Behind The Scenes Of A Long Gone Era: PanAm’s 707

“Out on runway number nine, big 707 set to go”

Pan American World Airways began regular Jet Clipper service on 26 October 1958 with the Boeing 707 Jet Clipper.  It was the beginning of a new age in travel – very bad news for passenger ships and trains. “Airbus” back then would have been an oxymoron.  For air travel was much more glorious than a bus.  Just 55 years after the Wright brothers took their first flight, PanAm set a new standard for luxury and professionalism.

Back in 1958, Pilots actually flew their aircraft because fly-by-wire meant something quite different, something more literal – wire rove through pulleys, cranks, and tension cables to directly connect control surfaces with the Pilot’s hand.  In 1958 though, most things were controlled by hand, not computers, if for no other reason than computers were as big as cars. GPS was just three letters of the English alphabet, so not being good at dead reckoning could mean you and your passengers were dead (at least 25 years before “Engines Turning Or Passengers Swimming” or “ETOPS”).  There was no room for error.  Training was the difference between success and failure.

It was a different era.

Back In 1958 it was “Idlewild” not “JFK”. The three – count ‘em, THREE – people working in the cockpit were always male and flight attendants were called “Stewardesses”. Nobody worried about finding seats with extra legroom – because every seat had extra legroom, at least by today’s standards. People back then actually dressed up in something called their “Sunday Best” to travel and never needed reminding to pull up their trousers. It would have made airport security much more challenging, but no one had really hijacked a big passenger plane, yet. But people seemed to be lighting up unfiltered Camels and Marlboros everywhere. That’s why back then the NO SMOKING sign had an on/off switch and there was an ashtray in your armrest.

Technical types would not be seen in public without a plastic pocket protector filled with a plethora of writing instruments onto jot down notes from conversations on dial telephones – in 1958, the commercially successful ball-point pen had been on the market only 13 years.  Teletype machines, punch cards, grease pencils and paper logs were state-of-the-art.  And in 1958 thanks to the 707, Boeing was set to become king of commercial aviation with the DNA for the 727, 737, 757 and even the 747.

“There she goes my friend, she’s rollin’ down at last”

Most know the 707 was not the first jetliner, but it was the first commercially successful jetliner.
Boeing would give birth to 1,011 passenger 707s including the smaller 720 series (in addition to 800 military versions, many still flying). The windows on a 707 were not rectangular to distribute the stress and its fuselage was no mere cylinder – a double bubble joined at a crease with that distinguished and elegant nose giving it 10 knots on its nemesis, the iconic DC-8.

“Hear the mighty engines roar”

High bypass, what high bypass? First powered by the decidedly environmentally insensitive Pratt and Whitney JT3C-6 turbojet engines (power also to the B-52, A3D, F4D, F5D, F-101, F-8 and the U-2) the screaming of those four engines meant someone was going somewhere. On the inside, especially sitting aft of the wing, the deep roar meant a positive rate of climb was a given.

“See the silver wing on high”

That same, admittedly very UN first-class, seat provided the best inflight entertainment. Today, there’s nothing like to that rumble and roar – without those plastic tubes they called “headsets” – and, instead of that shaking central movie screen, watching, quite entranced, the working of that spectacularly complex 707 wing – remember the spinning greasy Archimedes screw that appeared when the flaps were fully deployed? It was made all the better knowing that except for the rudder, (hydraulic assist actually with manual operation possible) all other control surfaces except the spoilers were manual – you needed 90 turns of the trimming wheel were needed between full tail-up and tail-down. The 707 would not only set the course for Boeing’s dominance of the jet airliner market, a time when three-quarters of all civil airliners were Boeings.
The 707 also featured in song and films like Boeing, Boeing (1965) starring Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis. There was Jantzen’s 1957 launch of its ‘707’ swimwear.

“She’s away and westward bound far above the clouds she’ll fly, where the mornin’ rain don’t fall and the sun always shines”

Inevitably, twenty three years after Tex Johnston, Boeing’s chief test pilot, barrel-rolled the prototype over Lake Washington, production of the passenger 707 ended in 1978 (the line stayed open for the military until 1991). PanAm as an airline is long gone, its global logo now more parochially gracing the sides of locomotives and freight cars of a small railroad in the Northeast of the USA.

In 2013 when Tehran-based Saha Air ceased regular passenger operations so did the world’s last regular passenger service of the Boeing 707 and with that, truly the end of an era.

Check out this beautiful video of PanAm, part of the Rick Prelinger Archives posted by the YouTube channel Classic Airliners & Vintage Pop Culture