Simanaitis Says

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DO I MEAN the 1926 Fokker F.VII in its trimotor configuration? Or the 1926 Ford TriMotor? Them too, but Boeing introduced its Model 80, a three-engine transport in 1928. Yet, in retrospect it seems to have been a retrograde design: Boeing’s was a biplane, whereas the Fokker and Ford were both more advanced monoplanes. What’s more, all three of these, not without controversy, at first had enclosed cockpits for their pilots and copilots. However, the Boeing, again in retro fashion, also produced an open-cockpit variant, but not for long.

Such were the evolutionary steps of aviation in the 1920s.

Boeing formed its own Air Transport company on February 17, 1927, with a contract for mail service between San Francisco and Chicago. At first, this airline operated single-engine Boeing 40As, biplanes capable of carrying only four passengers in addition to the mail. This prompted Boeing to design another biplane, the 80, with three engines and a passenger capacity of 12.

The third Boeing Air Transport Model 80 with its original tail configuration. This and other images from Boeing Aircraft Since 1916, by Peter M. Bowers, Naval Institute Press, 1989.

Boeing chose to retain the biplane configuration because of its added lift, deemed important for the mail routes’ short runways, many located at high elevation. The 80 was traditional in its construction as well, with wings and fuselage of fabric over steel and aluminum tubing. Detachable wingtips aiding hangar storage were its only innovative features.

Model 80As were delivered in Boeing’s new color scheme with green fuselage and orange on top of the upper wing. Factory price was quoted in 1929 as $75,000; figure around $1 million in today’s dollar.

By comparison, the Fokker F.VII began life in 1924 as a single-engine aircraft. The F.VII a/3m trimotor came in 1926 in response to the Ford Reliability Tour, a competition proposed to improve transport aircraft technology. The Ford TriMotor, also introduced in 1926, evolved from Ford’s buying out the Stout Metal Airplane Company in 1925. Indeed, in contrast to the Boeing, both the Ford and Fokker featured all-metal fuselage and wing covering.

The Fokker F.VII b/3m carried 8 to 12 passengers and cruised at 106 mph; the Ford 4-AT-E TriMotor, 11 passengers at 107 mph; the 12-passenger Boeing 80 cruised at 115.

Cabin of a 12-passenger Model 80. Note the baggage racks and individual reading lamps.

Not that any of these features were all that superlative. In 1920, the Zeppelin-Staaken E-4/20 all-metal four-engine monoplane transport carried as many as 18 passengers at a cruising speed of 124 mph. However, in 1922, the Inter-Allied Commission ruled that the Staaken had military potential, something prohibited to German manufacturers after World War I. (Tony Fokker, not without his own shenanigans, was Dutch, not German.)

Enclosed cockpit of a Boeing Model 80A (factory photo with roof removed). Three sets of engine instruments are concentrated on the center console. Only the pilot at left had primary flight instrumentation.

In the 1920s, many thought that a pilot profited from exposure to his aerial environment; others considered an enclosed cockpit more conducive to concentrating on the tasks at hand. Indeed, Igor Sikorsky’s innovative Bolshoi Baltisky had an enclosed cockpit in 1913. The 1920 Zeppelin-Staaken initially had an open cockpit for its pilot and copilot, but soon enclosed them. The Ford and Fokker’s crews were enclosed from the start, as were the pilot and copilot of the Boeing first iterations, the Model 80, 80A and 80A-1. The Model 80B, though, was redesigned with an open cockpit. According to Peter M. Bowers’ Boeing Aircraft Since 1916, this was “because of pilot resistance to the ‘new’ closed cockpit of the Model 80. The pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats were raised to permit backward visibility over the wing.”

The Boeing Model 80B had an open cockpit, but not for long.

This open-cockpit Boeing three-engine biplane operated briefly in 1930. Before long, though, Boeing Air Transport converted it to an enclosed craft after pilots had evidently had enough of open cockpits. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. Skip
    February 17, 2018

    The open aerial cockpit idea was giving way about the same time the open bridge was doing the same in naval warships. I took a tour of the HMS Belfast moored on the Thames, and was shocked to ascend a ladder and find myself on the open bridge. Can’t have been comfortable on the north Atlantic run!

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