Is the Boeing 737 the Greatest Airliner of All Time?

Continental Airlines Boeing 737-800

A Continental Airlines Boeing 737-800 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In the history of aviation, few aircraft types have been so good at their designed task that they are simply taken for granted. Such is the case with the Boeing 737.

Boeing has dominated the airliner industry for a long time, and now they have announced the new 737 Max, a new development of their most successful domestic airliner, the 737.

Here’s Boeing’s video news release announcing the 737 MAX:

Expected to go into service later this decade (around 2017), the 737 MAX will have more fuel-efficient engines, better aerodynamics, and more space for passengers.

It was initially believed that the 737 would be replaced by a completely new short-haul airliner as part of Boeing’s Yellowstone Project. But the smarter people in Seattle realized that, if it ain’t broke, we shouldn’t fix it. So the 737 MAX looks to be the replacement of older variants of its own type, including the even more recent 737 Next Generation

When you look at the development of the 737 over the years, calling it the most successful commercial airliner of all time becomes less and less far-fetched. The first 737 made its initial flight a little over 45 years ago, on April 9, 1967. Since then, Boeing has churned out 737s non-stop. As of December 2011, Boeing has delivered more than 7,000 737s, and at least 2,300 more are on order. It stands to reason that, with the advent of the 737 MAX, the 737 will be the first airliner to eclipse 10,000 production units.

The prototype Boeing 737, which first flew on April 9, 1967. Note the early Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Forty-five straight years of production is unheard of for any particular aircraft type. It has even outdone the famed 747, which was first ordered in 1969, but has recently seen a slow-down in production (2010 was the first year since 1969 that no 747s were delivered). According to Boeing, more than 5,500 737s are still in service – more than one quarter of the worldwide fleet – with 358 airlines in 114 countries.

Over the years, the 737 has been re-designed, re-engined, stretched, and re-designed again. It was initially designed as a supplement to the 727. In fact, the original 737 fuselage used the same fuselage design as the 727. But the 727 was phased out of wide-scale use by the 757 in the mid-1980s. In fact, the 757′s ubiquitous design – a clean aerodynamic fuselage with twin engines set on pylons on the swept wing, a departure from the clean-wing, tri-engine planform of the 727 – was borrowed from the 737. The soundness of the initial design has withstood the test of time.

The first 737 MAX is due for delivery in time for the type’s 50th anniversary. To put the 737′s longevity into perspective, consider this: The legendary Boeing B-17 made its first flight in July 1935. Had the B-17 stayed in service in its roles as long as the 737 has to this point, SAC would have retired the last B-17s in 1980 – five years before the B-1B came into service.

737

A Boeing P-8A Poseidon landing at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

That’s not to say the 737 hasn’t served the U.S. military – indeed it has. It has been used as a navigation trainer (T-43), transport aircraft (C-40), and more recently has even put on its war colors, in the form of the P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine and ELINT platform, replacing the venerable Lockheed P-3 Orion. Almost half a century after its peaceful origin, the 737 is being developed as a weapon of war, equipped with anti-shipping missiles, mines, and torpedoes.

But the 737 was, is, and will foremost be designed to carry people. Southwest Airlines just debuted its newest 737 variant, the 737-800, at BWI airport. It’s big, at almost 20 feet

longer than the 737-700. On top of that, America’s most trusted airline just placed an order for 150 737 MAXes, with an option for 150 more, on top of 78 737 NGs. The rest of America’s airliners would be smart to take note. But then again, no one has seemed to learn from Southwest – much to their detriment.

The 737 has never gotten the credit it deserves. 737s have carried everything and flown everywhere. Chances are, you’ve flown on one, just like your parents, and likely your grandparents. And chances are your kids will fly in one, and now, maybe their kids as well. After all, they’ll be flying in the most successful passenger aircraft of all time.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article previously appeared on my personal site.