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Monday, February 13, 2006 - Page updated at 04:09 PM

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Boeing's workhorse 737 hits milestone: No. 5,000

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Small and pushing 40, as mundane as a flight from Seattle to Oakland, it's easily overlooked as a Northwest icon. But more than any other commercial airplane, the 737 brought air travel within reach of ordinary Americans.

Today in Renton, Boeing rolls out its 5,000th, marking the single-aisle jet as by far the most successful jet in the history of commercial aviation.

Sure, the flashier, Everett-built 747 jumbo jet shrank the world by connecting continents. And both the Boeing 727 tri-jet and the Douglas DC-9 played key roles in opening up domestic travel.

But the 737, in continuous production since 1968, shifted the economics of domestic flying and brought air travel to the masses. Its swift turnaround times, fuel efficiency and ability to operate from small airports produced low-fare carriers and drew a dense network of air routes on the map of North America.

"The 737s helped pull people off the buses and off the freeways," said Terry Trippler, a longtime airline expert and passenger advocate.

Only 830 passenger planes with 100-plus seats were operating in North America when Boeing launched the 737 program in 1965. Last year, according to the AirClaims CASE database, there were 4,450 — and more than 30 percent were 737s.

Some numbers on the 737


737 takeoffs worldwide every day: 19,071

737s in active service worldwide: 4,271

Firm 737 orders still to be delivered: 1,154

Passenger trips on 737s since 1968: more than 12 billion

737 flights since 1968: more than 232 million

Sources: Boeing and BACK Aviation database

"The 737 made air travel in the U.S. available to any person who wants to do it," said Joe Sutter, retired chief engineer on the 747 jumbo-jet program, who also played a big role in the early stages of the 737. "It was almost a revolution."

Ironically, in the late 1960s, the 737 and 747 development programs were not Boeing's foremost priorities. Sutter said both programs were starved for engineers because they competed with the higher-status Supersonic Transport airplane and Apollo moon-landing projects.

The government canceled the supersonic jet in 1971 and ended manned missions to the moon in 1972. Still going strong, the 747 and the 737 made Boeing what it is today.

The 737 is Boeing's cash cow. Though one can sell for as low as $30 million after discounts — compared with upward of $150 million for a widebody — 737s still deliver about half of Boeing's total airplane revenue. Of the 290 jets Boeing delivered last year, 212 were 737s.

Though Boeing does not divulge workforce figures by facility, about 5,500 people work directly on the 737 program in Renton, according to a company insider.

That number has risen by several hundred in the past three months as Boeing prepares to quicken production from 24 jets per month now to 28 a month later this year.

The jet faces fierce competition from the Airbus A320 family. The A320 first entered service in 1988. By the end of last year, Airbus had delivered 2,563.

To compete, Boeing has constantly refreshed the 737 lineup. Last month, it announced yet another new derivative.

Designed to grow

Sutter, now 84, was one of two engineers named on the 737 patent. Each of them earned a standard $50 bonus for that.

He made one crucial early decision in designing the plane: to put the engines under the wings, rather than on either side of the tail as in other small jets of the time. The first 737s were distinctively short and stubby.

They also didn't have much range, and airlines sometimes used them like flying buses. Trippler recalls flying in the early 1970s with Western Airlines on a route from Minneapolis to Sioux Falls, S.D., to Pierre, S.D., to Rapid City S.D., to Casper, Wyo., to Denver, to Salt Lake City and finally to Las Vegas.

"Up and down, up and down, up and down," said Trippler. "You got on that sucker in Minneapolis going to Las Vegas, you thought you were never going to get there.

"They were the puddle-jumpers," he said. "They hopped."

But Sutter's decision to balance the heavy engines in the middle of the airframe meant it was easier to extend the 737 into longer versions, by splicing extra lengths into the fuselage, fore and aft of the wings.

So over the years, the 737 has grown out of its baby fat, stretching and stretching until today's longest model can carry twice as many passengers as the original.

Years ago, Trippler said, he wasn't so fond of the 737. Today, his airline of choice is low-cost carrier Sun Country out of Minneapolis, flying a fleet of 737-800s. He recently flew nonstop to Anchorage.

"It's the way I fly," he said. "I love the airplane now."

Taking delivery of jet number 5,000 today will be Southwest Airlines, which picked up its first 737 in 1971. This will be its 449th.

"The 737 always has been the perfect aircraft for our mission," said Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin. "The aircraft is so efficient and so reliable."

Because the 737 is designed low to the ground for easy baggage loading and maintenance, and requires no special jetways, Southwest can turn the airplane around — from pulling up at the gate to being ready to leave again — in just 25 minutes. In turn, that means its jets can average seven or eight flights daily.

Boeing configures the 737s to ensure equipment is standard from model to model — important for maintenance crews, cabin attendants and pilots, especially on low-cost operations like Southwest.

George Cook worked on the flight test of the first 737 and now, at 69, still installs and tests 737 flight boxes in Renton. He said the new Next Generation 737s that entered service in 1998 included far more advanced computer-controlled avionics systems, with digital cockpit displays.

Yet for Southwest pilots moving from one model to another in their all-737 fleet, Boeing keeps things totally familiar by programming the displays on Southwest's jets so they look like the old, round dials with needles swinging back and forth — just like the original 737 flight panels that Cook worked with back in 1967.

Next generations

But there's more to the 737 than the low-cost, low-fare Southwest model. There's also the ultra-luxury 737-based Boeing Business Jet, an air limousine for oil sheiks and heads of state. Last month, Boeing unveiled plans for a new commercial version of that executive jet, the 737-700ER, for airlines targeting intercontinental business travelers.

The plane's long-term future also includes military variants. Boeing is setting up a separate production line in Renton to build the Navy's 737-based P-8A submarine hunter, scheduled to fly in 2009.

The Navy order should ensure manufacturing of 737s beyond 2020, though the commercial version will end production in favor of a new model sometime around 2015.

And because the military flies its workhorse aircraft for a very long time — 40-year-old B-52 bombers and KC-135 air-refueling tankers are still in use — the P-8A could greatly extend the life of the 737.

"We're building a 50-plus-year airplane," said Tim Norgart, director of business development on the P-8A program.

That raises the mind-blowing possibility that 737 airframes will be crisscrossing the oceans of planet Earth 100 years after Boeing launched the program.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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