuel costs, and government interference, as well as questions raised concerning safety and protection from aircraft failure, terrorism, and even on-board pollution, have put the commercial air transportation industry in an extreme state of crisis, causing financial analysts to wonder whether anyone can still make any money flying people from one place to another.

Airbus finally passed Boeing as the Worlds premier airliner manufacturer in the late 1990s and its 'SuperJumbo' A380 is shortly to go into service and will carry up to 555 passengers.

Airbus A380 on test flights