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The plane ride that sparked jet travel

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in Leaders & Managers

In 1950, Boeing President Bill Allen flew in a B-47 jet … and the commercial air industry was never the same.

During World War II and into the early 1950s, Boeing thrived on making military planes, and had pioneered the jet fighter, but had not been a player in the commercial airplane market.

Commercial airlines bought prop-driven planes: Competitors Douglas and Lockheed offered the best prop designs. Even Boeing executives were leery of entering the commercial airplane business.

After his ride in the B-47, Allen became convinced that the demand for jet-speed travel soon would outweigh airlines’ reliance on prop planes. So, when Boeing was forced to decide in 1954 whether to pay huge taxes from its profits on military contracts or reinvest those profits into the business, Allen made a bold move: He devoted $16 million toward developing a jet airliner and an air-refueling tanker.

Long story short: The jet airliner that Boeing developed under Allen became the Boeing 707, which became the mainstay of jet airline travel well into the 1990s.

The lesson: Vision + wise investment = success.

— Adapted from Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation, T.A. Heppenheimer, Wiley.

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