Boeing’s jets turn 70: A timeline of highs, lows and turbulence

Boeing, founded in 1916, has experienced good times and bad during its more than 100 years in the air.

Front of Boeing jet in the air with front wheel out
A Boeing 737 Max jet prepares to land in the United States in 2020 [File: Elaine Thompson/AP]

On May 14, 1954, Boeing, now one of the world’s largest commercial aerospace companies, unveiled its first commercial jet-powered passenger plane, the Model 367-80 prototype, at its Renton Field plant on the south shore of Lake Washington in Washington state, where jetliners are still produced today.

The 367-80 would eventually be retired on January 22, 1970 but not before its technology had been used to create the famous 707 model – and, later the hugely successful 737.

Initially, airlines were cautious about embracing jet technology, citing worries about expense and noise levels among other things. However, the successful test flights of the 367-80 demonstrated the advances aviation had made in increased speeds and altitudes.

Ultimately, this success laid the groundwork for Boeing’s 707 plane, which was launched in 1957. US airline group Pan Am began regular 707 flights on October 26, 1958, signalling the industry’s broader acceptance of jet airliners. Before the 707, propeller-driven aircraft had dominated commercial air travel.

Boeing’s 737 model was launched in 1967 and would become the most commercially successful aeroplane in aviation history.

However, in recent years, Boeing has suffered a string of technical failures. Most recently, a Boeing 737 carrying 85 people caught fire and skidded off a runway at Senegal’s main airport, injuring 10 people including the pilot, while a Boeing 767 cargo plane was forced to make an emergency landing following a front landing gear failure.

Last week, Boeing was forced to postpone the launch of its new CST-100 Starliner capsule, designed for launch into space, after engineers detected a problem with a rocket valve.

Here is a timeline of some of Boeing’s highs and lows over the past century.

(Al Jazeera)

A century in the air – some of Boeing’s highs

  • World War I

The company, which was first founded as Pacific Aero Products Co by William Boeing in 1916, was officially named Boeing Airplane Co in 1917, shortly after the US entered the war. During the war, Boeing provided Model C trainer planes to the US Navy, designed a new patrol “flying boat” and signed a contract with the US Navy to build 50 Curtiss HS-2L seaplanes.

In 1917, it also produced the first US-designed and built bomber plane and its Martin MB-1 bomber made its first flight.

  • World War II

During World War II, Boeing produced bombers such as the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-29 Superfortress. The B-29 Superfortress planes, named Enola Gay and Bockscar, were the two aircraft used to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The atomic bombing caused almost 200,000 casualties. Long-term effects on survivors would lead to radiation sickness and such cancers as leukaemia, thyroid cancer and lung cancer, due to radiation exposure.

  • Launch of the 737 airliner

One of Boeing’s most significant contributions to commercial aviation was the 737 series of jetliners, launched in 1967. The model would become one of the best-selling commercial jetliners in aviation history. Nearly 12,000 have been built.

  • The moon landing

During the Apollo programme, which ultimately saw American astronaut Neil Armstrong become the first person to walk on the moon, Boeing built the Saturn V’s maiden rocket in 1967. That same model rocket would be used for the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, landing astronauts on the moon.

  • Boeing, the billion-dollar company

Boeing made $1bn in sales for the first time in 1956. It was publicly listed on the New York Stock Exchange, trading under the ticker symbol BA, in January 1978 and is currently valued at $109.5bn.

Which fatal crashes have involved Boeing planes?

  • Lion Air crash, 2018

More than 100 years after Boeing was first founded, Lion Air Flight 610, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 domestic passenger flight, crashed into the Java Sea 13 minutes after taking off from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, Tangerang in Indonesia, en route to Depati Amir Airport, Pangkal Pinang, killing all 189 people on board on October 29, 2018. An investigation by the Indonesian authorities blamed a combination of an aircraft design flaw which had forced the plane to dive down, inadequate training and maintenance problems, one year later.

Boeing crash
Residents collect debris at the scene where Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed in a wheat field just outside the town of Bishoftu, 62km southeast of Addis Ababa on March 10, 2019 [Jemal Countess/Getty Images]
  • Ethiopian Airlines crash, 2019

Less than a year after the Lion Air incident, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, also a Boeing 737 MAX 8 and a scheduled international passenger flight from Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, crashed near the Ethiopian town of Bishoftu just six minutes after takeoff on March 10, 2019, killing all 157 people on board. The same technical issue which had been found in the Lion Air case was also discovered.

The 737 MAX was grounded worldwide due to concerns about a faulty sensor that had caused its Manoeuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) to continually tilt the plane downwards, causing it to dive.

As a result of the controversy over the design flaw, Boeing’s board removed CEO Dennis Muilenburg as chairman but allowed him to remain chief executive.

The Boeing 737 MAX was finally cleared to resume flights by the FAA in November 2020, after the problem was fixed but Boeing had already been heavily criticised by the US House Transportation Committee for failing to take better safety measures.

What incidents involving Boeing planes have happened this year?

  • Alaskan Airlines door panel blowout, January

In January this year, a door panel on Alaskan Airlines flight 1282, a Boeing 737 MAX 9 jet, blew out, causing rapid decompression and forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing at Portland International Airport. Some passengers suffered minor injuries but nobody was killed or seriously harmed. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) immediately grounded the 737 Max 9, of which there were 171 in use worldwide. Loose hardware was reported in an initial investigation.

This photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows a gaping hole where the panelled-over door had been at the fuselage plug area of Alaska Airlines Flight 1282, on January 7, 2024, in Portland, Oregon [National Transportation Safety Board via AP]

The incident caused a flurry of conspiracy theories which have ramped up in the past three months because of the deaths of two Boeing whistleblowers.

John Barnett, a quality control engineer who worked for Boeing for more than three decades, was found dead in March 2019. His body was discovered with a gunshot wound and a suicide note in his truck, which was parked in a hotel car park in South Carolina.

Two weeks ago, Joshua Dean, a former quality auditor at Spirit AeroSystems, a supplier for Boeing, died in an Oklahoma hospital due to a staph infection that quickly developed into pneumonia.

  • Air Senegal plane skids off runway, May

A chartered Air Senegal Boeing B737-300 plane skidded off a runway before takeoff early on Thursday, May 9 at Blaise Diagne International Airport in the capital, Dakar. Eighty-five people – including two pilots and four cabin crew – were on board the flight operated by TransAir and bound for the Malian capital Bamako. At least 10 people were injured, the transport ministry said.

Photos showed the damaged plane at a standstill in a grassy field with a damaged wing, its emergency exit slides deployed.

Videos shared on social media appeared to show a left wing on fire.

FedEx emergency landing
A FedEx Express Boeing 767 cargo plane made an emergency landing at Istanbul Airport on May 8 without deploying its front landing gear but managed to stay on the runway and avoid casualties [Umit Bektas/Reuters]
  • FedEx flight makes emergency landing, May

On Wednesday, May 8, a Boeing 767 cargo aircraft belonging to FedEx made an emergency landing at Istanbul in Turkey after its front landing gear failed. No one was injured and the crew successfully evacuated the aircraft.

  • Corendon Airlines plane has burst tyre, May

Also in Turkey, 190 people – including six crew members – were safely evacuated from a Boeing 737-800 belonging to Corendon Airlines after one of the aircraft’s tyres burst on Thursday, May 9, during landing at Gazipasa, an airport near the Mediterranean coastal town of Alanya.

  • Boeing Starliner launch halted, May

Boeing called off the inaugural crewed flight CST-100 Starliner space capsule on Monday, May 7, after engineers detected an issue with the Atlas V rocket valve. The decision to call off the launch on Monday came two hours before the scheduled liftoff and about an hour after two NASA astronauts had strapped into the spacecraft.

NASA chief Bill Nelson posted on X. “Standing down on tonight’s attempt to launch. As I’ve said before, @NASA’s first priority is safety. We go when we’re ready.”

(Al Jazeera)

Is Boeing’s safety record being investigated?

Boeing has been the subject of 32 whistleblower complaints lodged with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the workplace safety regulator, in the United States during the past three years

Air safety officials in the US are also currently investigating whether employees at Boeing falsified inspection records for the 787 Dreamliner.

Sam Salehpour, another whistleblower and quality engineer who worked for Boeing for 10 years has stated he had safety concerns regarding the 787 Dreamliner. Last month, Salehpour testified at a congressional hearing with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the safety of the 777 and 787 aircraft.

He stated: “I have analysed Boeing’s own data to conclude that the company is taking manufacturing shortcuts on the 787 programme that may significantly reduce the airplane’s safety and the life cycle.”

Boeing strongly refuted the claims and stated that it is “fully confident in the 787 Dreamliner”.

Source: Al Jazeera