May 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 1 
Historical Perspective

A legend born 50 years ago


Dash 80Fifty years ago this month, the future of flight and the future of The Boeing Company were forever changed.

On May 14, 1954, at its Renton, Wash., plant, Boeing rolled out a new airplane representing a calculated risk that, if wrong, had the potential of being the end of the company. Fortunately, it became known as one of the most important business decisions in aviation history--and a decision that revolutionized flight.

The plane was a swept-wing four-engine jet that was the prototype for an Air Force jet tanker and a commercial jet transport. Boeing gave the plane the model number 367-80, but it would come to be known affectionately as "The Dash 80."

Against a background of a market fearful of jet travel and dominated by Douglas prop-liners, Boeing President William Allen, with the advice of some of the most talented designers in aviation history, decided that Boeing could build a plane that would overcome these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, return Boeing to the commercial airplane market, and provide the U.S. Air Force a jet tanker it needed to keep pace with its new jet-powered bombers.

Investing $16 million of its own money, or all the profit that the company had made during the 1940s, Boeing built the Dash 80 prototype.

Very special guests at the rollout were William Boeing and his wife, Bertha. Joining them on the podium were Allen, Boeing Chairman Claire Egtvedt, and W.P. Gwinn, vice president of United Aircraft and manager of the Pratt & Whitney engine division.

Bertha Boeing was given the honor of christening the new plane: "Today I am christening twins, since this airplane has several possible uses. Whether the use be military, for our security, or commercial, for our welfare, I know you all will join with me in wishing her a glorious future."

Then as Mrs. Boeing broke a bottle of champagne over the nose of the Dash 80 (actually over an angle bar that was fitted into the pitot-tube opening), she said, "I christen thee--the Airplane of tomorrow--the Boeing Jet Stratotanker--Stratoliner."

In a way, this was a re-enactment of a similar christening in 1927, the same year that Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. At that 1927 event, Mrs. Boeing christened a Boeing Model 40, launching the first revenue flight of the fledgling Boeing Air Transport Corporation, of which William Allen was president.

That endeavor was a great risk as well, but in less than two years William Boeing would join his airplane and airline business with Pratt & Whitney to create United Aircraft and Transport Corporation--one of the largest and most successful corporations in America. It was fitting that all these players who began their success in 1927 were together on the podium in 1954 presiding over the rollout of the Dash 80.

It was reported that William Boeing had tears in his eyes as the yellow-and-chocolate-brown-painted airplane rolled out of the factory to the Air Force song being played by the Renton High School marching band. A Boeing writer wrote: "Accompanying her were the hopes of a great many people that she may contribute both to America's military security and her economic welfare."

Those hopes have been realized to a greater degree than anyone could have imagined at the time, as the Dash 80 led to the KC-135 Stratotanker, still the mainstay of the USAF tanker fleet; the first presidential jet transport "Air Force One"; the E-3 AWACS; and the 707, the first successful commercial jet and the first member of the world's most successful family of commercial jetliners.

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