A Century in Review: The 1970s

 - August 4, 2008, 7:27 AM

The decades that preceded the 1970s were propelled by a lust for technological progress measured in speed, altitude and range. The 1970s marked a sea change for aviation, brought on largely by the rude realization that cheap and freely available
fuel could no longer be taken for granted. The commercial mission, which continues to this day, then became that of transporting ever more people on the least amount
of fuel.

The 1970s were general aviation’s halcyon decade, with deliveries of new airplanes peaking at nearly 18,000 in 1978. As the decade closed, a slide was beginning the plummet that would almost kill off small-airplane production by the late 1980s.
The alphabet groups in Washington found their feet, and the stands they took in defense of aviation established them on the path to their current stature.

As with decades past, civil aviation in the 1970s was shaped to a large degree by the first flights of significant aircraft in the last year of the preceding decade, in this case 1969. On February 9, Boeing flew the first 747 from Paine Field, near Seattle. It was a now legendary gamble in which Boeing “bet the company” on the success of what was in 1969 an inconceivably huge airliner. Its double-deck nose put the pilots up on high–so they could still sit on their newly fattened wallets, the joke went–above a cavernous fuselage that could carry up to 400 people and introduced the words widebody to the lexicon of professional aviation and, to everyone else, “jumbo jet.”

Four enormous turbofan engines (P&W JT9Ds first, followed later by the option of R-R RB.211s and GE CF6s) hung on pylons from the expansive, sharply swept and (for low speed) spectacularly reconfigurable wings, and they each produced between 43,500 and 47,000 pounds of thrust, or about 10 times the output of the turbojets that had powered the first jet fighters 25 years earlier. More than 30 years later, the monsters now powering 777s dwarf those first-generation big-fan engines, particularly when hung on GE’s 747 flying testbed in the number-two position alongside three original CF6s.

The biggest fan engines today can produce as much as 115,000 pounds of thrust, and it is easy to forget that in 1969, generating just 43,000 pounds literally stretched technology and metallurgy to the limits. Sagging under their own weight, the early JT9Ds suffered ovaling of the engine casing, causing the tips of the fan blades to rub on the inside of their shroud.

Boeing benefited from two failures in the 1960s: one was the loss of the U.S. Air Force heavy-airlifter contract to Lockheed; the other was the cancellation of the American SST. Despite the assertions of its management at the time, Boeing could not have afforded to undertake the 747 in addition to those two aircraft, and the subsequent fortunes of the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and the Anglo-French Concorde clearly confirm that the 747 was Boeing’s best bet.

Boeing’s archrival in the airliner business today, Airbus, put all its eggs in a widebody twinjet when the European consortium was formed in 1967. It’s also worth noting that in the late 1960s the Lockheed widebody airliner was destined to be a twin before it became the three-engine L-1011 TriStar. American Airlines wanted a twin capable of flying the 1,800 miles between Chicago and San Francisco, as did Eastern Airlines. But despite the fact that it had already ordered 747s for long-haul routes, TWA prevailed and the Lockheed widebody got three engines (RB.211s, development
of which would bankrupt Rolls-Royce in 1971 after its bid to equip the big engine with a carbon-fiber fan failed).

Douglas (or rather the then recently merged McDonnell Douglas) was also eying the same contracts as Lockheed, but both Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas contemplated two unpalatable realities: General Dynamics’ half-billion-dollar failure with the Convair 880 and 990; and the billion dollars it would cost each of them to offer the world’s airlines widebody equipment. The eventual configuration of the DC-10–its third engine impaled inelegantly by the vertical fin–clearly betrays its twin-engine origins. Lockheed, benefiting from the shortness of the RB.211’s three-shaft layout and with more time on its side following the decision to go with three engines, was able to bury the center engine more artfully at the end of an S duct, 727-style.

Eastern Airlines signed for TriStars, but Airbus, mindful of the carrier’s initial preference for a widebody twin, fought hard and eventually established a beachhead into the U.S. market in 1978 with a generous lease/purchase deal on A300 widebody twinjets for the Miami-based carrier. Airbus has never looked back, bringing an unwavering focus on its goal of dislodging mighty Boeing from its supremacy. This year, 36 summers later, it succeeded and will deliver more jetliners than Boeing.

On March 2, 1969, France flew its first Concorde supersonic transport prototype, followed by the British one on April 9. Technologically, Concorde was a huge step fraught with opportunity for stumbles. Politically, it was a tool that both countries played against each other during the 14 years that elapsed between the first meetings and the SST’s eventual entry into service on Jan. 21, 1976. After some 5,500 hours of flight testing and the expenditure of approximately $110 (today’s values) by every man, woman and child in the two countries, Concorde entered airline service with the flag carriers of the two countries that developed the airplane. The challenges were enormous in designing, building and operating a machine to reliably and regularly transport the traveling public–from top athletes and business executives to rock stars and Mr. and Mrs. Joe Average treating themselves to the trip of a lifetime–at the muzzle velocity of a .22 rifle bullet 11 miles above the ocean. But in the early 1960s that was the price for Europe to regain the lead it had lost to the U.S. with the advent of the successful jetliner. NASA itself, still flush with the success of first putting men on the moon in 1969, acknowledged at the time that making Concorde work was no less a feat than its lunar missions.

It is both ironic and symbolic of the malaise afflicting aviation in its centennial year that Concorde will fly its last scheduled service this October, victim not of the technological and political hurdles it faced but of a simple lack of demand for supersonic travel at today’s asking price (about $12,000 for a transatlantic round trip before special retirement promotional fares were offered earlier this year). Sad to say, for the first time in the 100-year history of aviation, we will have to look back at how fast premium air travel used to be. Maybe a supersonic business jet will put us back on track, for that currently seems to be the most likely vehicle to restore supersonic civil operations. Dassault, Gulfstream and Sukhoi have all studied such a machine, but nobody has taken the plunge yet.

Speaking of business jets, the 1970s saw a steep rise in the choice of business jets available to individuals and corporations, as well as a steep rise in their capabilities, thanks in large part to one engine. The Garrett AiResearch TFE731 turbofan, which began life in 1968 and was certified in August 1972, became the bedrock on which business aviation as we know it today was built. It now powers 26 different business and military aircraft types and has logged 52.5 million hours of flight time. About 99 percent of the 8,422 commercial TFE731s ever built are still in service.

The Learjet connection goes back to the earliest stages of the 731, since the Wichita-based airframer was billed as the 731 launch customer. Harry Wetzel, president of Garrett, sealed the deal by telling Learjet, “You buy our engine, we’ll buy your airplane.” Learjet did, and so did Garrett, beginning by acquiring some GE CJ610-powered Learjet 25s. The Falcon 10 and Learjet 35 and 36 were neck and neck in introducing business aviation to the Garrett turbofan, and the engine caught on in a big way. In April 1981 Learjet took delivery of the 3,000th TFE731 (for installation in a Learjet 55). Twenty years later, in October 2001, Learjet took the 10,000th TFE731 (for installation in a Learjet 45) from Honeywell (into which Garrett AiResearch had been absorbed via AlliedSignal). Other business-jet builders followed and either transformed noisy, thirsty turbojet-powered aircraft into quieter and far more capable machines or launched whole new projects around the Garrett fan–among them the Falcon 50, Hawker 700, Citation III, Westwind, Sabreliner 65
and JetStar II.

The TFE731 pioneered such innovations as a geared fan, electronic controls and lighter-weight materials, and it nearly doubled the range of business aircraft that had previously been saddled with slaking the prodigious thirst of turbojets–also famous for converting those same bucket-loads of kerosene into copious decibels. The TFE731 could not have come along at a better time in view of the 1973 fuel crisis, which focused the world’s attention on the hardships that could stem from manipulation of the crude-oil supply.

Garrett was not alone in introducing the turbofan to business aviation, however. The Cessna 500, which sired the wildly successful line of Citation business jets, was made possible by the Pratt & Whitney Canada JT15D. The first Citation made its maiden
flight on Sept. 15, 1969, and was certified on Sept. 9, 1971.

The meager appetite of the turbofan, while reaping untold benefits for the operator, likely contributed to the decline of the mom ’n’ pop FBO and the rise of the FBO chain, particularly at the Midwest watering holes that coast-to-coast turbojets used to drop into to fill their humps.

Another trend, this one much more menacing, reared its head in the 1970s. It was on July 31, 1971, that The Wall Street Journal ran an article on page one about “dangerous airplanes,” specifically Beech Barons and their alleged proclivity to crash after fuel unporting. Beech lost a $20 million product-liability lawsuit based on just such an accident, triggering a feeding frenzy by litigation lawyers that would help bring the GA manufacturing industry to its knees within 15 years.

But after the fuel-induced scare of 1973, general aviation perked up, and U.S. manufacturers cranked out nearly 18,000 airplanes in 1978. Cessna acquired the niche-filling skills that have served it so well in the jet market. The light piston twin thrived in the 1970s but ultimately did not fare well as a breed with the realization that its second engine held out false promise and, after failure of one, often did nothing more than carry the hapless occupants to the scene of the accident.

Twin turboprops did well in the 1970s and 1980s, the market supporting many offerings. But their changing size and operating costs made jets an economically
(as well as operationally) attractive alternative to propellers at about the time the turboprops could have been expected to rise from their slump, and only Beech’s
King Air survived the showdown to remain in uninterrupted production. The 1970s also saw the commuter airlines mature out of their Cessna 402s and Piper Chieftains and move into turbine equipment such as Swearingen Metros and Beech 99s.

The advent of such large aircraft as the Gulfstream II (first flight 1966) ushered in the era of more far-reaching international operations by business aviation, and the extended range offered by the new turbofans opened up a lot more territory for smaller business jets, too.