A Century in Review: The 1960s

Aviation International News » July 2003
July 28, 2008, 12:03 PM

It will probably not have escaped the attention of American readers of this column over the past six months that much of the history of aviation during the first half of the 20th century was written by the French, British and Germans. America took the first step when Orville and Wilbur Wright flew their Flyer on Dec. 17, 1903, but many of the subsequent advances, achievements and records were logged by people and companies beyond America’s shores. This began to turn around after the end of World War II, as the U.S. military-industrial might that had provided the tools for victory redirected its efforts and newfound skills and knowledge toward equipping the world with ever more capable flying machines for commerce and defense. By the 1960s America’s course toward dominating the aerospace industry was set firm. American jetliners and business and personal aircraft proliferated to satisfy the worldwide market for travel and recreation, and U.S. military aircraft made more leaps, fueled by the Cold War and the Vietnam War.

William Powell “Bill” Lear turned his flair for developing new concepts to the business jet when he founded Lear Jet in 1962. A high-school dropout, Lear made the first practical car radio in 1932 and later turned his attention to aircraft electronics. In 1950 he won the Collier Trophy for producing (in 1946 under the corporate auspices of Lear Siegler) the first lightweight autopilot for jet aircraft–creating one of the ups in the many ups and downs of his wealth. In the 1950s he spent some time in Switzerland and came across a design for a fighter aircraft (the single-seat FFA P-1604) that he used as the basis for the Lear Jet (it was two words initially), which first flew in October 1963 after 13 months of furiously paced work at Lear’s Wichita headquarters. Lear personally signed off on each and every component of the airplane, weighing each part and having his engineers justify every ounce of structure. “I’m the board of directors around here,” the mercurial Lear would remind his team, “and every five minutes I have a board meeting.”

CAR Part 23 certification was awarded in July 1964, and just as the Piper Cub had been the generic puddle-jumper, the Learjet swiftly established itself as the generic “executive jet.” Standing still, the Lear 23 looked like a million bucks doing 600 mph. It still does. Later purchased by Gates Rubber (1967), Integrated Resources (1987) and Bombardier (its current owner, in 1990), the 40-year-old Learjet is regularly held aloft now as the last successful development of a business jet by a startup company.

None of the other business jets of the era, except the considerably pricier Dassault Mystère Falcon 20 (first flight May 1963), had the same sex appeal, particularly the homely Sabreliner (first flight September 1958), which mated the F-86’s wing with an Air Force requirement for a small passenger jet. The Lockheed JetStar (first flight September 1957, with two Bristol Orpheus turbojets generating a combined 9,700 pounds of thrust) had a certain stateliness, particularly with the cluster of four tail-mounted P&W JT12A turbojets (producing a combined 12,000 pounds of thrust) it acquired in 1959. The slipper tanks on the wings gave it a hefty look that appeared set to do battle with the airflow rather than befriend it, but the JetStar still has an undeniable ramp presence. Likewise the stubby de Havilland DH.125, which grew into the Hawker and eventually lost the hump over the cockpit, the flat-panel windshield and decibel-spitting Viper turbojets. Eventually all these jets would shed their noisy, thirsty turbojets in favor of the Garrett AiResearch TFE731, the turbofan that spawned a whole new class of business jet in the 1970s.

The first business jet was the Morane Saulnier Paris, which entered service with Timken Roller Bearing in the U.S. in 1958–the same year that Grumman flew the first Gulfstream turboprop. These two aircraft brought turbine power to business aviation at a time when corporations were relying on converted military surplus equipment (piston transports, bombers and patrol aircraft) to meet their travel needs. Corporate aviation was still in its infancy, even if the practice of companies flying their own aircraft could be traced back to the 1920s. By today’s standards it was by no means widespread, and it would not be so until the advent of the turbine engine.

Inspired by the success of the Gulfstream turboprop and rattled by the appearance of the aforementioned crop of jets, Grumman set about designing a large intercontinental business jet, and the Gulfstream II flew in October 1966.

Just as the jet engine was transforming airline travel for individuals and business people, so would it open a new realm of mobility for executives whose companies availed themselves of the growing crop of business jets and turboprops. The 1960s also saw the birth of the Beech King Air, which first flew in November 1963 and established itself in a production run that lasts to this day, almost 40 years and 5,148 King Airs later (not counting 600-plus special-mission variants). The King Air 90 married the pressurized version of the piston-powered Queen Air 80 with Pratt & Whitney Canada’s new small turboprop, the PT6, flat-rated to produce a modest 500 shp but still significantly more powerful (and certainly more reliable) than the 380-hp geared and supercharged piston engines that had powered the Queen Air. Compared with the magnificent, tortured racket that bellowed out of the Queen Air’s ejector exhaust stacks, the muted strains of the PT6 were a blessing for those on board and on the ground near the airport. The Queen Air and King Air deftly illustrated the differences between the apparently effortless rotational power of the turbine engine and the high-decibel stresses of a big horizontally opposed piston engine jack-hammering out each revolution of the crankshaft. While the piston engine relied on harnessing the explosive power of gasoline, the turbine engine, like the wings to which it was attached, harnessed the power of aerodynamics–whether it be the cold air entering the compressor or the searing hot fuel-fed gas stream driving the power turbine. Every single blade inside its casing is a miniature wing, employing the
same pressure differential that a wing uses to support an airplane.

The jet engine was the answer to the airplane designer’s prayer. To generate the power necessary for the ever larger and higher-performance airplanes to which they were bolted, piston engines had grown ever more complicated–and cantankerous. The turbo-compound Wright radials that powered the last big Douglas propliners harnessed the energy in the exhaust gases by passing them through a turbine that in turn augmented the torque of the crankshaft. By contrast, the jet engine produced more power the faster it flew, quite happily pouring out thrust at higher, more efficient altitudes than those that had taxed the air-cooling capabilities of the big radials.

It’s worth recalling in the context of the 1960s (dawn of the “jet age”) how the airlines got where they were. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. airline fleet stood at little more than 300 aircraft, most of them unpressurized twin-engine DC-3s, although the Boeing 307 Stratoliner, with a pressurized cabin and four supercharged engines, was already in service and pointing to the future of airline travel. While World War II ultimately accelerated the pace of all aeronautical development, it delayed such programs as the Constellation (which Lockheed halted after Pearl Harbor but later revived as the C-69 military transport) and Douglas’s follow-on to the DC-3, the four-engine DC-4, which saw life only as the C-54 transport until 1945.

Production of military transports during the war years was on a massive scale, with 11,000 C-47s (DC-3s) being built, along with 1,600 C-54s (DC-4s). The war also sparked some creative thinking about the possibilities for international air travel when hostilities ceased, capitalizing on the facilities and oceanic operating experience the war had created.

The propliners evolved (San Francisco to New York took about 11 hours in an early Connie but only about eight hours in a DC-7 in the mid-1950s). Boeing’s 377 Stratocruiser, with its double-bubble fuselage riding on the wings, engines (P&W R-4360s) and tail of the B-50 (a B-29 derivative), set new standards of opulence aloft, but it fell short of its Lockheed and Douglas rivals in sales, due largely to its higher purchase price and operating costs. Boeing was therefore well motivated to throw its energies into commercializing all it had learned from the B-47 and B-52 bombers and building the definitive jetliner.

The traveling public, its appetite whetted by the ill-starred Comet, was certainly ready for the jetliner when Boeing introduced the 707, but the type had its teething troubles. The water-injected JT3 turbojets were only marginally up to the task of getting the big airplane off the ground, and they provided a modest range of some 3,000 miles. Setting the stage for the fanjet engine to invigorate the business jet in the 1970s, the turbofan engine (in concert with a larger wing) turned the early 707 into the 4,500-mile-range 707-320B in 1962.

Throughout the 1960s, the airlines remained tightly controlled by IATA and their national governments in terms of what they could charge for tickets, where they could fly and when. It was not until 1978 that the sun set on the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board and the airlines were thrown into the free-for-all that shaped the airline market as it stands today. Before deregulation there was a handful of carriers in the U.S., chosen and nurtured by the government. In the years following deregulation and essentially until 9/11, the players were distilled down to another handful of dominant carriers, but chosen and nourished this time by the free market.

The concept of the attack helicopter emerged early in the 1960s in time for service in the Vietnam War, bringing a scale of purpose that the rotorcraft had previously lacked. While Igor Sikorsky is most closely associated with development of the successful helicopter for his VS-300, many others laid the groundwork. The concept of the anti- torque (tail) rotor is attributed to Russian engineer Boris Yuriev in 1912, and Argentinian Raul Pateras de Pescara is credited with devising the cyclic control. Spaniard Juan de la Cierva built the first autogiro in the 1920s, pioneering the use of rotary wings. In the 1930s teams in France, Germany and America were all hoping to be first with a working helicopter, and although Frenchman Louis Breguet was at one point thought to have got there first, that distinction has long rested with Germany’s Heinrich Focke, whose twin-rotor Focke-Achgelis Fa-61 first flew on June 26, 1936. It was nimble enough to be flown (by the famed Hanna Reitsch) inside the Berlin Deutschland-Halle in 1938.

Igor Sikorsky flew his VS-300 on Sept. 13, 1939, and this machine led to the world’s first production helicopter, the two-seat R-4 Hoverfly, 100 of which were ordered by the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942–in time for the type to see service in World War II. Power came from a 180-hp Warner Scarab radial. (Frank Robinson has come closer than anyone to Sikorsky’s dream of a helicopter on every front lawn, but it remains an elusive vision.)

Thanks to M*A*S*H and Whirlybirds, the Bell 47 (which in 1946 was the first helicopter to be certified for civilian use) became the generic helicopter until the advent in 1966 of the turbine-powered Jet-Ranger, which did for rotary-wing aviation what the Learjet had done for business aviation. The JetRanger looked more like an airplane, concealing its dirty helicopter dynamics beneath a shapely skin. (Some 35 years later it lives on in the form of the more sophisticated Bell 407, one of many business/personal helicopter types that can thank the Jet- Ranger for crystalizing the market.)

Fueled by both the Vietnam and Cold Wars, the military continued to make spectacular strides. Lockheed’s Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, father of the P-38 and Connie, had turned his extraordinary talents to the military’s needs during World War II by designing the P-80 and later gave that same customer the F-104 Starfighter, U-2 and YF-12/SR-71. The Blackbird entered service in 1966, and only in the 1990s, after it had been retired, were its performance and quirks declassified. The 1960s was also the decade of the rocket-powered X-15 (first flight June 1959, piloted by Scott Crossfield), which in the hands of Joe Walker, Bob White, F.S. Peterson and Pete Knight set a string of progressive records climbing from 2,111 mph/Mach 3.19 in May 1960 to 4,534 mph/Mach 6.72 in October 1967. The craft also reached an altitude of 354,200 feet/67 miles.

The 1960s closed with the first flights of two aircraft that would shape air transport to this day. Both the 747 and Concorde flew for the first time in 1969, just in time to define the 1970s and subsequent decades.

Next month: Fresh from transforming the jetliner, the turbofan works its magic on the business jet just as fuel becomes precious.

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