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    Commercial Aviation

The left side of the Boeing Aviation Hangar is dedicated to general and commercial aviation. If you’re near the Enola Gay, turn so that you’re facing the Space Hangar, then turn left at the main walkway near the Junkers JU52.

The Junkers Ju52 was a 17-passenger commercial plane that debuted in 1932. It was to German aviation what the Ford Tri-Motor or Douglas DC-3 (see page XREF) was to American aviation. The Ju52 could fly from small, primitive fields, making it a favorite of countries around the world trying to build up their air transportation networks cheaply. More than 4,800 Ju52s were built, and they continued to fly commercially well into the 1960’s. A handful are still flying today. The Boeing 367-80 “Dash 80” shown here is the original prototype for what would be known as the Boeing 707, one of the most successful aircraft designs in history. Boeing proposed the design in the early 1950’s, as a military tanker for in-air refueling. When the Air Force balked at the idea, Boeing pushed ahead with building a prototype anyway, hoping that commercial and military sales would come after the plane had proven itself.

The prototype shown here first flew in mid-1954. It was far faster and larger than other commercial planes of its time, and could fly up to 3,500 miles without refueling. It didn’t take long for Boeing’s gamble to pay off, either: with slight modifications, the Air Force bought more than two dozen planes for air refueling and transport, naming it the KC-135. More than 700 were eventually built.

Boeing called the commercial version of the 367-80 the 707, and it was wildly successful too. It was cheaper to operate than the piston-engine planes currently being flown by the airlines, and could fly almost 40% faster, allowing it to move more passengers every week and make more money for the airline. More than 850 707’s were built, in dozens of variations. Millions of Americans got their first jet ride in a Boeing 707.

The prototype on display is notable not only because it’s the first 707 – it also performed one of the most famous aerobatic maneuvers of in the history of flight. Test pilot Tex Johnston barrel-rolled the Dash 80 over Lake Washington during a boat race on August 7, 1955. No one had ever seen a plane this large do a roll, and for decades after, the feat was considered an urban legend. Home movie footage surfaced a few years ago, however, taken by a spectator at Lake Washington, confirming the Dash 80’s feat. You can see the video here:

The star of the commercial aviation section is the Air France Concorde in the middle of the floor. The Concorde was the world’s first commercial, supersonic plane, able to fly from London to New York in under four hours, at more than twice the speed of sound.

The Concorde was conceived in the optimistic, early 1960’s, when it was thought that the trend of faster commercial airplanes would eventually mean supersonic transport. To get a jump on competition from the Americans, the governments of France and England teamed up to design and build the Concorde together. The first prototype flew in 1969, and commercial service began in 1976.

The Concorde was definitely fast, but as a complex, high-performance aircraft it was also expensive to operate. Unfortunately, it could hold only about a hundred passengers, so each round-trip ticket on the Concorde between London to New York cost around $12,000, when a regular, subsonic flight could be booked for less than $2,000. Most people decided that eight hours of their time wasn’t worth ten grand, so the Concorde was never economically viable as a business.

The Concorde on display here was the first delivered to Air France in 1976. It flew almost 18,000 hours before being retired in 2003. It was given to the people of the United States by Air France to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution and ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Other Lands at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center