First Twenty Years


Barnstorming, progenitor of the modern air show, was an early form of civil aviation and a source of jobs for many early pilots, including Charles Lindbergh.



Model C

The last Boeing Model C off the production line carried 60 letters on the first international air mail delivery between Vancouver and Seattle.


Model C


Only one model was ever built, and that same model flew between British Columbia and Seattle for eight years.



Model 40

The first Model 40 could carry up to 1,200 pounds of mail.


Model 40

Calm Before The Storm


“Without the B-17 we may have lost the war.” –General Carl Spaatz, the American air commander in Europe.



Douglas DC-3

An eastbound DC-3 could cross the continental United States in about 15 hours with three fueling stops.


Douglas DC3


314 Clipper

President Franklin D. Roosevelt travelled to the Casablanca conference by Clipper in 1943.



T-6 Texan Trainer

The T-6 trained hundreds of thousands of pilots in 34 different countries.



P-51 Mustang

The Truman Senate War Investigating Committee called the Mustang “the most aerodynamically perfect pursuit plane in existence.”


P51 Mustang

B-29 Superfortress

The B-29 was the most technologically advanced airplane of WWII. In addition, it was the most vital and the most expensive program during the war, even compared to the Manhattan project to build the atom bomb.




B-47 Stratojet

In 1949, the B-47 crossed the continental United States in under four hours, clocking in an average speed of 608 mph. The B-47 pioneered the basic concept for sub-sonic jets that are still used today.



F-86 Sabre

The craft-to-craft victory ratio for the F-86 was 10 to 1 during its service in the Korean War.



Boeing 707

From the end of World War II until the rollout of the 707 prototype, Boeing committed almost all the profits made to designing and producing the 707 prototype.



A-4 Skyhawk

The Douglas A-4 Skyhawk helped introduce a new method of air-to-air refueling that allowed aircraft in remote areas to hook up and refuel others of the same model.



B-52 Stratofortress

Contemporary models of the B-52 can carry up to 70,000 pounds of weaponry.



F-4 Phantom II Fighter

The F-4 set the world altitude record in 1959, when its prototype reached a height of almost 100,000 feet.




The CH-47 can carry up to 28,000 pounds of additional cargo, making it an effective and important contributor to disaster and refugee relief.



Above and Beyond

Saturn V Rocket

The Saturn V rocket, when fully fueled, weighed about 6.5 million pounds and was the largest and heaviest rocket that had ever flown successfully.


Saturn V

Boeing 747

The 747 was originally designed to double as a cargo carrier, since Boeing was afraid that supersonic passenger aircraft would render the model obsolete. In fact, production of the 747 is ongoing and has surpassed 1,500 airplanes.



Boeing F-15

The F-15 has an air combat record of 104 victories to 0 losses.



A-64 Apache

In the three decades since its debut, more than 2,100 Apache helicopters have been produced.



Still On The Rise

Space Shuttle Orbiter

The reusable orbiter carried 355 people from 16 countries during its 30 years of service.


Space Shuttle

787 Dreamliner

The Dreamliner is designed to be 20% more fuel efficient than its predecessor, the Boeing 767.



1916 - 1936


→ The Birth of Aviation

It can be argued, of course, that the history of human flight stretches as far back as the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, or Leonardo da Vinci’s designs of the 15th century, or the 19th-century invention of Zeppelin dirigibles. But flight as we know it today—in fixed-wing airplanes—began in the early 20th century, as entrepreneurs and engineers including William E. Boeing, Donald Douglas Sr., James H. "Dutch" Kindelberger, and James S. McDonnell began to build on what the Wright Brothers had started not so long before.

Storming the Skies

The Wright brothers helped popularize barnstorming, stunt flights that showcased both pilot skills and aircraft strength. In 1914, William Boeing took his first plane ride with a barnstormer. Later that year, he built a hangar next to Lake Union in Seattle.

In 1915, during World War I, that German lieutenant Kurt Wintgens scored the world’s first aerial victory. He did it in the first fighter plane that had a machine gun synchronized with the airplane’s propeller, which allowed it to shoot directly in the pilot’s line of sight.

In July of the next year, William Boeing incorporated the Pacific Aero Products Co., which would be renamed the Boeing Airplane Co. a year later. In November, Boeing would watch as the first Boeing production aircraft, the Model C, took its first flight over Lake Union.

When the U.S. entered World War I, in 1917, Boeing shipped modified Model C’s to the U.S. Navy, beginning a relationship with the military that continues today, long after the end of World War I in 1918.

Air Delivery

Boeing’s first projects had a practical focus: Beginning in 1919, the B-1, Boeing’s first commercial craft, would carry mail from Seattle to Canada for the next eight years. In 1927, the Boeing Model 40A would be designed specifically for the purpose of mail delivery, winning a U.S. Post Office contract to deliver mail between San Francisco and Chicago.

To operate its growing airmail business, Boeing Air Transport (BAT) was founded in 1927. After a series of acquisitions and mergers and passage of the Air Mail Act of 1934, BAT would give birth to United Airlines.

At the same time, pilots and engineers around the world were spending much of the 1920s pushing the physical limits and durability of airplanes. The U.S. Army Air Service’s “World Flyers” completed the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe in 1924; Charles Lindbergh made the first solo non-stop crossing of the Atlantic in 1927; in 1930, Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm became the first pilots to circle the earth whose route took them over both the northern and southern hemispheres; and Amelia Earhart made history as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932.

Throughout the 1920s, Boeing was developing multiple airplane models—fighter planes and transports—in contract with the U.S. military. At the same time, scientists and engineers in Germany and Britain had begun research on the next innovation in flight: the jet engine, which would become standard by the 1950s.

1936 - 1939


→ Out of the Depression

Though the effects of the Great Depression were still rippling throughout the global economy, the aviation industry continued to advance, bolstered by increasing demand. The first B-17, also dubbed “The Flying Fortress” by the Seattle Times, first took flight in 1935. Later models would enter combat in 1941, when the British Royal Air Force took delivery of several B-17s for high-altitude missions. Gen. Carl Spaatz, the U.S. air commander in Europe said, “Without the B-17 we may have lost the war.” Decades later, an 88-year-old veteran, who had landed his flak-riddled B-17 on only two of its four engines, wrote to Boeing, thanking them “for making such a good airplane.”

High Ambitions

The Great Depression slowed the growth of the global aviation industry not at all. In 1931, Boeing Air Transport, National Air Transport, Varney Airlines, and Pacific Air Transport merged to form United Airlines, which would provide continent-wide U.S. air service. At the time, though, coast-to-coast routes averaged flight times of well over 24 hours one-way.

Capitalizing on increased commercial demand for air travel, C. R. Smith, then president of American Airlines, commissioned Douglas to design an airplane that could carry passengers overnight. The result was the Douglas DC-3, the first airplane that turned a profit purely through passenger transport, as opposed to carrying the U.S. mail. When it was first delivered in 1936, the DC-3 was intended to set a standard of luxury for both United and American Airlines.

The DC-3 and its predecessor, the DC-2, were carrying more than 90 percent of all U.S. air passengers by 1939. Despite its conception as a luxury airplane, the DC-3 is also known for being rugged, resilient, and multipurpose. Versions of the DC-3 were produced for military use during World War II—more than were produced for commercial use, in fact—and proved their worth by transporting vast amounts of cargo. More than seven decades after its first delivery, it is still in use by a number of smaller and emerging markets.

Models like the B-17 and the DC-3 proved their readiness for military and cargo transport as international tensions rose in the years before World War II. The 1930s might have seen a setback to the global economy, but it also produced some of the aircraft that would populate the sky in the coming war.

1939 - 1945


→ Warfare Aloft

World War II revolutionized more than just the way we fight: It changed the very character of flight. Wartime demanded faster and larger-scale production of airplanes, but it also introduced technological advances and modifications that pilots and passengers now take for granted.

In Training

Commissioned by Pan American Airlines as a long-range commercial craft that could take off from, land on, and fly across oceans, Boeing’s 314 Clipper featured dressing rooms, a dining salon, even a bridal suite. But shortly after taking its first flight in 1938, the Clipper was put to work in World War II.

The Clipper wasn’t Boeing’s first draftee. The T-6 Texan Trainer, called “the Harvard” by the British Royal Air Force, taught the majority of Allied pilots everything from strafing to dogfighting.

Heavy Hitters

The P-51 Mustang was a critical asset for U.S. forces during World War II and the war in Korea. The first American fighter over Europe, it became especially noted for escorting U.S. bombers that damaged the Axis infrastructure. By virtually obliterating Germany’s access to oil production, for example, Allied air forces—in large part thanks to the P-51—was able to cripple Axis supply lines.

The Mustang and similar models were also known for their role in reconnaissance. An early form of aerial espionage, it predated the infrared and satellite imagery techniques developed during the Cold War, but aircraft reconnaissance remains fundamental to intelligence gathering even today.

Aircraft weapons capabilities advanced to previously unimaginable levels during World War II. The B-29 Superfortress, for example carried multiple remotely operable weapons systems, and it was B-29’s range that was fundamental to winning the war in the Pacific and bringing a close to World War II overall.

1945 - 1962


→ Post-War Innovation

As military aircraft were retrofitted for postwar use as passenger planes and transports, aviation engineers turned to innovations for peacetime. Their achievements included breaking the sound barrier, in 1947.

New Records, New Uses

Also in 1947, the B-47 set speed and distance records with the swept-back wings that would become standard on many commercial and military aircraft. The U.S. Air Force’s newly formed Strategic Air Command would choose B-47 variants to be their first aircraft of choice.

During the Berlin Blockade, when the Soviet Union blocked railway access into West Berlin, many countries sent air transports to bring food and supplies into the divided city, the first of many major humanitarian missions for global aviation.

Sky Traffic

As Cold War tensions rose, the Korean War became an opportunity for the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to test their aircraft against each other. Thanks in part to the F-86 Sabre Jet, the Soviets lost. After its first flight in 1950, the F-86 destroyed so many Russian-built enemy planes that the final ratio of air-to-air victory was 10-to-1. F-86 models would also set five speed records before production ended in 1956.

At the same time, Boeing was focused on developing its commercial fleet. Marketed as comfortable, reliable, and safe, the Boeing 707 was commissioned to be the new standard in commercial aviation. The timing could not have been better. After the 707’s debut in 1957, travel by air exceeded travel by rail and sea for the first time.

Functional Flexibility

The A-4 Skyhawk Light Attack Bomber provided the U.S. Navy and Marines and America’s allies with unusual flexibility and maneuverability, built to be only half the weight of its contemporaries. Its first combat flight was in 1964, when A-4 models led raids on North Vietnam.

First conceived in 1954 as an long-range, high-altitude strategic bomber, the B-52 Stratofortress has been adapted to fly virtually every kind of aviation mission, from carrying the U.S. airborne nuclear arsenal and .deploying cruise and ballistic missiles to advanced advanced signals intelligence. Still very much in service, its latest upgrades made just last year, the B-52 remains as relevant to contemporary air defense as it was 60 years ago.

The F-4 Phantom II fighter saw combat in both the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm and has served with the air forces of 11 countries in addition to the United States. Twenty years after its first flight, in 1958, McDonnell Douglas celebrated the delivery of the 5,000th model of the F-4.

Designed in the early Sixties in response to the U.S. Army’s demand for heavy lift helicopters, the CH-47 and its later variants have been used to transport refugees, armed forces, commercial passengers, and cargo. Japanese CH-47s were used to cool the Fukushima Power Plant after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, dropping vast amounts of seawater on nuclear reactors.

1962 - 1975


→ “We choose to go to the moon”

Humanity’s first forays into space were as much about controlling territory as they were about the advancement of science. Sputnik in 1957 and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first Earth orbit in 1961 threatened the U.S.’s preeminence in the air and as a world power, sparking the “space race” and opening a new frontier in aircraft development.

‘One Giant Leap’

The nine Apollo space expeditions to the moon were powered by the three-stage Saturn V rocket, for which Boeing designed and built the first stage. The height of a 36-story building, the Saturn V was built for moon missions, and two years after its first liftoff in 1967, it lifted the Apollo 11 mission that allowed astronaut Neil Armstrong to become the first human to touch the moon. The last Saturn V launched the Skylab space station into Earth orbit in 1973.

The Incredibles

Back on Earth, airplanes were also getting bigger, smarter, and more versatile. Demand for air travel was rising steadily, which resulted in a model that remains a stalwart of commercial flight even today.

A crew of 50,000 Boeing employees designed and constructed the first Boeing 747 in less than 16 months, earning themselves the nickname “the Incredibles.” A response to ever greater demand for commercial air transport, the 747 was the largest civilian aircraft in the world when it went into service in 1970.

The demand for state-of-the-art military aircraft was equally great. McDonnell Douglas’ F-15, commissioned by the Air Force after the Vietnam War, was the first U.S. fighter with enough thrust to accelerate vertically. The F-15 Strike Eagle broke several time-to-climb records, and with continual updating and modernization, it is projected to remain part of the U.S. military aircraft fleet through 2040.

Developed in the mid-1970’s, the AH-64 Apache helicopter is still in use today. With its advanced radar and sensor technology, the heavily armed and combat-ready Apache is designed to be deployable in any weather and conflict scenario. Among its most notable innovations was an integrated sighting system, a connection between helmets and weapons systems that allowed pilots and gunners to shoot wherever they directed their gaze.

1975 - 2016


→ Designs of the Future

In recent years, innovation in the aerospace industry has been forward-looking, whether to the environmental and traffic demands of the future, or the vast possibilities awaiting us outside the earth’s atmosphere. After just a hundred years of flight, our airplanes can do more than take us across the planet: They can take us away from it.

Beyond The Sky

Inevitably, the aerospace industry, as well as the scientific research and innovation that drive it, turned its sights toward outer space. Boeing and the other pioneering companies that would join forces with it in the late 20th century participated in virtually every phase of the U.S. space program, from Project Mercury and the earliest multi-stage launch rockets of the late 1950s to the International Space Station (ISS).

Making its debut in 1981 as the world’s first reusable spacecraft, the Space Shuttle Orbiter was fundamental to the construction of the ISS, which has become a model of global cooperation in the pursuit of knowledge and innovation as well as a platform for the future of space travel.

The Commercial Crew Transportation System, the result of a contract between NASA and Boeing, is scheduled to begin space flights in 2017. The small, reusable capsule will transport crew to and from the International Space Station and may one day be open to paying passengers.

The Dream Ticket

Air travel closer to Earth is continuing to advance as well. Boeing’s latest aircraft, the 787 Dreamliner, was developed to accommodate continuing growth in the demand for air travel as well as the needs of the environment, offering more space to customers while consuming 20 percent less fuel than comparably sized planes. After its first flight in 2009, the Dreamliner reached 1,000 orders faster than any airplane in history.

As sky traffic is projected to keep on growing in coming decades, the aviation industry will continue to be challenged to find new ways to minimize environmental impact while getting passengers to their destinations more quickly and economically. But the past century has proved that the industry and its aircraft can adapt and evolve to meet whatever exigencies present themselves, and the future is looking no less bright as scientists, engineers, and other pioneers on the ever advancing aviation frontier continue to push the limits of flight.

This article, a collaboration of Boeing and Atlantic Re:think, The Atlantic’s creative marketing group, is the second in a series marking Boeing’s 100th year in the aviation industry, which spans the earliest days of barnstorming to the latest ventures into space. The first installment was an interactive experience of the International Space Station.