Not to put too fine a point on it, but there can be no discussion of aviation, civil or military, present or historical, without salutations to the Boeing Company.
Boeing is named for its founder, William Boeing, a man born a full quarter century before the Wright brothers ventured to Kitty Hawk. His first fortune was made in the Pacific Northwest lumber industry, and it was this capital that financed his pioneering venture into aeronautics. It was in 1916 that he launched what was then called Pacific Aero Products.
The interwar years were the formative years for the Boeing Company. It was during this period they initiated their trademark strategy of equal emphasis on the civil aviation industry, and military contracts. During the mid-’30s, Boeing produced such landmark aircraft as the Boeing 314 Clipper, a trans-Pacific flying boat that boasted passenger lounges and a bridal suite. They also designed and built the bomber that would come to be known as the Flying Fortress.
Neither Boeing nor the USAAF ever officially designated the B-17 with the name by which it would come to be universally known. The Fortress earned its nickname in the skies over Europe, when it was not unusual for them to return to England riddled with hundreds of bullet holes. Indeed, the Luftwaffe employed some of the most advanced ordnance of the war in defense of the Reich; Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs fired cannon that could shred a B-17 with one or two good hits. Hundreds of B-17s and thousands of airmen never did come home. But tens of thousands more did, and most will tell you this was directly due to the Fortress’s ability to take unfathomable punishment and still keep flying.
By war’s end, more than 12,000 B-17s had been built. By that time, it had been eclipsed by an even more advanced Boeing bomber. The B-29 Superfortress was the first bomber with a pressurized cabin, and the first to mount remote-controlled defensive weaponry. Just as the B-17 excelled in Europe, the Superfortress was to make its name in the Pacific. Sky-darkening flights of B-29s flew unopposed over the Japanese home islands, and the civilian population took to calling them, in fear and awe, “B-san,” or, Mr. B. In the end, though, it was just two B-29s, each carrying a single bomb, that changed the world forever, over the course of three horrible days in August, 1945. It was the Enola Gay over Hiroshima, and Bock’s Car above Nagasaki. The Superfortress had become the world’s first nuclear bomber.
It cannot be said, however, that Boeing ever set out to be just a military contractor. The Boeing company is just as famous, if not more so, as the most prolific producer of airliners in the world. From early efforts like the 707 and the 727, which made air travel accessible to nearly everyone, to the mighty 747 and today’s 777, which continue to transform and evolve the industry. There are many seasoned air travelers, with thousands or millions of air-miles under their belts, that have never flown on any aircraft not built by Boeing. Over a quarter of the world’s population has flown on the 747 alone, since its first flight in 1968.
The Boeing Company has never been one to rest on past accomplishments. Today, they are the United States’ largest exporter, in terms of sales. They have linked their future to space flight, being the principle builder of the shuttle fleet and the providers of Delta II and Delta III rockets. They are NASA’s largest single contractor.
For nearly as long as there has been manned flight, there have been Boeing aircraft. As aviation greets the dawning of the 21st century, there is no reason to suspect that this will ever change.