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From the early days of rickety biplanes to today's high-tech space vehicles, the Boeing Company has been a world leader in aerospace and aviation, known for its highly skilled engineers. Millions of commercial airline passengers fly its jets, including the 757, 777, and the 747 "jumbo jet." Boeing has also provided the U.S. government with some of its best fighter planes and bombers, as well as missile systems. And circling Earth is the International Space Station, with a laboratory and living quarters made by Boeing.
Aviation was still a mystery to most Americans when businessman William Boeing and U.S. Navy engineer George Conrad Westervelt began building airplanes. Working out of Boeing's boathouse in Seattle, Washington, the two men and an assistant completed a plane, called the B & W, in June 1916. The next month, Boeing officially formed the Pacific Aero Products Company, which later became the Boeing Airplane Company.
When the U.S. Navy assigned Westervelt to the East Coast, Boeing hired Tsu Wong as his engineer. Wong's improvements to the B & W led to the Model C, Boeing's first commercial success. During World War I (1914-18), the company sold fifty Model C's to the U.S. government; its first international sale came when New Zealand bought two for its postal service. After the war, however, the demand for planes fell, and Boeing made furniture and small boats to stay in business.
Military sales picked up in the early 1920s, as did sales to the airmail industry. Boeing's Model 40A had a lightweight engine that let it carry twice as much mail as any other plane using the same amount of fuel. Boeing won government contracts to carry mail between Chicago, Illinois, and San Francisco, California, and it formed an airline company, Boeing Air Transport. After buying several other airlines, Boeing called its transport company United Air Lines.
In 1928, the Boeing Airplane Company joined with several other companies to form the United Aircraft and Transportation Company The new company included Pratt & Whitney, a builder of aircraft engines, and Sikorsky Aircraft, a company founded by another aviation pioneer, Igor Sikorsky (1889-1972). Pratt president Fred Rentschler was president of United Aircraft, with William Boeing serving as chairman of the board. By this time, Boeing had turned over most day-to-day operations at his company to Philip Johnson.
As part of United Aircraft, Boeing introduced the first comfortable passenger plane. The Model 80 carried twelve people in a cabin that featured leather seats, running water, and reading lamps. A later model carried eighteen passengers. In 1930, the company built its first all-metal plane; earlier craft featured fabric and wooden parts. The "Monomail" was also Boeing's first single-wing plane, as most aviation companies began moving away from biplanes. The design of the Monomail influenced the Boeing 247, a twin-engine passenger plane that has been called the first modern commercial airliner.
Boeing's new planes made United Aircraft an aviation leader. The company, however, faced problems starting in 1933. That year, the U.S. government began investigating possible illegal business deals in the aviation industry. William Boeing was called to testify before Congress, and he admitted making millions of dollars in questionable—but technically legal—transactions. The next year Boeing returned to Washington, D.C., as the government drew up new rules for airline companies. One rule forced United Aircraft to break up into smaller parts. United Air Lines became a separate company, and the manufacturing divisions split into United Aircraft and Boeing Aircraft.
Through the rest of the 1930s, Boeing developed both commercial and military aircraft. Its four-engine "Clipper" was used to fly passengers over long distances. For the military, Boeing built the long-range B-17 bomber. A commercial version was the first passenger aircraft to feature a cabin with enough air pressure to let the plane fly above bad weather.
Even before the United States entered World War II (1939-45), Boeing was gearing up for wartime production. Once the war started, its plants built the B-17 and the later B-29 bombers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Thousands of women built many of the planes, filling in for men drafted into the military. The B-17, known as the "Flying Fortress," first saw action with the British Air Force in 1941; it became famous for its ability to take enemy gunfire and keep flying. The B-29 "Superfortress" was used primarily in Asia and dropped almost all the bombs that landed on Japan—including the two atomic bombs that helped end the war.
Peacetime was devastating for Boeing workers: the U.S. government cancelled contracts and seventy thousand people lost their jobs. Slowly, however, Boeing gained new orders, both commercial and military. During the postwar years, Boeing built new bombers, including the B-52, which still flies today. It also made a commercial version of its C-97 military transport plane. This "Stratocruiser" carried up to one hundred people and offered twenty-eight bunks for overnight flights. Boeing also built one of the first U.S. military jet planes, which could fly much faster than the old propeller-driven planes.
The Boeing Model 40A, which was used to deliver airmail, included two extra seats, making it Boeing's first passenger plane. The first passenger to fly on Boeing Air Transport was a Chicago reporter. Her trip from San Francisco, California, to Chicago, Illinois, took twenty-two hours.
Jet engines and the larger, faster planes they powered drastically changed commercial aviation. As flying times became shorter and ticket costs fell, more people flew for both business and leisure. Boeing helped pioneer this new age with its first commercial jet, the 707. Both the 707 and a military version were based on the "Dash 80," which cost Boeing $16 million to develop. To compete with Douglas Aircraft Company, the leading commercial plane builder at the time, Boeing built several versions of the 707, tailored to its customers' needs. The plane carried up to 181 passengers while cruising at 300 miles per hour. Boeing delivered its first 707 in 1957, and sold more than seven hundred for commercial use through 1978.
The 707 was a huge moneymaker for Boeing, and the company continued to develop more commercial jets. The 727, introduced in 1964, was designed to fly in and out of small airports. Three years later, the 737 began rolling down runways. It became popular for carrying smaller numbers of passenger on short flights. The next Boeing model went in the other direction. The 747 carried twice as many passengers as any other plane and could fly 6,000 miles nonstop. This was the world's first "jumbo jet"; Boeing has made several versions of the 747 since the first one flew in 1969.
The 747 looked promising, but Boeing faced difficult times shortly after the plane was introduced. Orders were slow, and company president Thornton Wilson laid off about sixty-seven thousand workers. As the major private employer in Washington state, the move hurt the local economy. Eventually, however, the success of the 747 and other new business let Boeing bring back many of these workers, and the company began to design its next commercial planes, the 757 and 767.
During World War II (1939-45), Boeing camouflaged one of its Seattle, Washington, factories by building a fake town on the roof. If any enemy pilots flew overhead, they would have seen a residential neighborhood, not a war plant.
At the end of World War II, Boeing began to move beyond aviation into aerospace and other fields. The company designed an anti-aircraft missile system and rockets used to carry nuclear weapons. When the U.S. government began its space program to land astronauts on the moon, Boeing won many important contracts to build spacecrafts. Its rockets also helped boost satellites into orbit around Earth.
Other new products included huge windmills for producing electricity, a plant to remove salt from seawater, and several hydrofoils built for the U.S. Navy. These high-speed boats ride just above the surface of the water. The company also expanded its product line by purchasing other companies. In 1960, it bought the Vertol Aircraft Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Vertol manufactured large, twin-rotor helicopters. Many of these "choppers" were used during the Vietnam War (1959-75). In 1961, Boeing Aircraft made another move when it officially changed its name to the Boeing Company
Not all of Boeing's new ventures succeeded. In 1966, it began working on a supersonic transport (SST). The plane would fly at almost three times the speed of sound—more than 1,900 miles per hour—and carry 175 passengers. More than $1 billion was spent on the program, but Boeing ended work on the SST after the U.S. Congress voted to stop funding the project.
By the 1980s, Boeing faced new pressure on its commercial aviation business. Airbus, an aircraft company formed by several European nations, was offering planes that matched Boeing's. Airbus also had one major advantage over Boeing: it received government funds, which meant it could afford to lose profits and still stay in business. As a private company, Boeing did not have this luxury. Despite the competition, however, Boeing sales rose from $16.3 billion in 1986 to $29.3 billion in 1991.
By 1995, Boeing controlled more than half of the commercial aviation market. It also remained active in military aviation and aerospace. Boeing built the first Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) in 1976 and continues to make them today. This system is used on planes to track enemy aircraft with sophisticated electronics. It also worked on the F-22 fighter and the B-2 bomber, a "stealth" plane designed to elude enemy radar One project, Sea Launch uses a ship to launch satellites.
To strengthen its position in military fields and aerospace, Boeing struck a number of deals. In 1996, it bought the defense and space division of Rockwell International for $3.2 billion. The next year, Boeing merged with a former competitor, McDonnell Douglas. The new Boeing had 220,000 employees and annual sales of almost $46 billion. At the same time, Boeing was struggling with production and financial problems. The company had always been driven by creative engineering, but its assembly methods and business practices were out-of-date. Boeing briefly shut down its production line in 1997; that same year the company had its first loss in more than fifty years.
Chief executive officer (CEO) Philip Condit and president Harry Stonecipher, the former head of McDonnell Douglas, took steps to update the company. One strategy was to start using more computer technology to design planes. They also put more emphasis on cutting costs and raising profits.
As competitor Airbus planned a new "super jumbo" jet, Boeing announced plans for its Sonic Cruiser. Rather than carrying more passengers than a 747, as the Airbus plane will, the Sonic Cruiser will hold only about 250 passengers. Its benefit will be speed and range. The plane will fly just under the speed of sound and travel up to 7,500 miles without stopping. The goal is to reduce flight length and the number of times passengers must change planes on long journeys.
Boeing is also working on new military craft. Its "Phantom Works" research-and-development division hopes to perfect a pilot-less aircraft. Known as the X-45, this stealth plane will be used to take out enemy defense systems. Computers on board will bring the craft to its targets and release bombs. The unmanned craft will be cheaper to build and fly than regular jet planes, and prevent the loss of pilots on extremely dangerous missions.
Boeing entered the new millennium as the world's largest aerospace company. It made another major purchase in 2000, buying the space and communications division of Hughes Electronic Corporation. Still, Boeing faced tough times. In 2000, the company endured a strike by its engineers. The next year, Boeing had barely settled into its new corporate headquarters in Chicago when the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., sent the commercial aviation industry into a tailspin. Facing a cutback in new plane orders, Boeing laid off thirty thousand workers.
For airlines that were still buying aircraft, Airbus was increasingly becoming their preferred provider, although Boeing still produced about 60 percent of new commercial planes. The company also lost out on a government contract to build a new fighter, and its V-22 Osprey faced lingering questions over technical problems. Designed to lift off and land like a helicopter and fly like a plane, the Osprey seemed prone to crashing.
Despite the setbacks, Boeing continued to develop new products in all areas. It introduced Connexion, a satellite-based system that provides Internet service and communications to airplanes. Boeing also made improvements to its most popular aircraft, including the 777, which was introduced in 1995. In 2002, CEO Condit remained confident in Boeing's future. He said on the company Web site, "We have a strong balance of commercial, defense, and space capabilities, customers in 145 countries, a business backlog of more than $100 billion, and a future with extraordinary potential for discovery and achievement."