The Boeing Airplane Company began 1923 in a race with the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company to design the best pursuit fighter. Curtiss finished its design first and was awarded the first Army Air Service contract. Nonetheless, after the Boeing Model 15 (PW-9) prototype made its first flight six months later, military sales of the Model 15 and its derivatives made Boeing a leading producer of fighters for the next decade, culminating with 586 fighters in the P-12/F4B series.
Boeing also produced the Model 40 mail plane in 1923 and, two years later, refurbished it as the Model 40A. In 1927, powered by a much lighter air-cooled engine, the Model 40A won the U.S. Post Office contract to deliver mail between San Francisco and Chicago; Boeing Air Transport (BAT) was formed to run the new airline.
Philip G. Johnson was president, Claire L. Egtvedt was general manager and William E. Boeing was chairman of the board. BAT also trained pilots, set up airfields and staffed maintenance facilities for the new airmail service.
Bertha Boeing, William’s wife, inaugurated the first BAT airmail flight July 1, 1927. Because of Prohibition, she performed the ceremony with orange juice-flavored soda water, which she said “made a satisfactory fizz.” Jane Eads, a reporter for the Chicago Herald Examiner, was the first BAT passenger. Elegantly garbed in high heels, a knee-length business suit and a feather boa, Eads made the 22.5-hour trip between San Francisco and Chicago in a cabin not much bigger than a freezer.
During its first year, BAT carried 837,211 pounds of mail, 149,068 pounds of express packages and 1,863 passengers. The popularity of passenger flight inspired the 12-passenger, three-engine Model 80 biplane, the first Boeing plane built specifically as a passenger transport. It made its first flight July 27, 1929, and was later upgraded to the 18-passenger Model 80A. By 1928, with 800 employees, Boeing was one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in the country.
Photo: First stewardesses on Model 80A