Boeing Dash 80: ‘I Christen Thee The Airplane Of Tomorrow’

May 15, 2014

The Boeing Dash 80 rolls out of the Renton, Washington plant in May 1954.
The Boeing Dash 80 rolls out of the Renton, Washington plant in May 1954.
Credit Boeing Company

On the sunny morning of May 15, 1954, there was a special celebration in Renton. William Allen, president of the Boeing Company, served as master of ceremonies for the debut of a new and revolutionary aircraft called the “Dash 80.”

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the Dash 80. It was a prototype, so no passenger ever flew on it. But the passenger version – the Boeing 707 – put the company into the jetliner business that it still dominates today.

The Dash 80 was also prototype for something else besides a jetliner. In 1954, it was the height of the Cold War, and jet-powered bombers – including the Boeing B-52 – needed a way to refuel in midair. Before long-range missiles were perfected, American bombers were airborne around the clock as a deterrent, and to be ready to strike the Soviet Union should war break out. So the Dash 80 was also designed to be a model for a refueling tanker.

Allen introduced the jet to an audience gathered for the ceremony.

“We are hopeful that this airplane will contribute to the security of the nation in its military application,” he said. “At the same time, we are humbled for our work has really just begun. We still must sell the airplane.”

And Boeing did sell the airplane, for both military and civilian use. Within a few months of the Dash 80 rollout, the Air Force ordered the first of what were ultimately hundreds of KC-135 tankers. Within a few years, the first of more than a thousand 707s were changing the nature of air travel.

But all that was in the future.

On that May morning, there was still the matter of christening the Dash 80. Bill Boeing was in Renton that day, but his health was failing, and he didn’t speak at the ceremony. He hadn’t had a formal role with the company for more than a decade. He had moved on in the 1930s, some say in bitterness, when government anti-trust regulators forced Boeing to sell its airline, which later became United Airlines. 

But Bill Boeing’s wife Bertha, who had christened one the company’s first planes back in the 1920s, was standing by.

“I christen thee the airplane of tomorrow, the Boeing Jet Stratotanker Stratoliner,” Bertha Boeing said, and then smashed a bottle of champagne on the nose of the new jet.

Bill Boeing would never live to see his namesake company’s success in the jetliner era. He died of a heart attack aboard his yacht, just two years after the christening of the Dash 80.