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A Local Treasure

By Boeing Nerd June 21, 2010

Boeing is currently considering ending the legendary run of the 737 and replacing it with a brand new design—abandoning the strategy of continuously upgrading the jet.

While the aviation press and even Boeing Nerd swoon over big controversial projects like the 787, Airbust’s clodhopping A380, and the tanker shootout, it's easy to forget that Boeing’s Renton plant has been cranking out the world’s longest running aviation success story since 1967: the ubiquitous 737.



The success of the 737 has made it almost invisible—it has become part of the background. Look out your window on approach to SeaTac and you’ll probably see an Alaska or Southwest 737. Operating in 347 airlines in 104 countries, there are usually 1,250 737s in the air at any given time.  Impressed?  There are still over 2,000 of the jets on back order and new plans to increase production.

Lufthansa was the introductory customer of the 737-100, the first, cute as a bug version of the small jetliner.

While not the first small, twin-engine airliner, the 737 was the first to feature engines slung under the wings, instead of mounted at the rear of the aircraft.  This innovative layout has since been used on nearly every subsequent airliner by any manufacturer, but didn't do much for early 737 sales.

Versatility, timing, and nimble marketing saved the 737 from the chopping block.  In 1970, a cash-strapped Boeing nearly canceled the little guy to focus on the Supersonic Transport (a plane that falls into the often shared categories of cooler-than-Antarctica/never-flew). By adding features sought by individual airlines (like the ability to take off from unpaved airstrips!) the 737-200 finally gained traction with customers. In 1978, airline industry deregulation caused a boom in budget airlines who love the thrifty 737.  All these factors put the 737 on the path to world domination. The 737 “Classic” versions that followed continued the increase sales—and aircraft size—into the 1980s.

The current 737NG “Next Generation” variants entered service in 1996.  (I’m guessing there are a few Trekkies kicking around Boeing’s marketing department.)  The NGs are externally distinguished by the upturned winglets which reduce fuel consumption and noise while boosting the important LCF (Look-Cool Factor).  Lower noise is crucial when dealing with charming “OMG-NO-THIRD-RUNWAY!!!” types.

Success on this scale of course spawns imitators.  Airbust (who else?) made the leap from Euro-Curio to Serious Competition on the back of their 737 copy, the A320.

The A320 came on the scene in 1981 and took advantage of every hard-earned development pioneered by the Boeing.  Industrial espionage may be the sincerest form of trade warfare, but it doesn’t make a better aircraft. The 320 recently distinguished itself over the Hudson River for its ability to be felled by Canada geese.

The reliability of the Boeing jet did not go unnoticed by the Department of Defense.  After being introduced in the Summer of Love and bringing the people of the world together for over four decades, the 737 will soon be able to blow some of those people apart. BoeingNerd approves.

Recently, two new military versions can be spotted over Seattle. Project Wedgetail is a new airborne radar warning and control plane for the Aussies. Easily recognizable by the surfboard shaped radar atop the fuselage, the Wedgetail bristles with antennae and assorted lumps.

Each little protrusion provides information on the environment around the aircraft to provide surveillance and to help manage—one imagines—Australia’s inevitable war with New Zealand. Each of these sensors also represents the hard work of dozens of smelly, virgin engineers.  (Please tell our favorite commenter Larry Brown at IAM 751 that we tease engineers, too.)

Truth be told, Wedgetail is a teensy bit behind schedule due to the challenge of integrating all the information streaming into the aircraft to form a coherent, Kiwi-busting picture.  We lay the blame for these delays primarily at the feet of radar systems subcontractor (and former Airbus collaborator) Northrop Grumman.

The latest military version of the 737 is the P-8A Poseidon, destined to become the Navy’s submarine hunter and armed reconnaissance workhorse.

Scanning wide swaths of ocean for submarines and other bad guys with a suite of advanced sensors and full load of weapons, the P-8A will be the long-legged, fleet-footed, eagle-eyed, dog-eared, tiger-toothed metaphor-mixing master of the wind and waves. When the P-8A enters service in  2013, one wonders how many retired military flyers, sick of hauling loads of humanity from Portland to Reno, will be calling their local recruiting office?

Boeing is now at a decision point whether to continue to modify and improve the 737 or design, market, and build a completely new small jetliner. It’s hard to imagine a newer design being more successful than the legendary 737.  Whatever they do, they have to get it right.  The rest of the world has noticed its sales and, as of this writing, China, Brazil, Canada are all preparing planes to complete with the 737 in the coming decade.

While Boeing projects and finances rose and fell over the past 40-plus years, 737 production has chugged along on the shores of Lake Washington, providing a steady stream of corporate income, good jobs, and truly fine aircraft.  Next time you step from the jetway onto a 737, you can take a small amount of pride (less than 3 ounces and in a see through quart baggie, please) in the fact that you’re cramming yourself into a hometown hero on the scale of Bill Gates.

Mason Lowe and Derek Wildstar, aka Cola's Boeing Nerds, are sworn to protect Boeing from all  enemies foreign (Airbus) and domestic (Lockheed, Northrop Grumman).
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