Boeing 247D: Pioneer of Passenger Air Travel

  • By Bob Mayer
  • Posted 12/08/2023
  • Essay 22859
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In the twenty-first century, large jet airliners such as the Boeing 747, 777, and 787 dominate passenger air travel, flying from Seattle to New York nonstop in five hours or less. In 1933 a revolutionary new airplane was introduced that airline advertising bragged about. It cruised at speeds of three miles per minute and carried 10 passengers across the country in 20 hours with fueling stops, cutting eight hours from previous travel times. The airplane was the Boeing 247D, which was considered big and fast in its day. Not only was it a technological advancement, but it also boosted public confidence in commercial air travel. Although the 247D dominated passenger travel for only a few years, it is considered the first modern passenger transport and the forerunner of today's passenger airplanes.

Early Passenger Airplanes

By the beginning of the 1930s, passenger airplanes included American-built Ford Tri-Motors and Fokkers, and European-built airplanes. All were slow, noisy, and uncomfortable for passengers. Most were somewhat boxy biplanes or high-wing monoplanes and had wing struts, support wires, engine mounts, and permanently extended landing gear. Construction used wood and fabric rather than metal to save weight. In the days before high-strength aluminum was available, the extensive use of metal would result in an airplane that was too heavy to get off the ground with the engines available at that time. When metal was used, it was often corrugated sheet metal. All these factors affected weight and drag, which limited speed and efficiency.

On March 31, 1931, an American-made trimotor Fokker F-10A crashed in Kansas, killing all on board when a wing came off the airplane in flight. One of the passengers was a national hero, Knute Rockne (1888-1931), coach of the Notre Dame football team, bringing high public attention to the accident. The Department of Commerce determined that the cause was rotted wood where the wing attached to the fuselage in an area inaccessible for routine inspection. The public lost confidence in commercial air travel and passenger revenue for airlines dropped. Safer, stronger airplanes were needed to restore public confidence in flying.

New Designs for a New Image

In 1931, Boeing was looking for a new project. The previous year had seen completion of design and build of the Boeing Monomail, a streamlined, low-wing, all-metal single-engine airplane designed for fast mail service. In 1931 Boeing was completing the design of the Boeing-funded XB-9 bomber. Like the Monomail, it was streamlined, low wing, and all metal construction, but larger. The XB-9 was powered by two engines mounted in the wings instead of hanging below them. The low-wing cantilevered design in both airplanes reduced drag and increased speed and efficiency by eliminating wires and struts needed in older airplanes to support the wings.

In interviews, pilots of the older Boeing 80-A trimotor airplane had expressed the hope for faster, comfortable, streamlined, all-metal airliners. Boeing already had elements of designs that would meet these requirements in the Monomail and the XB-9 that could be adapted to a new passenger airliner.

On September 2, 1931, Boeing gave the go-ahead to study various design proposals for the new airplane. Many versions were considered including biplanes and monoplanes, twin-engine and trimotor versions, and airplanes of various gross weights and passenger capacities. By the end of 1931, they had settled on proposal #247 which was the adaptation of the XB-9 twin-engine bomber to a passenger configuration. (Note that about 35 years later, Boeing would adapt its unsuccessful proposed design for a military cargo airplane into another revolutionary passenger transport, the Boeing 747.)

In January 1932, Boeing took the proposal for the 247 to United Airlines and received an order for 60 airplanes. Detail design of the airplane had started by February 1, 1932, and production began on July 26, 1932. It would be powered by two Pratt and Whitney 550 horsepower Wasp air-cooled radial piston engines. The order for 60 airplanes locked up Boeing production for two years and insured that United Airlines would have exclusive use of the advanced airliner during that time.

These first 60 airplanes were built as 247 models, but as improvements were identified, design changes were made and built into the 15 airplanes that followed. The original 60 airplanes can be identified by the unique configuration of their windshield, which slanted inward from top to bottom instead of the usual outward slant. This design was intended to reduce glare from instrument panel light reflections. In practice it made glare from outside lighting worse, so the design was changed. The later airplanes built as 247D models have standard outward slanted windshields. Many of the improvements were retrofitted to the original 247 airplanes, which were then upgraded to the 247D configuration except for the windshield change.

Safer and More Comfortable

Besides the modern all-metal streamlined design, the 247 and the improved 247D had many new features that would continue to be used on airplanes. Cabin insulation reduced noise and improvements in temperature control and cabin ventilation increased passenger comfort. Wing deicing improved safety by preventing dangerous ice buildup on the wings. Trim tabs on flight surfaces adjusted the flight attitude of the airplane, reducing pilot workload. Controlled pitch propellers were adjustable for maximum efficiency during takeoff and cruise.

The innovations in the design of the 247D helped pave the way for the much larger, much faster aircraft that have since made Boeing's reputation in passenger airliners. The 247D has a wingspan of 74 feet, a length of 52 feet and height of 12.5 feet. It has a top speed of 200 mph and a range of 750 miles. It can carry 10 passengers, two pilots and a flight attendant.

Boeing's newest passenger airliner, the 787-9 released in 2011, has a wingspan of 197 feet, a length of 206 feet, and height of 56 feet. It has a top speed of 586 mph and a range of 8,700 miles. It can carry 296 passengers and crew.

Boeing's largest passenger airliner, the 747-8 Intercontinental, has a wingspan of 224 feet, a length of 250 feet, and height of 64 feet. It has a top speed of 612 mph and a range of 9,200 miles. It can carry up to 600 passengers and crew.

First Flight from Boeing Field

Two experienced pilots were selected for the first flight of the 247 on February 8, 1933: Boeing Chief Test Pilot Leslie Ralph Tower (1903-1935) and United Airlines pilot Major Louis C. Goldsmith (1898-1943)

Tower studied engineering at the University of Washington and then joined the United States Army as an aviation cadet where he received his flight training. In 1925 he began his employment at Boeing as a draftsman but soon became a test pilot. As Boeing Chief Test Pilot, he flew first flights of the Boeing 247 and Boeing Model 299, which in production became the B-17 bomber. Tower died of injuries sustained in October 1935 when the Model 299 that he was aboard crashed at Wright Field near Dayton, Ohio, during an Army Air Corps evaluation flight.

Goldsmith served in the U.S. Army at the Mexican Border in 1916, and in France in 1917. He started flight training as an Army aviation cadet in 1921 and received his commission in 1922. Goldsmith flew as a barnstormer at county fairs from 1923 to 1925 and later flew a Forest Service patrol plane. In 1928 he became a commercial air transport pilot based in Portland, Oregon, with various small airlines and then with United Airlines. He flew United's Boeing 247s from 1933, setting speed records. In 1937, Goldsmith became an aviation adviser to the Cantonese government during the early days of the Sino-Japanese war. He went into active duty with the rank of major in the Air Transport Command of the U.S. Army Air Corps when Pearl Harbor was attacked. By that time, he had logged over 8,000 flight hours. Goldsmith died when the military air transport airplane in which he was a passenger crashed on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. Besides his career in aviation, he was a gifted writer of flying action-adventure stories for periodicals such as Argosy Magazine and was the president of the Portland Writers Club.

These pilots made the first flight of the Boeing 247 at noon on February 8, 1933, witnessed by a few hundred Boeing employees and executives. There was no public announcement prior to the historic flight. The takeoff from Boeing Field was smooth, using only 800 feet of runway before lifting into the air. The flight lasted about 40 minutes over Seattle and Puget Sound, and airplane performance was declared to be perfect. Subsequent test flights determined that the new airplane met or exceeded all design specifications. A few days after the first flight, during a flight over Seattle, Goldsmith cut the left engine. With just the power of the right engine, the airplane maintained altitude and could still climb. The ability to fly with one engine was an important consideration for the safety of a twin-engine airplane.

First Commercial Flight

On Sunday April 2, 1933, from noon to 6 p.m., The Seattle Times and United Airlines provided the public with their first opportunity for a close-up view of the new 247. The event was held at the United Airlines hangar at Boeing Field. A catwalk was set up next to the airplane to allow visitors to see inside the cabin area and flight deck. Visitors were also treated to an air circus performed by Boeing Field pilots. A crowd of about 15,000 attended, including 5,500 who waited in line to view the airplane up close.

On April 5, 1933, less than two months after the first flight, the Boeing 247 entered service and made its inaugural commercial flight, a round trip between Seattle and Portland with a full complement of 10 passengers each way. On board were Seattle Mayor John Dore (1881-1938) with his 12-year-old daughter Virginia, Tacoma Mayor Melvin Tennent (1888-1969) and Portland Mayor-elect Joseph Carson (1891–1956). Other passengers included a Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper reporter, Boeing Chief Test Pilot Les Tower, and other representatives of Boeing and United Airlines. A story in the Post-Intelligencer on April 6, 1933, described the day and flight:

"A more ideal day for the flight could not have been found if it had been made to order. There was scarcely a cloud in the sky, so there was an uninterrupted view of the gorgeous panorama of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Hood. And such few 'bumps' as were in the atmosphere were ridden by the great plane with as little concern as a crack ocean liner rides the occasional wave in a smooth sea" ("New Boeing Giant …").

The Boeing 247 was described in the story as the newest "Queen of the Air." Years later, a similar description, "Queen of the Sky," would be applied to the jumbo jet Boeing 747.

Showing Off in Chicago

To restore the public acceptance of air travel, United Airlines aggressively marketed the benefits of the new airplane. Advertisements in newspapers, magazines, and brochures praised its speed, comfort, and safety features. United even sponsored a national model-building contest for youth through Popular Aviation magazine in 1933, sending out thousands of free kits. The top prize went to the model builder who best duplicated in miniature as many features of the 247 as possible.

At the worst of the Great Depression, the Century of Progress International Exposition was held in Chicago. It aimed to raise spirits by depicting a brighter future led by advances in science and technology and to commemorate the centennial of the city. It ran from May 27 to November 1, 1933, and from May 26 to October 31, 1934, and attracted nearly 61 million visitors. One of the popular features of the exposition was the Travel and Transport Building. Various modes of transportation, old and new, were on display, but the Boeing 247 represented the epitome of modern transportation. Robert van der Linden described the display in his book The Boeing 247:

"The 247 sat dramatically perched on steel pedestals above the floor. A catwalk was erected above one wing thus allowing thousands of visitors a close-up look at the interior. Loudspeakers broadcast a typical two-way radio conversation between the pilot and the ground. Beneath the airplane stood a Wasp engine behind which was a small theater showing a continuous film. This and several static displays stressed the speed, safety, and comfort of the new airliner" (van der Linden, 80).

United Airlines also provided visitors with tri-fold brochures describing features of the airplane and a series of postcards. If the visitor addressed, wrote, and stamped the postcard there, it could be mailed right from the Travel and Transport building. Similar postcards were also provided to passengers while flying on the airliner and if given to the stewardess, they would be stamped and mailed at the airline's expense. The extensive advertising and public relations paid off. Travelers heard the message. The new, fast Boeing 247 brought United Airlines record ticket sales as it entered service in summer of 1933.

World's Greatest Air Race: London to Australia

In the 1930s advances in air transportation could bridge the time and distance between countries and continents. Great Britain and Australia were separated by 11,000 miles, and Sir MacPherson Robertson (1859–1945), an Australian millionaire philanthropist and candy maker, wished to encourage travel between those countries. In 1932 he proposed an air race from London to Melbourne, which was preparing for its centennial.

The contest created interest all over the world. From the U.S., famous air racer and flamboyant personality Roscoe Turner (1895-1970) entered the race. He had set many speed records and won many race trophies. His choice of pets set him apart. He frequently flew with his pet lion cub, Gilmore, named after his sponsor Gilmore Oil Company, which featured a red lion as a mascot. Turner chose the Boeing 247D as his airplane. He believed that not only did it offer speed but had proven the dependability needed to finish such a long race. He leased a new 247D from United Airlines. Some modifications were made, including additional fuel tanks to reduce the number of fueling stops enroute. The airplane was like a flying billboard carrying logos of his sponsors including Heinz 57 and Warner Brothers Pictures.

Despite all his experience, Turner had never flown long distances over water, so he chose a copilot who had. Clyde Pangborn (1895-1958) from Wenatchee was also a famous pilot. On October 4, 1931, Pangborn and Hugh Herndon Jr. (1899-1952) had made the first nonstop flight across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Wenatchee. It was a flight of 4,500 miles and 41 hours, 13 minutes. To save fuel they jettisoned the airplane's landing gear and struts after takeoff, so they belly landed in a Wenatchee field, near the site of what is now Pangborn Memorial Airport.

There were 20 airplanes in the London to Melbourne race. Of particular interest were the entries from Great Britain, three sleek two-seat De Havilland Comets that were especially built for the race, and the Dutch entry from KLM airlines, a Douglas DC-2 airliner.

The 10,323-mile race was conducted from October 20-24, 1934. Prescribed stops included Athens, Baghdad, Karachi, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin, and Melbourne, with other approved locations as needed for fuel. Turner and Pangborn in their Boeing 247D completed the race in just over 92 hours and finished in third place behind one of the "built for speed" Comets and the KLM Douglas DC-2 airliner. Finishing behind the Douglas DC-2 would be a harbinger. 

After the race, Turner, Pangborn, and the 247D returned to San Francisco from Melbourne by steamship and then flew to Seattle, where they were congratulated by proud Boeing people. The airplane was restored to passenger configuration and entered service with United Airlines with special markings commemorating its success in the great air race. In 1939 it was purchased by the U.S. Department of Commerce for use in testing new aviation equipment. On July 17, 1953, Roscoe Turner made the last flight of the airplane to Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C., where it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. It is on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum with one side showing United Airline markings and the other side showing the London to Melbourne race markings.

Overtaken by Douglas, Again

With two years production and the first 60 airplanes committed exclusively to United Airlines, Boeing sent other airlines such as TWA and American looking for another source for competitive airplanes. Donald Douglas welcomed them and developed his DC-1, DC-2, and DC-3 airplanes. First delivered to TWA in May 1934, the Douglas DC-2 was 25 mph faster than the 247D and could carry four more passengers in a roomier cabin. Consequently, it was more profitable to operate. By early 1936 United Airlines began selling off their 247Ds to smaller operators and replacing them with the Douglas airplanes. Over the production life of the airplane, Douglas would build thousands of DC-3 commercial airliners and military variants, while only 75 of the Boeing 247 were built. Eventually the fleet of 247D airplanes would be used by businesses, governments, militaries, and other owners for uses such as private and corporate transportation, and even cloud seeding and crop dusting.

Boeing would go on to design and build the innovative 314 Clipper and the 377 airliners, but neither achieved popularity with the airlines to compete with the Douglas airplanes. During World War II, Boeing production was fully engaged in building B-17 bombers. It wasn't until the 1950s and the Jet Age that Boeing achieved dominance in the commercial airliner market, beginning with the Boeing 707.

The Final Flight

The final flight of any Boeing 247 was made on April 26, 2016, after years of restoration at the Museum of Flight Restoration Center at Paine Field in Everett. Of the four 247Ds that still existed, NC13347 was the only one that was still flyable. Three other airplanes were on display at museums in Washington D.C., Canada, and Great Britain. Capt. Mike Carriker and Capt. Chad Lundy piloted the airplane on the 20-minute flight from Paine Field to Boeing Field in Seattle, where the airplane was put on permanent display in the Aviation Gallery at the Museum of Flight.


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