Here Is Why Boeing Made A Special Version Of The 707 For Qantas

At Simple Flying, we love our old school aircraft. The Boeing 707 is a classic example. Boeing built 865 of them between 1958 and 1979. Like most aircraft types, there were several variants. But it is a little known quirk of aviation history that Boeing built a 707 variant just for Qantas. 

The unique Qantas 707. Photo: Phinalanji via Wikimedia Commons.

Boeing made just seven of these particular 707s for Qantas, beginning in 1959 (at the time Qantas was known as Qantas Empire Airways or QEA). They were known as the Boeing 707-138, a subset of the Boeing 707-120 family. Why did Boeing make a special version of the 707 for Qantas?

Choices to make as Qantas entered the jet era

To begin with, consider the time. It was the dawn of the modern commercial jet era. The 707 was the world’s first ‘practical’ jet aircraft. Qantas was poised to transition out of the Lockheed Super Constellation era. The earliest 707s were twice as fast as the Super Constellation, carried twice as many passengers, and started the trend of more affordable flying.


Indeed it was a proud boast of the time that the 707 brought the price of a Sydney – London ticket down to 32 times the average weekly wage. Today it costs about a single average weekly wage.


An article yesterday in Travel Update references another article online by Ron Yates. Dr Yates was the Qantas Projects Engineer in the late 1950s and was running the Qantas’ Boeing 707 acquisition. It is a very interesting insight and I hope this summary does it justice.

A Qantas 707-138 at Sydney in 2007. Photo: YSSYguy via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr Yates notes that by the mid-1950s, the QEA Super Constellations were not competitive on transpacific routes. Pan American Airways was operating the faster Douglas DC-7C on the route and Lockheed was to start production of the 1649A for TWA. This would outgun both the Douglas DC-7C and the Super Constellation when it came to both range and speed.


Needing to modernize its aircraft, the inclination at QEA was to go with the Lockheed 1649A. This was not only because of the aircraft’s superior capabilities but also because of the Qantas’ established relationship with Lockheed.

An in-house dissenter pushed Qantas towards Boeing

A dissenter was Scotty Allen, then QEA’s Assistant General Manager who was a strong booster for Boeing and its emergent 707 program. Taking the Boeing 707 over competitors would offer QEA some early mover advantages.

Qantas would become the fifth 707 customer (after Pan American Airways, TWA, Air France, Sabena and Lufthansa). Although at the time the 707 had only just come into production, some of these airlines were already talking to Boeing about stretching the 707. The problem for Qantas was that doing so would destroy its payload capability on transpacific routes.

So QEA decided to talk to Boeing about producing a 707 variant specific to their needs. After extensive talks, Boeing agreed to offer Qantas a shortened version of their 707 that provided increased range. The Qantas 707 would be 128 feet long rather than the standard 138 feet.

Various airlines such as Pan Am also operated 707s, albeit different variants. Photo: Clipperartic via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition, there were negotiations and modifications regarding the engines. The transpacific flights involved a refueling stop in Fiji. It was thought the existing Pratt and Whitney JT3C-6 engines did not have sufficient thrust for take-off in Fiji where the runway was short and ground temperatures high. Boeing worked on the leading edge devices to facilitate more lift for takeoff. Pratt and Whitney agreed to QEA flights out of Fiji using additional thrust up to 85 degrees Fahrenheit before reducing it (the standard was thrust up to 75 degrees Fahrenheit).

These Boeing 707s destined for QEA were known as 707-138 models, as Qantas’ customer number was ’38’. 

The Boeing 707s brought Qantas into the jet era

In 1959, QEA was the first airline outside the United States to fly the Boeing 707. After that initial delivery, four more were delivered in 1961 and a further two in 1964. Between 1965 and 1969, the 707-138s were gradually retired to make way for the larger 707-338Cs.

QEA needed the increased range to get across the long transpacific hops. Boeing obliged with a unique variant. The Boeing 737-138 brought the modern-day Qantas into the jet age and was a forerunner to their contemporary Boeing fleet of 737-8s, 787-9s and soon to be retired 747-400s.

Some of the 707-138s still survive. John Travolta has famously owned one for years. He has donated that to an aviation museum south of Sydney. The aircraft remains in the United States where it is being prepared for the long flight to Australia. There is also a 707-138 on display at the Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach, Queensland.


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Gerry S

Oh yeah! Nice shot. Remember watching B707s on take off with those four pure jets belching out smoke and emitting banshee-like noise. Pure power. Good old days.


So how did (or do) used 707s get purchased by the US Air Force and configured in to AWACS platforms


They were still making 707 so the AWACS were new builds

Japan has it on a 767 air Frame.


As a 13year old used to sneak into KSA 07 threshold and snap photos of them, Qantas was still operating a DC4 if I recall too… probably shot if you did that today

Flemming Stücker

As a Pan Am staff in Copenhagen from 1972-1974 have flown the 707 several times!


I like the qualification: “world’s first ‘practical’ jet aircraft”. You mean, as opposed to the world’s first jet airliner in service, the Comet 4, which had an unfortunate tendency to explode at altitude after a few rotations!


That would be wrong. Comet 1 had the issues. Re-design went through 2/3/

Comet 4 was the final solution to the issues but it was too short ranged , too small and having your engine inside your wings was not efficient nor a good idea from a shedding turbines failure standpoint.

Gerry S

Because of Comet 4, we learned that round windows are safer than square ones.


That was part of the issue not the whole issue.


flew first jet flight on a BOAC Comet 4: LHR north terminal – DEL in summer 1960 – G-APDF – really enjoyable flight – quite amazing for a boy of 13 yrs! the L1049s used to take ~18+ hrs to reach Delhi, while the Comet 4 got there in ~14+. the 4hr difference was really noticeable.

the windows, by the way, were ellipsoidal.

Raj K

The ‘138’ had nothing to do with the tech spec of the aircraft. It stood for 707-100 series, Boeing customer 38. So subsequent Qantas Boeing aircraft for Qantas became 767-338 747-438, etc, until Boeing dropped the convention.

I also believe not all QF 707’s had the social Fiji enhancements, only the first batch. The second batch had sufficient power in the standard model. Nevertheless both batches received the ‘138’ tag.

Joanna Bailey

Yep, pretty sure the article makes this clear, but thanks for the input.

Gerry S

That was THE issue with it blowing out.

Bob Whittaker

City of Toowoomba (VH-EAA) has a special place in my heart. It flew me back from Vietnam on 10th December 1970.

Bill Pigott

There were other jets. I remember flying with Cathay Pacific in early 1965 from Hong Kong to Manila on a Convair 880 and later in the 1960s on a BOAC VC 10 from London to Nairobi. Then it was on a Qantas 707 to get home

Nate Dogg

VC10 was superior but left wing militants in the UK ruined the programme


flew Qantas 707-138 VH-EBD ‘City of Brisbane’ from Delhi to London via Tehran and Athens; dep Delhi 0130 arr. London 0830. in May 1964. load factor was low so many seat rows were available to stretch-out across. really enjoyable journey – a brilliant flight crew & a very friendly cabin service. One of the vivid ‘picture’ memories i have of this flight was looking towards the rear out the window as the aircraft banked thousands of feet around Mt, Matterhorn in the alps, the sun was rising behind us [ naturally as we were flying west ] the snow-covered rocky… Read more »

Michael F

Boeing actually built a total of 13 (not 7) short bodied 138s for Qantas although the last 6 (VH-EBH thru VH-EBM) were all delivered new as 138B models (with JT3B turbofan engines). The original seven 138s (VH-EBA thru VH-EBG with JT3C turbojet engines) were all returned to Boeing for modification to 138B standard. The “second batch” as Raj refers to them (i.e. 138Bs) did not require the “social Fiji enhancement” as the more powerful turbofan engines negated the need for this. Curiously, while inactive, several of these are still extant around the world and the first and last 138 models… Read more »

Raymond Yap

I was working for Cunard Eagle when they had a Qantas 707-138 and I trained on it in Sydney and the crew did their training in Avalon