Boeing 737 turns 50

9,448 of world's most popular airliner have flown since April 9th, 1967. 4,500 more are on order. 168 were written off

Boeing's 737, the world's most common airliner, turned 50 over the weekend: the single-aisle workhorse first took to the skies on April 9th, 1967.

The first versions of the plane were feeble by today's standards: the 737 100 “boasted” a range of just 1,150 miles (1,850km) and offering just 107 seats. Both of those features were, however, a little better than rival planes of the time like the DC-9.

Also saving money was a design that pinched elements of Boeing's 707 and 727 while allowing the plane to operate with a flight crew of just two. The first models were also easily adapted to fly people, cargo, or both. The design also called for low maintenance so that the plane could be used to reach destinations where ground support was minimal. Boeing even offered a “gravel kit” to allow use of unpaved runways.

The plane was not a big hit in its early years: for four years in the 1970s Boeing shipped fewer than 30 planes. But it - pardon the pun – took off in the 1980s as airline deregulation and rising middle class incomes increased demand for air travel.

Early in the 1980s decade Boeing refreshed the plane, adding the 737-300, 737-400 and 737-500 to the range and adopting a distinctive non-circular engine inlet. Range and capacity increased, as did fuel economy, and the plane started selling a hundred or more units a year.

In the early 1990s another round of updates produced the “Next Generation 737”, complete with distinctive winglets, seat counts of 149 on the model -600 and 700, 189 on the 737-800 and a whopping 220 seats and 5,400km range for the top-of-the-range model 737-900ER. It's a versatile craft: your correspondent has flow in them for 35-minute commuter hops, the five-and-a-half-hour Sydney-to-Perth slog and on the three-and-a-half hour Sydney-to-Auckland ride that shows off its 180-minute ETOPS rating.

The plane soon won a reputation for reliability and became a favourite of low-cost airlines. The two paragons of that model, Southwest and Ryanair, made a virtue of operating all-737 fleets, further accelerating demand for air travel and for more 737s.

Boeing can therefore now deliver 737s at a rate of more than one a day and has unfilled orders for more than 4,500 of the planes on its books.

Many of those orders are for the new “737MAX” variant, sporting the X-wing - officially the “Advanced Technology Winglet” - that will again reduce fuel consumption and noise. Boeing will start shipping the new variant in May 2017 and they'll start to appear at the world's airports not long afterwards.

Other orders are for the military variants of the 737 that see the plane used for reconnaissance or cargo missions. There's also a “business jet” variant for those who can afford their own plane.

All those variants have added up to 9,448 shipments, making it the world's most popular airliner. It's also been involved in 168 accidents that have seen the aircraft written off as a result, and over 3,000 fatalities. ®


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