Sunday, March 27, 2016

Almost cancelled, the Boeing 737 has endured 49 years

A worker examines the vertical stabilizer of a Boeing 737 at the company's factory in Renton last week.

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.

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