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Early Commercial Airliners           The First Modern Airliners           Jet Airliners

Have you ever traveled on a jumbo jet and wondered how people might have traveled by air before its invention?

The Museum's collection holds a variety of different airplanes which help tell the story of flight. Our collection of commercial aircraft, such as the well-known Boeing 747, help tell the history of America by air. Learn more about some of these aircraft below. 

From the Wright Brothers to Today The Airplane's Family Tree

Did you know that the parts of airplanes today can be traced directly back to the Wright Flyer and the work of Orville and Wilbur Wright? In this episode of STEM in 30, we trace the family tree of the airplane from that first flight on December 17, 1903, to today—all from inside a United Airlines 76.

Interactive Airplane Anatomy

Help Wilbur and Orville assemble the 1903 Flyer and compare it to the parts of a modern airplane. While aviation technology has developed a lot since the Wrights time, not much about the basic components of an aircraft has changed!

Go to interactive

Early Commercial Airliners

The story of commercial aviation starts with air mail. Commercial airlines initially struggled to get off the ground, but with help from the government, who awarded airlines contracts to deliver the mail, they soon began to flourish. As technology improved, aircraft evolved from World War I-style biplanes into sleek, high-performance modern airliners. 

More about early commercial flight

Flying the Mail

The Curtiss JN-4D Jenny

Early airlines were able to turn a profit through contracts with the federal government to fly the mail. Designed as a trainer for the U.S. Army Air Service, the Curtiss JN-4 first flew in 1916. Known popularly as the "Jenny," the JN-4 taught thousands of Allied pilots to fly during World War I. After the war, surplus Jennys were widely used for "barnstorming"—traveling air shows—and they opened the first scheduled air mail service. 

The JN-4D featured a 90-horsepower Curtiss OX-5 engine. The Army ordered Curtiss to convert six JN-4Ds for the U.S. Air Mail Service by installing a larger 150-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine and a mail compartment. These airplanes were redesignated as JN-4Hs. The Smithsonian acquired this Jenny in 1918. 

View Jenny record

Who is Jenny?

The airplane's official name is the Curtiss JN-4. If you say the letters "JN" out loud, they sound like "Jay-En."
That was shortened to "Jen," and it eventually was changed to "Jenny."

Of the more than 200 pilots hired by the Post Office from 1918 to 1926, 35 died flying the mail. Fatalities dropped after the first few years, but flying the mail remained a dangerous-and sometimes deadly-job.
The Post Office created a series of air mail stamps featuring the Jenny when it began flying the mail. Post Office printers made a mistake when they first printed this stamp. Today very few of these rare "upside-down Jenny" stamps still exist. These famous stamps are worth a lot of money. 
De Havilland DH-4

By 1921 modified de Havilland DH-4 light bombers were being used as mail planes. They soon become the symbol of the U.S. Air Mail Service. 

The DH-4 in the Museum's collection was the prototype American-built DH-4, manufactured by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company. This airplane was used in more than 2,600 experiments until its retirement in April 1919. On May 13, 1918, Orville Wright made his last flight as a pilot in a 1911 Wright Model B alongside this DH-4, flown by Howard Max Rinehart. He then made a flight as a passenger in the DH-4 with Rinehart.

View DH-4 record
A model of the Curtiss Carrier Pigeon. 

Curtiss Carrier Pigeon

Powered by the venerable Liberty engine, the Curtiss Carrier Pigeon was designed to carry mail along National Air Transport's lucrative New York-Chicago route. Both Curtiss and National were owned by pioneer aviation entrepreneur Clement Keys. 

View the Curtiss Carrier Pigeon model

Flying Passengers

Many early airlines attempted to make a profitable business from transporting passengers, but every one of these efforts failed due to high operating costs. Even after the government gave private airlines contracts to fly the mail, it was still difficult for airlines to make passenger flight profitable—resulting in further subsidies from the federal government to encourage airlines to carry more passengers.

A model of the Benoist Model XIV. The Benoist was powered by a Roberts 75-horsepower, 6-cylinder, water-cooled engine. In 1914, the trip across the bay cost $5—more than $100 today. 

Benoist Model XIV

Many early airlines utilized flying boats for passenger service. The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line began flying across Tampa Bay on January 1, 1914. The flight covered 29 kilometers (18 miles) and took 23 minutes—11 hours less than traveling between St. Petersburg and Tampa by rail. The airline purchased a Model XIV from St. Louis aircraft manufacturer Thomas Benoist. The airplane could carry one passenger, who sat next to the pilot in the open cockpit.

View Benoist Model XIV model

Ford Tri-Motor

Affectionately known as the “Tin Goose,” the Ford Tri-Motor was the largest civil aircraft in America when it first flew on August 2, 1926. Its all-metal, corrugated aluminum construction and the prestigious Ford name made it immediately popular with passengers and airline operators. Noisy but reliable, the Ford Tri-Motor played a major role in convincing the public that air travel was safe and practical.

View Ford Tri-Motor record
A model of the Curtiss Condor.

Curtiss Condor 

First flown in 1932, the Curtiss Condor could carry 14 passengers and had sleeping berths for night flight. Although comfortable and fast, it was expensive to operate. Eastern Air Transport and American Airways flew the Condor, but newer designs soon replaced it. 

View Curtiss Condor model

A model of the Boeing 40A.

Boeing 40A

Powered by Pratt & Whitney's Wasp engine, the Boeing 40A could carry two passengers. Thanks to the biplane's large payload capacity and low operating costs, Boeing Air Transport won the coveted air mail route from Chicago to San Francisco in 1927 and operated the route at a profit.

Boeing developed a larger version of the aircraft, the Boeing 40B, which could carry 4,400 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of mail and four passengers. The pilot flew the airplane from an open cockpit behind the passenger compartment.

View Boeing 40A model

The First Modern Airliners

With help from the government via air mail contracts and other subsidies, commercial aviation in the United States began to take route. However, the mid-1930s were a difficult time for airlines. The federal government had broken up the large companies that had dominated the aviation industry and had cut its subsidies to airlines. Air transportation regulation was in a state of confusion. Improvements in aircraft and aviation technology played a key role in revitalizing the struggling airline industry.

To survive in these challenging times, airlines needed bigger, better, and faster airplanes that could profitably fly passengers as well as mail. New navigation and communications equipment was also required to enhance safety and efficiency. The aviation industry responded. By the late 1930s, the first modern, high-performance airliners were taking to the air.

Boeing 247

The government provided bonuses to airlines if their aircraft could fly at night or had multiple engines, two-way radios, and other equipment that promoted safety and speed. The first aircraft produced under these terms was the Boeing 247 in 1933, the world's first modern airliner. It could carry 10 passengers, fly 50 percent faster than the Ford Tri-Motor, and cross the country in less than 20 hours. The Boeing 247 revolutionized air transportation, featuring a sleek, low-wing, all-metal construction; retractable landing gear; and supercharged, air-cooled engines. Its innovative design launched a new generation of commercial airliners, notably the Douglas DC-2. The Boeing 247-D, the version in the Museum's collection, pioneered the use of controllable-pitch propellers and wing de-icer boots.

View Boeing 247 record
A model of the China Clipper. When the China Clipper opened Pan Am's transpacific air mail route in 1935 and passenger service in 1936, it became one of the most famous airplanes in the world. Pan Am's other flying boats were known as the Hawaii Clipper and the Philippine Clipper.

China Clipper

The China Clipper was the name of one of three Martin M-130 flying boats built for Pan American Airways, the United States' primary international airline during the 1930s. The Martin M-130 was the first airliner that could fly nonstop the 3,840-kilometer (2,400-mile) distance between San Francisco and Honolulu, Hawaii—the longest major route in the world without and emergency intermediate landing field. The China Clipper and its sister ships demonstrated that there were no technological barriers to transoceanic travel.

View China Clipper model

Boeing 307 Stratoliner

The Boeing 307 Stratoliner was the world's first pressurized airliner. While other airliners flew no higher than about 3,000 meters (10,000 feet), the Stratoliner could cruise at 7,500 meters (25,000 feet). By ascending "above the weather," it could fly faster and more efficiently and provide its 33 passengers a smoother and quieter ride. Because of the onset of World War II and the development of improved designs, only 10 Stratoliners were built. The last one, Pan American's Clipper Flying Cloud, is housed in the Museum's collection.

View Stratoliner record

Other Early Aircraft in the Museum's Collection

Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing Object Fairchild FC-2 Object Northrop 4A Alpha Object Douglas DC-3 Object

Four-Engine Propeller Planes

Aircraft manufacturers introduced a new generation of large, four-engine airliners after World War II that soon dominated U.S. and international air travel and helped lower fares. These new airliners were built with profitable transcontinental air routes in mind. They enabled airlines to carry far more people at greater speeds, while providing unprecedented comfort for passengers and unprecedented profits for airlines. As a result, competition increased and fares fell, thus opening up air travel to even more people.

The Museum's "Connie" was used by the military. It was retired in 1977 after 21½ years of military service, thousands of flying hours, and countless ocean crossings.

Lockheed Constellation and Super Constellation

Sleek, powerful, and graceful, TWA's Lockheed Constellations introduced pressurized comfort and shortened transcontinental travel by an astounding five hours. Eastern began flying the "stretched" 71-seat Super Constellation in 1951. The L-1049C and strengthened L-1049G versions had greater range and capacity than the original "Connie." Northwest Orient and TWA also flew Super Constellations. 

View Lockheed 1049F-55-96 record

Douglas DC-7

The Douglas DC-7 was an advanced development of the DC-6B piston-engine airliner. It was introduced by American Airlines on its New York-Los Angeles route in November 1953 and was the first airliner to provide nonstop transcontinental service in both directions. 

The fastest transport aircraft in service, the DC-7 cruised at 580 kilometers (360 miles) per hour. A total of 338 DC-7s of all types were purchased by 18 different airlines. Like other piston-engine airliners, it was made obsolete by the introduction of turbine-engine Boeing 707s and Douglas DC-8s. Some DC-7s later served as cargo and charter planes. 

This nose section from the Museum's collection is from American Airlines' Flagship Vermont, which carried about 130,000 passengers in its nearly 13,500 hours aloft. 

View DC-7 record

Jet Airliners

The jet engine revolutionized air travel. Powerful and durable, jets enabled aircraft manufacturers to build bigger, faster, and more productive airliners. Jet technology also enabled airlines to reduce their operating costs and their airfares. Jet passenger service began in the United States in the late 1950s with the introduction of Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 airliners. 

Jet engines have far fewer moving parts than piston engines, so they are more reliable, safer, and less costly to operate. They burn kerosene, which is less expensive than gasoline, and produce tremendous thrust for their weight. As a result, jet aircraft can be made larger and can fly faster than piston-engine aircraft.

More about the Jet Age

First introduced in 1948, the Rolls-Royce Dart turboprop combined the power of jet propulsion with the efficiency of propellers. It was widely used in the first generation of turboprop-powered aircraft, including the British Vickers Viscount and the Dutch Fokker F-27.
Gift of Rolls-Royce Ltd

Transition Aircraft

Rolls-Royce Dart

First introduced in 1948, the Rolls-Royce Dart turboprop combined the power of jet propulsion with the efficiency of propellers. It was widely used in the first generation of turboprop-powered aircraft, including the British Vickers Viscount and the Dutch Fokker F-27. The Dart enabled these and other new airliners to lower airline operating costs and bring greater speed and comfort to passengers traveling on short-to-medium length routes. 

View Rolls-Royce Dart record

Boeing 707

On July 15, 1954, a graceful, swept-winged aircraft, bedecked in brown and yellow paint and powered by four revolutionary new engines first took to the sky above Seattle. Built by the Boeing Aircraft Company, the 367-80, better known as the Dash 80, would come to revolutionize commercial air transportation when its developed version entered service as the famous Boeing 707, America's first jet airliner.

Boeing's 707 was designed for transcontinental or one-stop transatlantic range. But modified with extra fuel tanks and more efficient turbofan engines, 707-300s could fly nonstop across the Atlantic. Boeing built 855 707s. 

Pictured: The Museum's Boeing 367-80, or Dash 80, the prototype for the Boeing 707.

View the Museum's Dash 80
An operating, 1/4-scale model of a Pratt & Whitney JT3C (military designation J57) turbojet engine.

The Pratt & Whitney JT3 revolutionized air transportation when it entered service on the Boeing 707 in 1958. The new turbojet engine was a commercial version of the U.S. Air Force's J53, introduced in 1950. In the early 1960s, the JT3 was modified into a low-bypass turbofan-the JT3D. The first three compressor stages were replaced with two fan stages, which extended beyond the compressor casing to act like propellers. The resulting increase in airflow lowered fuel consumption, noise, and emissions. JT3Ds became widely used, especially on long-range Boeing 707-300s and Douglas DC-8s.

View turbojet engine record

Boeing 747

Designed originally for Pan American to replace the 707, the giant Boeing 747 revolutionized long-distance air travel when it entered service in 1970. Carrying more than twice the passengers than the 189-seat 707, the 400-seat 747 offered dramatically lower seat-mile costs and therefore much greater efficiency. Propelled by four powerful and efficient high-bypass turbofan engines, the so-called "Jumbo Jet" spawned a new generation of wide-body airliners from Airbus, Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, and later Boeing. 

The Boeing 747 generated great public interest because of its enormous size. Airlines offered spacious legroom, piano bars, and lounges aboard their 747s to encourage passengers to fly. These amenities quickly disappeared in the face of economic reality and were replaced by revenue-producing seats. 

First flown in 1970, the Museum's 747 was the first built for Northwest and the first 747 to open service across the Pacific. It was retired in 1999. 

Look inside the Museum's 747
If the entire Boeing 747 were on display, its tail would extend all the way back to the far wall of the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. Note: configuration of the Museum's galleries are subject to change.

Varying Versions

In response to market requirements, the design of the Boeing 747 has evolved through a series of models that have greater range or capacity. The 747-400 can fly 416 passengers a range of 13,450 kilometers (8,360 miles). It features an extended upper deck and winglets. The 747-8 adds about 5.6 meters (18 feet) of fuselage and has engines derived from the Boeing 787. It can carry about 467 people a distance of 14,800 kilometers (9,200 miles). 


The future of commercial aviation appeared to be the supersonic transport (SST), an airliner that could fly faster than sound. U.S. advocates hoped to build a larger and faster SST to compete with the British and French Concorde and the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144.  

But concerns about huge development and operational costs, high fuel consumption, drastically high fares, and sonic booms and other environmental issues proved insurmountable. U.S. airlines placed no orders for Boeing's 2707 SST, Congress withdrew support, and the project died. 

Introduced in 1976, the Concorde was the first and only operational supersonic transport. It could carry 100 passengers across the Atlantic in less than four hours, but its airfares were extremely expensive. All 14 Concordes that went into service were purchased by the British and French governments for their national airlines. Concordes stopped flying in 2003. 

View Concorde record
A Supersonic Dead End? Not so Fast.

Fifty years after the Concorde first flew, a new era of innovation and entrepreneurial ideas seeks to make supersonic flight practical and sustainable. Flying passengers at twice the speed of sound, the Concorde captured the imagination of millions, but was retired in 2003 — so what's next for supersonic flight? From reducing the sonic boom to a quiet thump to the possible pathways for supersonic to return to commercial aviation, join us for a discussion on the supersonic airliner that started it all and where we’re headed next. 

Watch supersonic flight lecture