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The Boeing 307, an airliner derivative of the B-17 heavy bomber, was the first pressurised airliner to enter series production and go into service (hence its bulbous, altogether un-B-17-like fuselage, the better to hold pressure), allowing it to cruise at higher altitudes,1 where the air is thinner and less draggy, without incapacitating its occupants. As World War II broke out shortly after the 307 was introduced, only ten ended up being produced (out of which only nine still existed, the first off the line having already been destroyed in a crash), and eight of the nine surviving 307s were drafted into military service;2 Pan Am’s fleet of three flew military contract flights in Latin America and the Caribbean, while TWA’s five 307s were extensively modified for transatlantic VIP and freight carriage (being redesignated as the C-75).

One of the modifications applied to the ex-TWA aircraft3 was the removal of their pressurisation system, ostensibly to save weight; this restricted the C-75s to an altitude safe for unpressurised human beans (approximately 8 kilofeet or so max, as opposed to the 12 kft of the pressurised 307), with resultant drag and fuel-burn penalties in the denser, lower-altitude air (one of the other modifications was the installation of numerous additional fuel tanks to sustain the aircraft across the Atlantic).

This does not seem to make sense, given that the main advantage of cabin pressurisation is the aforementioned ability to fly at higher, less-draggy altitudes, where an aircraft cruises at a (sometimes much) higher true airspeed and burns less fuel, allowing it to carry more paying payload and not as much fuel.4 Thus, even a relatively-low-ceilinged aircraft like the 307 should still have been able to carry more payload, or carry the same amount of payload farther, when pressurised than when unpressurised, even factoring in the extra weight of the pressurisation system, due to the lesser fuel requirements of (and, thus, lighter fuel load needed for) flight at pressurisation-enabled higher altitudes - so why did the USAAF remove the 307s’ pressurisation equipment?


1: Albeit not that much higher, due to its low fuselage pressure rating and its lack of a passenger emergency oxygen system.

2: The remaining 307 (the second one off the production line) was Howard Hughes's personal airplane (he hardly ever used it, though).

3: Which would be returned to TWA at the end of the war, and converted back to commercial passenger configuration (with a number of improvements gleaned from wartime B-17 work).

4: Contrary to what those less-well-informed about aviation tend to believe, the purpose of cabin pressurisation is not to allow airliners to fly above bad weather; even modern jetliners, which can cruise at up to FL410 (~41 kft), don’t fly high enough for that. You’d have to go up to at least about FL550-FL600 (~55-60 kft) to overtop storm clouds, something of which only one airliner ever produced was capable (and said airliner has now been out of service for over a decade and a half).

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  • $\begingroup$ Note 4 is absolutely NOT true. Weather avoidance was a huge benefit to pressurization, along with efficiency. Storm clouds extend only a few thousand feet above the tropopause into the stratoshpere (the anvil). The tropopause is around 50k only near the equator and up to maybe 30 deg N/S. In the mid latitudes, it's in the 30s and you can easily top thunderstorm anvils when cruising above FL350. Even if you can only get to 25000, you can still avoid 90% of nasty weather, which, apart from thunderstorm cells, pretty much means icing. $\endgroup$ – John K Sep 28 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ "Kilofeet"? Never heard that one before. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Sep 29 at 16:49
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Pressurization is primarily for crew and passenger comfort. The B307 was a very early attempt at cabin pressurization and the marginal pressurization differential of only 2.4 psi did not allow much of an increase in cruising altitude.

The difference between 8,000’ and 12,000’ did not really justify the added expense and weight.

When the B307s were converted to C-75 military cargo configuration, there was even less justification for pressurization as military crew and passengers would not expect the comfort of pressurization. The C-75 could still fly at altitudes up to 23,000’ but the crew and passengers would just need to use supplemental oxygen.

The B307 had Wright R-1820 engines which were similar to B-17 engines except they were only supercharged and lacked turbochargers. Cabin pressurization was supplied by compressors mechanically driven by the engine. These compressors would rob the engines of power so removing them would allow the aircraft to fly higher but with less comfort.

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    $\begingroup$ It could fly much higher than 12,000’ but with reduced power it would just be slower and even more economical. I suspect the Capt Adams quote only applied to passenger airline operations where speed was a major consideration. $\endgroup$ – Mike Sowsun Sep 29 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ It had the B-17's engines which had the same General Electric turbocharger system the P-38 had. The B-17's service ceiling was 35000 ft, although it was normally limited to under 25000 for accuracy and to avoid giving crew members the bends. $\endgroup$ – John K Sep 29 at 3:26
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    $\begingroup$ The Boeing 307 had Wright R-1820 engines which were similar to B-17 engines except they were only supercharged and lacked turbochargers. Cabin pressurization was supplied by compressors mechanically driven by the engine. $\endgroup$ – Mike Sowsun Sep 29 at 11:02

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