Almost cancelled, the Boeing 737 has endured 49 years

The Boeing Co. is turning 100 on July 15. Throughout the year, The Daily Herald is covering the people, airplanes and moments that define the Boeing century.

RENTON — The grass airstrip in Hope, British Columbia, is best suited for hobby flying — Cessnas, Piper Cubs and gliders.

In 1972, though, the Hope Aerodrome helped resurrect flagging Boeing 737 sales and avoid the program’s cancellation.

Now, the single-aisle airplane can be found on flight paths and at airports around the globe. It is the best-selling commercial jetliner ever and makes up about a quarter of the world’s passenger jets, with one taking off every two seconds.

That wasn’t the case in the program’s early years. It almost was cancelled before it was even launched. In 1964, Boeing leadership was split over developing a small, regional jetliner. Its biggest competitor, the Douglas Aircraft Co., had already beaten it to the market with the DC-9, as had several European airplane makers. So Boeing executives punted on making a decision.

Boeing’s visionary engineer, Jack Steiner, pushed the company to commit to the 737. Finally, he went around Boeing chief executive Bill Allen to directly lobby company board members to back the airplane program, which they did.

In early 1965, Lufthansa ordered 21 of the compact airplanes only after Boeing promised it wouldn’t cancel the 737 for lack of orders. United Air Lines ordered 40 airplanes a couple of months later. The airline wanted something bigger than the 737-100 version ordered by Lufthansa. So, right away, Boeing stretched the plane into the 737-200, the first of 12 commercial versions.

Airlines ordered 83 737s that year, which, at the time, wasn’t bad for a new jetliner. But Douglas collected nearly three times as many orders — 209 — for the DC-9, which also went into service in 1965. The Long Beach, Calif., company’s jet regularly outsold Boeing’s 737 for the next few years.

With sales lagging, Boeing leadership considered selling the 737 program to a Japanese manufacturer, said Peter Morton, a retired Boeing vice president who was the 737 program’s marketing manager from 1969 to 1974. Before that he was an engineer on the program.

“It was a volatile time. The company was in financial straits, and everything was on the table,” he said.

One of his first jobs as marketing manager was to lead a task force studying whether to keep, close or sell the airplane program.

His team’s answer to company executives was clear: Keep the 737. It can compete and even outsell the DC-9, he said.

The task force figured that the 737 could serve customers and markets ignored by the DC-9 and other small jets. The 737 could operate from remote airports with unpaved runways, and it could carry a mix of cargo and passengers on its main deck.

Morton knew he had to show customers that the plane could fly in and out of rough airports. Looking for a nearby airport to show off the plane’s capabilities, he came across a 4,000-foot-long grass runway in Hope, British Columbia. On Sept. 13, 1972, with a camera rolling, a 737-200 painted in the company’s black-and-mustard-brown livery touched down in Hope, the plane’s nose wheel digging a deep rut in the ground.

“I believe the Hope authorities billed us pretty heavily to get the ruts out of that airport,” Morton says in the marketing video shot that day.

Boeing engineers figured out how to keep future ruts from happening and to keep dust and gravel out of the engines. With the video in hand, Morton and other 737 program members scoured the world for sales.

“We took that airplane all over the world” and found plenty of new ways to show it off, he said.

During a sales pitch in Peru, a bird was sucked into one of the plane’s engines. The Boeing pilot “ever so calmly cut the engine that had swallowed the bird,” he said. “You could smell the burnt bird. When we landed, there were still feathers in the engine.”

A handful of sales in the early ’70s to Sabena, in Belgium, plus a trio of jointly-operated Brazilian airlines and the U.S. Navy were vital to keeping the program alive.

“We sold 10 planes to Sabena, and the place went nuts. The factory bells were ringing, people were cheering. These days, no one blinks when you sell 10 planes,” Morton said.

Even as the 737’s fate hung in the balance, engineers and designers were working on improvements.

“Boeing’s a complicated company,” he explained. “You can have a team of engineers improving the airplane at the same time you have the bean-counters running the numbers on closing the program.”

Over the past 49 years, the 737 has been reinvented for the evolving market. The 737-100 was so unpopular with customers only 30 were ever made, and most of those were for Lufthansa’s first order.

“Basically, it was — what’s the technical term? — a crappy product early on,” said Adam Pilarski, a leading aerospace economist. He is a vice president at Avitas, a consulting firm in Virginia.

Boeing unveiled the first major overhaul — the 737-200 Advanced — in 1971. It could hold more passengers and fly farther. It quickly became the standard for the 737-200, which ended production in 1988 after more than 1,000 airplanes. Two years later, the 737 became the best-selling commercial aircraft.

“Boeing is really good at continuously improving products, and that’s what they did” with the 737, said Pilarski, who worked for McDonnell Douglas.

While Boeing was improving its airplanes, “Douglas was not very well managed,” he said. “Douglas ran out of money,” McDonnell bought the company, and “McDonnell couldn’t care less about commercial” airplanes.

DC-9 sales flagged in the 1970s, while Boeing gained market share. Demand shot up after Congress opened up domestic air routes to new competition. Many small regional airlines expanded out of state, and a flurry of new ones came along. Many airlines — new and old — went shopping for jets. In 1977, Boeing sold 37 737s. The next year, when Congress deregulated commercial aviation, Boeing sold 145 737s. For the first time since the Baby Boeing debuted, North American airlines consistently placed orders.

Along the way, Boeing continued tweaking the aircraft and introduced new versions: the Classics (737-300, -400 and -500) in the 1980s, followed by the 737 Next Generation (NG) (737-600, -700, -800 and -900) and, most recently, the 737 MAX (737 MAX 7, -8 and -9).

There’s only one plane that rivals its success: the Airbus A320, the second best-selling commercial jetliner.

The European airplane maker caught Boeing off guard in the 1980s, when it launched its single-aisle workhorse, the A320 family. The airplane had fly-by-wire controls and other tech advances. Since the A320’s introduction, Airbus has slightly outsold Boeing in the single-aisle market.

The two are now competing with their newest versions — the A320neo and the 737 MAX. At the same time, airplane makers in Brazil, Canada, China and Russia are looking to break into the lucrative single-aisle market.

Still, fans of the 737 say it will be flying for decades to come, possibly even long enough to see its own centennial.

“It’s an amazing machine,” said Dan Dornseif,a commercial 737 pilot. He’s writing a history of the airplane — “Boeing 737: The World’s Jetliner” — for Schiffer Publishing. “It’s incredibly reliable and handles very well.”

Its flexibility, durability and affordability are strong selling points. And while the fuselage has been stretched, strengthened and lightened, it retains essentially the same structure as the 737-100.

“Like a house, you have to start with a good foundation,” Dornseif said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

737 models through the years

Many factors affect a plane’s range and capacity. This list uses typical midrange values for each 737 version.

737-100

First flight: April 9, 1967

Launch customer: Lufthansa

Total built (unfilled orders): 30

Production: 1967-1969

Capacity (two class): 85

Range (nautical miles): 1,150

Length: 93 feet, 9 inches

Wingspan: 93 feet

737-200

First flight: Aug. 8, 1967

Launch customer: United Airlines

Total built (unfilled orders): 1,095

Production: 1968-1988

Capacity (two class): 110

Range (nautical miles): 2,500

Length: 100 feet, 2 inches

Wingspan: 93 feet

737-300

First flight: Feb. 24, 1984

Launch customer: US Air

Total built (unfilled orders): 1,113

Production: 1984-1999

Capacity (two class): 126

Range (nautical miles): 2,255

Length: 109 feet, 7 inches

Wingspan: 94 feet, 9 inches

737-400

First flight: Feb. 19, 1988

Launch customer: Piedmont (PI)

Total built (unfilled orders): 486

Production: 1988-1999

Capacity (two class): 147

Range (nautical miles): 2,060

Length: 119 feet, 7 inches

Wingspan: 94 feet, 9 inches

737-500

First flight: June 30, 1989

Launch customer: Southwest Airlines

Total built (unfilled orders): 389

Production: 1990-1999

Capacity (two class): 110

Range (nautical miles): 2,375

Length: 101 feet, 9 inches

Wingspan: 94 feet, 9 inches

737-600

First flight: Jan. 22, 1998

Launch customer: SAS

Total built (unfilled orders): 66 (3)

Production: 1998-

Capacity (two class): 110

Range (nautical miles): 3,235

Length: 102 feet, 6 inches

Wingspan: 112 feet, 7 inches

737-700

First flight: Feb. 9, 1997

Launch customer: Southwest Airlines

Total built (unfilled orders): 1,133 (53)

Production: 1997-

Capacity (two class): 126

Range (nautical miles): 3,010

Length: 110 feet, 4 inches

Wingspan: 112 feet, 7 inches

737-800

First flight: July 31, 1997

Launch customer: Hapag Lloyd (TUI Group)

Total built (unfilled orders): 4,002 (1,108)

Production: 1998-

Capacity (two class): 162

Range (nautical miles): 2,935

Length: 129 feet, 6 inches

Wingspan: 112 feet, 7 inches

737-900

First flight: Aug. 3, 2000

Launch customer: Alaska Airlines

Total built (unfilled orders): 371 (144)

Production: 2001-

Capacity (two class): 178

Range (nautical miles): 2,950

Length: 138 feet, 2 inches

Wingspan: 112 feet, 7 inches

737 MAX 7

First flight: —

Launch customer: Southwest Airlines

Total built (unfilled orders): (3,072)*

Production: n/a

Capacity (two class): 126

Range (nautical miles): 3,350

Length: 110 feet, 5 inches

Wingspan: 117 feet, 10 inches

737 MAX 8

First flight: Jan 29, 2016

Launch customer: Southwest Airlines

Total built (unfilled orders): (3,072)*

Production: 2015-

Capacity (two class): 162

Range (nautical miles): 3,515

Length: 129 feet, 8 inches

Wingspan: 117 feet, 10 inches

737 MAX 9

First flight: —

Launch customer: Lion Air

Total built (unfilled orders): (3,072)*

Production: n/a

Capacity (two class): 178

Range (nautical miles): 3,515

Length: 138 feet, 4 inches

Wingspan: 117 feet, 10 inches

* All MAX orders are grouped together. Based on announcements, the MAX 8 has far outsold the other two versions. Boeing has not publicly disclosed total orders for each MAX version.

Sources: Boeing Co., Aviation Safety Network, “Boeing 737-100 and 200” (MBI Publishing)

The 737’s many names

During its 49 years, the Boeing 737 has gone by many names.

Flying Football: Boeing engineer Jack Steiner’s description of the 737-100’s short, wide fuselage.

Fighter: Some Boeing workers dubbed it the fighter due to its small size compared to the 707 and 727.

Baby Boeing: Its most famous moniker and another nod to its small stature. (Detecting a theme?)

Bobby: Short for Boeing Baby.

FLUFF: Fat Little Ugly * Fellow, a variant on an off-color nickname for the B-52.

Li’l Toot: The name given to the very first 737 during flight testing.

Fat Albert: A nod to the plane’s stubby nose.

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