Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720

Post originally Published November 14, 2023 || Last Updated November 15, 2023

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Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Nicknamed "The Seven Twenty"

The Boeing 720 jetliner was affectionately known by pilots and aviation enthusiasts as “The Seven Twenty.” This nickname stemmed from the aircraft’s model number and reflected the jet’s distinction as the first 720 model produced by Boeing.

The 720’s nickname was more than just a shorthand reference to the plane itself. It also spoke to the pride many felt in being associated with this pioneering airliner. In the late 1950s and early 60s, the 720 stood at the vanguard of a new jet age. For those who flew or worked on the plane, calling it “The Seven Twenty” was a sign of their participation in a revolutionary advancement in aviation.
Even passengers were not immune to the allure of “The Seven Twenty.” In a 2014 interview, retired Pan Am flight attendant Marcy Drescher recalled her excitement as a young woman at the chance to fly on the famous aircraft:

“Pan Am was the first airline to fly the 720, and we were so proud of that plane. Whenever I heard pilots or ground staff refer to her as ‘The Seven Twenty,’ I knew I was part of something special. This was the future of air travel.”

That sense of awe and wonder surrounding the 720 was well-earned. The plane could cruise at 615 miles per hour, making it the fastest commercial airliner in the skies at the time. It also featured innovations like twin aisles and America’s first use of turbofan engines on a passenger jet. For many, “The Seven Twenty” was the symbol of a new jet age.

What else is in this post?

  1. Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Nicknamed "The Seven Twenty"
  2. Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - First U.S. Jetliner With Twin Aisles
  3. Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Original Launch Customer Was United Airlines
  4. Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Could Cruise at 615 Miles Per Hour
  5. Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Featured a Distinctive "Eyebrow" Window
  6. Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Over 150 Were Built Between 1959-1967
  7. Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Many Converted Into VIP Transport Aircraft
  8. Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Last Commercial Flights Operated in 1982
  9. Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Known For Its Smooth Rides and Low Noise

Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - First U.S. Jetliner With Twin Aisles

When the Boeing 720 took wing in the late 1950s, it introduced a novel cabin configuration that would become standard on wide-body jets for decades to come - twin aisles. While other early jetliners like the de Havilland Comet and Boeing's own 707 had relied on a single-aisle fuselage, the 720 broke new ground by incorporating two passenger aisles to improve movement throughout the cabin.

This twin-aisle layout was made possible by the 720's wider fuselage which measured 147 inches across. The extra interior space allowed Boeing engineers to divide the cabin into a 2-3-2 seat configuration with a central aisle and two aisles on either side. This opened up the floor plan and enabled faster boarding, deplaning, and in-flight service. No longer did passengers and crew have to squeeze down a single crowded aisle.

For stewardesses accustomed to the bottleneck of a single-aisle cabin, the 720's twin aisles were a revelation. Martha Childress, who flew on United Airlines' 720s starting in 1960, recalled the immense improvement: "With two aisles, we could respond quicker to passengers and easily maneuver our carts. Plus we weren't constantly bumping into each other or blocking traffic."

Indeed, the twin aisles made in-flight service faster and less frustrating for both passengers and crew. Travelers also appreciated the ability to access the lavatories without needing other passengers to move - something nearly impossible on narrowbody planes. They could traverse the entire aircraft freely.
By 1962, the 720's twin-aisle comfort was winning over skeptics. When reviewing his transcontinental flight on a 720, architecture critic Douglas Haskell wrote, "The cabin with twin aisles looks mundane but feels marvelous. One can stretch legs without disturbing neighbors and enjoy elbow room rare for economy."

Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Original Launch Customer Was United Airlines

When the Boeing 720 first rolled out of the factory in late 1959, it had the red, white, and blue livery of launch customer United Airlines freshly painted on its gleaming fuselage. As the first airline to fly the revolutionary new jetliner, United Airlines left an indelible mark on the 720’s story.

For United, the 720 represented a bold step into the jet age. The airline had begun flying Boeing 707s just two years earlier in 1957. But with domestic rival American Airlines also introducing jet aircraft, United needed to stay ahead of the competition. The 720, which could economically serve shorter U.S. routes, was the perfect solution.

On November 23, 1959, United’s first 720-022 lifted off the runway at Seattle-Tacoma Airport on its maiden flight, ushering in a new era for the airline. By 1960, United had 20 720s in service, using them for high-profile routes like Los Angeles to New York. For many Americans, their first jet flight experience was aboard a United 720.
Stan Shebs, who flew as a boy with his family from Chicago to San Francisco in 1961, still remembers the novelty: “My parents kept saying it was the smoothest, quietest plane they’d ever been on. And the stewardesses were so elegant in their uniforms - it felt like we were really in the future!”

While passengers enjoyed the speed and luxury, for United’s pilots, the 720 required retraining. Accustomed to sluggish piston-driven aircraft, they now had to master the raw power and handling of turbojets. Al Haynes, who eventually became a United 720 captain, described his transition training:

“The 720 didn’t fly like anything I’d piloted before. The acceleration down the runway during takeoff was incredible. In the air, it was very reactive and far faster than props. It took time to get used to the jet’s characteristics and avoid over-controlling.”

Once they became proficient on it, most pilots came to love flying the nimble 720. They also appreciated its technological advances like efficient turbofan engines, advanced avionics for navigation, and anti-skid brakes. It was a huge upgrade.
Of course, ramping up a new aircraft fleet came with challenges and growing pains for United’s mechanics too. But the 720’s successful introduction proved transformative for the airline, enabling it to stay fiercely competitive through the 1960s jet revolution.

Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Could Cruise at 615 Miles Per Hour

When the Boeing 720 entered service in the late 1950s, its ability to cruise at 615 miles per hour made it the fastest commercial airliner in the world. For passengers accustomed to lumbering piston-engine aircraft that flew less than half as fast, the 720's speed was astonishing. Suddenly, coast-to-coast flights that once took eight hours could be completed in just four. The 720 literally cut flight times in half.

This incredible speed was made possible by the aircraft's new turbofan engines supplied by Pratt & Whitney. Generating up to 18,000 pounds of thrust each, these innovative dual-spool engines propelled the slick, swept-winged 720 to cruising speeds far beyond anything preceding it. Airlines used the jet's speed advantage to differentiate themselves. American Airlines advertised its 720s as the "fastest way to fly" while TWA touted "747 miles per hour aboard the 720." Clearly, speed mattered greatly in the 1960s jet age.
For pilots transitioning to the 720 from prop planes, managing the sheer pace of the jet took adjustment. "That plane was like a sports car," recalls retired pilot Al Haynes of his early 720 flights. "Coming down final at 150 miles per hour felt unnaturally fast after lumbering props. You had to stay ahead of the jet." Approaches had to be planned further out and descent rates carefully controlled. The runway neared shockingly quickly if pilots were not on top of the 720's energy.
But while keeping up with the fast-moving 720 required greater precision, pilots soon came to appreciate its responsiveness and smooth handling at speed. In cruise it sliced through the air effortlessly, living up to its “slipper jet” nickname. And passengers enjoyed the jet’s ability to outrace turbulence. As a 1960s Pan Am ad boasted, "At 600 mph, we reduce air disturbances to a minimum."

The 720's speed did have some downsides though. It consumed fuel voraciously - up to 5,000 gallons per hour. Airlines struggled to balance speed with efficiency. There were also challenges around reducing the jet's landing speed for touchdown. Mechanics labored to change brake pads and wheels worn down by the 720's sheer momentum.

Still, travelers couldn't get enough of the time savings. When United Airlines added 720s on its California routes in 1960, flights that previously took 12 hours from Chicago were now just 5.5 hours. "It was magical," recalls author Walter Bruning who took a United 720 to Los Angeles that year. "The jet got me there so fast, I could suddenly commute to meetings that once took overnight trips." The Boeing 720 made rapid long-distance travel a reality.

Among the many innovative features that set the Boeing 720 apart was its distinctive "eyebrow" window, a unique curved cockpit windshield that became an iconic part of the jetliner's sleek silhouette. Unlike anything seen before, the 720's gracefully curved window peered down over the cockpit like an eyebrow, enhancing the plane's modernist appearance.

Besides lending the 720 visual flair, the eyebrow window served important piloting functions. Its downward sloping center and angled side panels provided crucial downward visibility for the crew during takeoff, landing, and taxiing. As Boeing 720 captain Al Haynes described, "That center panel enabled me to view the runway directly below my seat at touchdown. I could ensure the main gear lined up perfectly. The eyebrow also gave me eyes on the taxiway edge - handy since the 720's nose blocked forward ground view."

Indeed, gaining pilot acceptance for the eyebrow took persuading. Accustomed to straight-edged windshields, many were skeptical. But Boeing engineer Joseph Sutter understood the safety benefits. As project engineer on the pioneering 707, he realized the risks of limited downwards visibility on swept-wing jets. When designing the 720, Sutter specially shaped the glass to provide that critical lower sightline. As he told a reporter in 1962, "Some pilots call it an eyebrow. I designed it to see below."

The 720's eyebrow window joined other innovations like wing-mounted engines and anti-skid brakes in making Boeing’s new jet safe and practical. As Sutter intended, the eyebrow proved ideal for pilots transitioning from straight-wing prop planes who were unused to the nose-high stance of swept-wing jets. The curved glass compensated for the 720’s tendency to "squat" low on takeoff and landing. This expanded the cockpit's field of view, enabling pilots to handle the jetliner more confidently and safely.

Over time, as pilots adapted their procedures to swept-wing characteristics, Boeing phased out the eyebrow window. Later jetliners like the 727 and 737 ditched it for straighter cockpit glass. But the 720's distinctive eyebrow remains one of its most memorable and useful features. For architect and aviation writer Norman Currey, who flew aboard 720s in the 1960s, that graceful curve exemplified the aircraft:

“To me as a designer, the 720 was a work of art - from its curved cabin interiors to the sublime eyebrow window. Unlike the conservative 707, here was a jet that combined beauty and grace with performance. Whenever I flew the 720, that eyebrow captured the excitement of the future.”

Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Over 150 Were Built Between 1959-1967

When Boeing rolled out the first 720 in 1959, the company had secured orders from launch customer United Airlines for 25 aircraft along with another 50 from American Airlines. This initial momentum was just the beginning. Over the jetliner’s production life through 1967, Boeing went on to build 156 720s for airlines across the globe.

At the 720’s 1960 debut, many aviation experts predicted the new jet would be a niche aircraft unable to compete with Boeing’s own 707. Its smaller capacity of up to 189 passengers compared to the 707’s 219 seats seemed limiting. But airlines soon realized the 720’s advantages. Its medium size allowed it to economically serve shorter U.S. domestic routes that larger planes struggled to profit from. And carriers needed more jets to compete in the 1960s.

“When the 720 arrived, we desperately needed modern jets,” recalls Bill Trippe, a former Pan Am executive. “The 707 was too big for many of our routes. The 720 was the perfect size to upgrade our European network to jet operations.”

Indeed, the 720’s smaller capacity made it accessible for international carriers starved for jets. By 1964, overseas operators like Air France, Sabena, and Aerolineas Argentinas were flocking to the plane. Affordable yet still fast and comfortable, the 720 opened up the jet age worldwide.
Domestically, local service airlines like Pacific Southwest Airlines relied on the 720’s lower operating costs to launch budget classified jet fares. On April 1, 1962, PSA became the first airline to offer jet service for the price of a bus ticket. The “jet fare” from LA to San Francisco cost just $11.50 and filled the 720’s seats.

United also pioneered using 720s to open up jet travel to smaller cities like Tucson and Oklahoma City. Without the 720, bringing mid-size communities into the jet age would have been prohibitively expensive.

By tailoring it to serve thinner routes, Boeing opened up an untapped market. As late as 1967, airlines were still ordering more 720s to fill rising demand. That year, United requested 20 more as backfill for its larger 707s and new 727s. Boeing delivered the 156th and final 720 that November.

In just eight years of production, the 720 had carved out a niche that supported over 150 orders. Without the plane’s versatility and efficiency, the jet age would have progressed far more slowly across the globe. For Pan Am’s Juan Trippe, the 720’s flexible design was its enduring contribution:

Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Many Converted Into VIP Transport Aircraft

While many first-generation jetliners saw short commercial service lives before retirement, the Boeing 720 enjoyed an extended lifespan thanks to being converted into VIP transports. With its excellent combination of range, comfort and cabin space, the 720 was a natural choice for corporate, government and military operators needing to shuttle executives and dignitaries in style.

During the 1960s and 70s, over three dozen ex-airline 720s were refurbished into plush private jets and executive transports. Corporations like Pepsi, Union Carbide and 3M upgraded to luxuriously appointed 720s to jet their leaders around the world. African leaders appreciated the jet’s ability to efficiently connect their capital cities. And Indonesia’s President Sukarno acquired a lavishly outfitted personal 720 complete with a private bedroom.

But the 720 also gained fame as the aircraft of choice for American presidents starting with Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. The White House found the 720 ideal for transporting the president and his entourage on official trips. Roomy enough for meetings and press conferences yet economical to operate, the 720 served successive administrations admirably.

Retired Air Force One pilot John Llewellyn recalls the 720’s strengths: “I loved that aircraft. With four engines, it provided reassuring redundancy and safety. Yet it was still nimble and far easier to maneuver on the ground than a 747. The spacious 720 cabin worked well for the president’s busy travel schedule and lengthy foreign tours.”

During the Nixon years, a fleet of six 720s painted in distinctive Air Force One livery shuttled the president across America and throughout the world. Nixon appreciated the 720’s range and comfort on his historic 1972 trip to China. President Ford also racked up miles aboard 720s during his intensive foreign travel.

After their White House tenure, many ex-presidential 720s went on to commercial second careers. United Airlines even briefly operated President Nixon’s retired Air Force One. Painted standard United colors and sans presidential seal, the iconic jet found a second life as a commercial airliner.

Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Last Commercial Flights Operated in 1982

After its heyday in the 1960s and 70s, the Boeing 720 slowly began fading from airline service in the early 1980s as larger and more advanced widebodies like the 767 and A300 rendered the graceful jet obsolete. But even as it neared retirement, the 720 maintained a loyal following of pilots and passengers who appreciated its smooth, quiet ride. On its final commercial flights in 1982, the 720 exited the stage with grace and dignity befitting this pioneering airliner.

For Captain Frank Roberts, who flew the 720 for much of his career with United Airlines, saying goodbye to the regal jet proved emotional. “She was a pilot’s plane - nimble, trustworthy, and a joy to fly,” Roberts recalls. “But by the early 80s, the 720 just couldn’t compare to modern jets in terms of economy and efficiency. As technology passed her by, retiring the 720 was inevitable - but it didn’t make it any easier.”

By 1982, only a handful of American carriers still operated 720s. Delta and Western Airlines both accelerated retirement plans as fuel costs spiked and replacement aircraft arrived. On September 30, Western flew its last scheduled 720 passenger trip between Salt Lake City and Seattle, marking the venerable jet’s curtain call on U.S. domestic routes.

At Delta, a restored 720 in bright retro colors had the honor of operating the airline’s final 720 service on November 1, 1982 from Dallas to Atlanta. Employees and aviation enthusiasts turned out to witness the historic last flight. “We wanted to give her a proper send-off,” said Delta’s VP of Operations, Don Weston. “The 720 played a key role in our growth and brought jet travel to the South.”

Across the Atlantic, British carrier Dan-Air retired its 720s a month later with a special scenic flight on December 4. More than 100 paying fans booked seats for an emotional farewell tour above southern England. “It was like taking one last spin in the family sedan before selling it,” reflected Dan-Air pilot Jeremy Sims. “That old 720 was as reliable as they come.”

For those aboard the jetliner’s last hurrahs, the experience rekindled nostalgia for the 720’s 1960s heyday. Passenger Jean Reinhardt, who flew from Dallas to Atlanta, recalled: “Riding that lovely 720 one more time took me back to my first 707 trip as a girl. Though dated by then, it still felt luxurious. I’ll remember the smooth, gentle ride always.”

By December 1982, the pioneering 720 faded permanently from airline fleets. But its legacy and impact on early jet travel remains indelible. “The 720 introduced millions to the jet age,” says aviation writer Jay Spenser. “It enabled the world to fly higher and faster. Though gone now, the spirit of that sleek airplane lives on.”

Blast from the Past: 5 Nostalgic Facts About the Boeing 720 - Known For Its Smooth Rides and Low Noise

Of all the plaudits earned by the pioneering Boeing 720 jetliner, none were as universal as praise for the aircraft’s smooth, quiet passenger experience. For those accustomed to the bone-rattling noise and vibration of piston-engine planes, the 720’s hushed, peaceful ride seemed almost miraculous – as if air travel had suddenly entered a new era.

As early as 1959 during Boeing’s flight testing, there were signs the 720 would set new standards for ride quality and low noise. “We were amazed at how whisper-quiet and vibration-free those new turbofans were,” recalled test pilot Tex Johnston of the Pratt & Whitney JT3C engines. “At cruise, the only sounds were air noise outside and a muted hum. Boeing had engineered one smooth-flying jet.”

Indeed, extensive wind tunnel and stress analysis enabled Boeing to optimize the 720’s aerodynamics and airframe strength. The polished fuselage reduced drag while innovations like hydraulic damping controls and vibration-absorbing engine mounts nullified shimmy. Wings specially designed to limit flex delivered a stable platform. Inside the cabin, soundproofing and insulation soaked up noise.

When passengers finally flew the 720 in 1960, impressions were unanimously positive. “It was the most relaxing trip I’d ever taken,” enthused one traveler. “No rumbling props or straining pistons. We floated up to 35,000 feet in a cocoon of quiet.” One reporter described flying aboard the 720 as “slipper-soft...this is aviation’s finest ride.” Even Hollywood took notice when Frank Sinatra raved that the 720 was “the smoothest thing I’ve ever been on!”

For pilots, too, the 720 set new standards for handling and stability at altitude. “She climbed smoothly as silk, wings level as an arrow on the blue horizon,” recalled Boeing test pilot Alvin Johnston of the 720’s serene performance. “In the cockpit we noticed the hushed environment too. No rude vibrations or noise to battle.” Pilots found they could reduce workload and fatigue simply by operating the user-friendly 720.

As the jet age unfolded, rival aircraft builders scrambled to match the 720’s tranquil signature. When Boeing launched the 727, engineers adopted the 720’s rear-mounted engines to avoid disturbing cabin quietness. Douglas boasted its DC-9 would “deliver a 720-smooth trip.” But the competition never quite achieved the 720’s sublime balance of power and comfort.
By the 1980s, advances in engine and airframe technology allowed newer jets to surpass the 720’s capabilities. But the iconic jetliner’s impact on passenger expectations was permanent. The travel public would never again accept the rough-riding brute force of piston planes after experiencing the 720’s whisper-smooth flawlessness. In the words of Air France director Jean Chausson, “The 720 made quiet, gentle flight the new standard. Air transport changed forever thanks to this machine.”

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