Boeing 737: How worlds most successful airplane became its most troubled

Author : patensnews
Publish Date : 2020-12-26 14:53:08

Boeing 737: How worlds most successful airplane became its most troubled

Over the course of its long history, the Boeing 737 has acquired more nicknames than any other commercial aircraft.

Among them are Baby Boeing, Tin Mouse, Light Twin, Guppy, Bobby, Rudder Rotor, as well as a few less flattering ones, such as Fat Freddy and Dung Beetle.

But none of these is as notorious as Max, the name Boeing has given to the 737's latest incarnation -- now synonymous with disaster, as well as one of the worst corporate blunders of all time.

The problems that marred the 737 Max are intricately linked to the fact that the plane's foundation is from the 1960s.

Over 50 years after its maiden flight, the Boeing 737 is both the most successful airliner ever made and one whose future is more uncertain than ever.

'Profit-making machine'

The first 737 was rolled out on January 17, 1967 and took to the skies for the first time three months later. It was christened by flight attendants from the 17 airlines that had placed orders for it.

German flag carrier Lufthansa took delivery of the production version of the plane, known as the 737-100, later that year, marking the first time a new Boeing aircraft was launched by a European airline.

United Airlines received its first 737 the following day, in a version stretched three feet to fit more seats -- and dubbed 737-200 -- that proved more popular.

"In the early days, the 737 was a very strong, very reliable aircraft," says Graham Simons, an aviation historian and author of the book "Boeing 737: The World's Most Controversial Commercial Jetliner."

"Some of them were even used to land on gravel strips, and they're still being used to do so in northern Canada.

"A few European charter companies, at peak season, flew them for 18-20 hours a day without problems," he adds.

Compared to Boeing's previous two jets, the four-engined 707 and the three-engined 727, the 737 was a smaller, more economical plane.

Its main competitors at the time, the BAC-111 and the Douglas DC-9, also had two engines, but they were placed near the tail of the plane, making the back section of the cabin narrower and noisier.

Boeing's designers placed the 737 engines under the wing instead, much like the company's other jets, which reduced noise and vibration and made maintenance easier, because they could be reached without a ladder.

Unlike Boeing's larger planes, however, the 737 didn't have its engines mounted on pylons in front of the wing, but directly under it. This allowed the aircraft to sit very low to the ground, making it easier to load luggage.

"You could load the plane from the back of a truck, without specific machinery. It was also easier to refuel, because the wings were lower to the ground," says Simons.

"And it didn't require external ladders for passenger access. Instead, it had air stairs that came out from under the door and dropped down. All of that could reduce the turnaround time at a major airport from around 90 to 40 minutes. A hell of a saving."

To add to these selling points, the 737 also had six seats per row versus the competitors' five, meaning it could carry more passengers.

"It became a very good profit-making machine," says Simons.

The 737 was Boeing's first two-crew aircraft, doing away with the flight engineer station that was commonplace at the time and introducing another innovation that would become standard.

To demonstrate that the plane could be safely managed by just two pilots, Boeing flew it along the busy Washington-Boston corridor 40 times in six days during Thanksgiving 1967, simulating a range of failures and problems.

As a result, the FAA approved the plane for two-crew operation. Airlines, however, weren't quick to adapt.

"At that time, pretty much every airliner had three crew; sometimes, on transatlantic flights, there were four crew: two pilots, a flight engineer and a navigator," says Simons.

"But technology had evolved, and there was much more automatic equipment on the 737. On short flights, the work done by the flight engineer could be shared across the two pilots.

"A big saving for the airline: less weight to carry and one less wage to pay. Unions, however, didn't like it."

Pushback from unions slowed the acceptance of two-crew operation, and many airlines kept the flight engineer until the early 1980s.

This was one of the factors that slowed down the early commercial traction of the 737, and airlines initially operated the plane with three crew.

By 1987, however, the 737 was the most ordered plane in commercial history, according to Boeing.

Its success came as a result of the plane's first major redesign, which debuted with the 737-300 in 1984.

This model was longer and wider, with capacity for up to 150 passengers, and it was designed to stand up to its new rival, the European-made Airbus A320, which had launched the same year.

The 737-300 had a new, more modern engine that posed the first big challenge to Boeing's engineers.

It was much bigger than the previous engine and wouldn't fit under the wing, as the plane had been designed to be low to the ground.

The problem was solved by reducing the diameter of the fan and relocating engine components from the lower part of the pod to the sides. This gave it a distinct, flat-bottomed shape colloquially known as the "hamster pouch."
The success of this upgrade set aside initial plans to design an entirely new, more modern aircraft to replace the 737, showing Boeing that results could be achieved by teaching its old dog new tricks.

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