Boeing Frontiers
October 2003
Volume 02, Issue 06
Top Stories Inside Quick Takes Site Tools
Historical Perspective

Century of Flight


Progress, despite a recessionDuring the 1970s, advances in engines and aerodynamics, as well as the introduction of the microprocessor, led to a new generation of commercial and military aircraft. At the same time a worldwide recession and other political events created one of the most difficult eras for the aviation industry.

A dramatic illustration of the effect of the recession on the aviation industry is the number of airline orders the world's two largest commercial airplane manufacturers, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, collected in 1971. That year, the two companies combined for only 115 orders. In comparison, Boeing alone in 2002—thought to be the worst year in modern commercial aviation history—collected 251 orders.

For Boeing, the recession was compounded by the cancellation of the Supersonic Transport in 1971. Company employment plunged from 109,000 in early 1970 to just 38,000 in October 1971, prompting a billboard that read, "Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights."

To survive the downturn, nearly every domestic aerospace company started or expanded diversification efforts. While most ventured into computers and electronics, Boeing also started a construction company and built non-aircraft products including hydrofoils, commuter trains and power-generating windmills—none of which proved profitable.

During this period, air travel changed as increased attention was given to the economy and efficiency of airliners, especially after fuel costs increased dramatically because of the Arab oil embargo in 1973. New airliners had to be more economical with fewer frills and more seats, leading to a new generation of fuel-efficient, high-technology airliners that would appear in the 1980s.

In 1978 the U.S. government lifted regulations governing the airlines. Deregulation created a highly competitive environment that forced some airlines out of business and others to merge, but also spawned a host of new startup carriers. In all, new high-capacity planes, like the 747 and DC-10, along with expanded competition, forced down the price of tickets, allowing more people to travel than ever before. The affordability of air travel brought about an ironic downside: While more people could afford to fly, the romance of air travel disappeared as airports and airplanes became crowded and luxuries were eliminated.

In military aviation, the United States launched a whole new generation of tactical aircraft, most in reaction to lessons learned in Vietnam. The U.S. Navy filled its requirement for a fleet air defense and air superiority fighters in 1970 with the introduction of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat—probably best known for its starring role in the movie "Top Gun." The Navy also replaced a variety of tactical aircraft with the multirole McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet in 1978.

The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle in 1972 and the Boeing E-3A "Sentry" Airborne Warning and Control System in 1976 answered the U.S. Air Force's need for air dominance. Other tactical aircraft like the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the AH-64 Apache helicopter were introduced. All of these aircraft continue today as the frontline tactical air force of the U.S. military and for allied forces around the world.

The strain on the U.S. federal budget from the recession, the Vietnam War and new welfare programs forced cuts in the space program, ending the Apollo moon missions with Apollo 17 in 1972. Apollo/Saturn would see two more successes before it ended. In 1973, two years after the Soviet Union launched Salyut 1, the first manned space laboratory, the United States converted the third stage of the Saturn booster into Skylab, America's first space station. In 1975 an Apollo capsule docked with a Soviet Soyuz capsule in the first joint U.S.-Soviet human spaceflight.

For the remainder of the decade, the United States would explore space with probes such as Pioneer 10 and 11, which flew past Jupiter; Mariner 10, which visited Venus and Mercury; and Viking, which landed on Mars. As the decade came to a close, the future of human space flight—the Space Shuttle—was being prepared for its first trip into space.


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