One of Boeing’s more numerous models, and one that cemented the 737 range as the backbone of the world’s domestic airline operations, the 737-200, even today, can still find a place in revenue earning service, 50 years after the first ones jetted off into the sky.
The 737-200 was born in a time when domestic aviation was primarily in the hands of the turboprops. Like its older brother, the -100, it was built in direct response to a demand for jet airliners that could fly to airports of limited runway length but travel faster and smoother than clunky propeller planes like the DC-4 and the Vickers Viscount. As such, in 1964, the 737-100 was officially launched as a smaller, twinjet version of Boeing’s already acclaimed 727. However, as this promising project gathered pace, many of the larger airlines wondered if such an aircraft could be expanded on for their primary trunk routes to busy but small airports.
United Airlines originally suggested the concept in 1965, primarily to help the company replace small turboprops on services on the Eastern Seaboard and on the West Coast of the USA. The 737-200, as it was dubbed, is essentially the same aircraft as the -100, sharing a majority of its components but being 6ft longer and therefore being able to carry 130 passengers as opposed to its predecessor’s 118. Both aircraft were powered by a slew of Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines, ranging from the base JT8D-7 to the most powerful JT8D-17. The upgraded engines allowed the -200 an increased range of 2,600nmi, compared to the -100’s range of 1,540nmi.
The 737-200 was rolled out at Boeing’s Renton Factory on June 29th, 1967, and entered service with United Airlines in April 1968. Immediately, the 737-200 and its increased capacity was adored by many airlines that desired an aircraft larger and faster than their turboprops, but not as large as the 727. As such, the 737-200 sold like hotcakes, with hundreds being delivered within the first few years.
Such popularity for the aircraft allowed Boeing to experiment with other variations to improve the breed. The first option was the 737-200QC (Quick Change), a convertible passenger/freight aircraft built primarily for carriers such as Alaska Airlines, where both cargo and passenger transport were just as vital for remote regions. The QC was fitted with a large cargo door on the port side ahead of the wings, rollers on the floor to move containers, and easily removable seats, allowing for the aircraft to be converted from Cargo to Passenger and vice versa within a matter of minutes.
This was followed by the similar 737-200 Combi, a half-passenger, half-freight design which incorporated a large cargo door like the QC, but its passenger seating was fixed. This was, again, primarily used by airlines that operated to remote regions and thus were providing a vital service.
The popularity of the -200 on routes to the furthest reaches of the each such as Northern Canada and Alaska brought about another problem, as most airports in these areas weren’t properly paved, instead usually comprising of gravel strips. As such, 737’s were among the first aircraft to be fitted with Gravel Kits, which comprised of a small metal bar on the underside of the engine intake that would help deflect rocks and gravel, stopping it from being ingested and crippling the aircraft. Another feature was a prominent ski located on the nose gear that would push gravel to the side, away from the engines.
With the 737-200 quickly becoming even more popular than the preceding 727, Boeing decided to improve the breed yet again in 1971, this time with the 737-200Adv (Advanced). The -200 Advanced has improved aerodynamics, automatic wheel brakes, more powerful engines, more fuel capacity, and longer range than the -100. The first aircraft was delivered to All Nippon Airways on May 20th, 1971, and was very quickly picked up by a large number of the world’s major airlines for use on the longer-distance, high capacity routes.
The final variant of the 737-200 was a military option, the Boeing T-43, which was introduced in 1973 as a training aircraft for navigators. 19 of these aircraft were introduced between 1973 and 1974, all of which went to the United States Air Force. The T-43’s quickly replaced the elderly Convair C-131 Samaritans, a variant of the Convair CV-240 from the 1940’s, and were used primarily with the USAF 562nd Flying Training Squadron. Some were later converted for VIP Passenger use by high ranking officers and politicians, these being redesignated CT-43’s, while another was converted into the NT-43A Radar Test Bed.
The 737-200, however, has had a very patchy history of accidents, with 53 accidents resulting in 2,555 fatalities.
The first crash of any Boeing 737 resulting in a hull-loss was on July 19th, 1970, when United Airlines Flight 611 was damaged beyond economical repair after an aborted take off at Philadelphia International Airport. During take off, a loud “bang” was heard, and the aircraft veered right. The captain aborted the take off, and the aircraft ran off the end of the runway, stopping 1,634 feet past its end, in a field. There were no fatalities.
However, the first fatal accident, again of any Boeing 737, occurred on December 8th, 1972, when United Airlines Flight 553 crashed while attempting to land at Chicago Midway International Airport. Two people on the ground and 43 of the 61 passengers and crew on board were killed. The official finding of the NTSB was that the probable cause of the accident was the stalling of the airplane because the captain failed to ensure that the flight remained within the required airspeed and altitude parameters for that non-precision approach profile.
One of the more high profile accidents took place on January 13th, 1982, when Air Florida Flight 90 plummeted from the sky, immediately after takeoff from Washington National Airport, hitting the 14th Street Bridge and falling into the ice-covered Potomac River in Washington, D.C.. All but five of the 74 passengers and five crew members died, as well as four motorists on the bridge. The cause was found to be the pilot’s failure to switch on the engines’ internal ice protection systems, used reverse thrust in a snowstorm prior to takeoff, tried to use the jet exhaust of a plane in front of them to melt their own ice, and failed to abort the takeoff even after detecting a power problem while taxiing and visually identifying ice and snow buildup on the wings.
On August 22nd, 1985, British Airtours Flight 28M burnt to the ground after an aborted takeoff at Manchester Airport. The takeoff was aborted after a crack was found one of the combustors of the left Pratt & Whitney JT8D-15 engine, which caused a fireball to spread to the fuselage and ignite the aircraft. Of the 136 passengers and crew on board, 56 died, most due to toxic smoke inhalation.
On April 28th, 1988, Aloha Airlines Flight 243, suffered extensive damage after an explosive decompression at 24,000 feet, but was able to land safely at Kahului Airport on Maui with one fatality. A flight attendant, who was not in restraints at the moment of decompression, was blown out of the aircraft over the ocean and was never found. The cause was found to be improperly monitored metal fatigue, the same kind that had downed the pioneering Comet aircraft 30 years earlier.
Another notable crash occurred on April 3rd, 1996, when a USAF CT-43A of the 86th Airlift Wing, operating in a VIP transport flight crashed on approach to Dubrovnik Airport in Croatia while on an official trade mission. All 5 crew and 30 passengers were killed, including U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and The New York Times Frankfurt Bureau chief Nathaniel C. Nash. Air Force Technical Sergeant Shelly Kelly survived the crash, but died three hours after the crash from an injury sustained in an ambulance. The USAF Investigation found several failures by the crew to prepare the aircraft for landing resulted in the crash.
Aside from crashes, the 737-200 has also been involved in a number of hijackings. Most of these occurred in the 1970’s at the height of Black September’s (an Islamic terrorist organisation) reign of terror, which included such atrocities as the Munich Olympic Massacre.
The most notable of these hijackings was Lufthansa Flight 181, which was hijacked over the Mediterranean on October 13th, 1977, by four Palestinians demanding the release of seven Red Army Faction members in German prisons and a $15,000,000 ransom. The aircraft was flown to Rome to refuel, and where the demands of the hijackers were stated. The aircraft was then flown to Larnaca in Cyprus, where, after about an hour, a local PLO representative arrived at the airport and over the radio tried to persuade the leader to release the hostages. This only provoked a furious response from the hijackers who started screaming at him over the intercom in Arabic until the PLO representative gave up and left.
The aircraft departed that evening, and, even though the airport was closed for the night, landed in Bahrain in the early hours of the next morning. After taking on more fuel, they departed again, this time for Dubai, where the terrorists asked the tower to supply water, food, medicine and newspapers, and to take away the rubbish. The aircraft remained on the ground at Dubai all through the day and night, but it was only after the hijackers threatened to murder the co-pilot that refuelling commenced, the aircraft leaving just after midnight on the 17th. It landed next in Aden, but because authorities had refused permission, the 737 was forced to land on an adjacent sandy strip. The terrorists consequently gave the Captain permission to leave the aircraft in order to check the condition of the landing gear following the rough landing, and the engines. While checking the aircraft, it is rumoured that the Captain talked secretly with the Yemeni authorities, telling them to accede to the hijackers demands. When he returned to the aircraft, the terrorist leader immediately murdered him with a shot to the head.
The aircraft subsequently left Aden and flew to Mogadishu in Somalia, where final demands were made to release the prisoners of they’d blow up the aircraft at 2am the next morning (18th October). The hijackers, however, were unaware that German anti-terror squad GSG-9, with the assistance of the British SAS Commandos, had been shadowing them the entire time, and arrived on the night of the 17th in secret. At just after 2am on the 18th, while the terrorists were being fed false information on their demands being met to stop them from destroying the aircraft, members of GSG-9 stormed the aircraft, and within five minutes all the hijackers were dead. The passengers were subsequently evacuated and put aboard another plane back to Germany that same day.
The hijacking, and subsequent rescue operation, has gone down in history as one of the most tense terrorist standoffs in modern history, but the resilience of the crew and passengers, as well as the efforts of the German anti-terror squad, are a true testament to bravery and heroism in the face of evil.
However, not all of the 737-200’s hijackings ended as ideally. On October 2nd, 1990, Xiamen Airlines Flight 8301 was hijacked by Jiang Xiaofeng, a 21-year-old purchasing agent from Hunan who was seeking political asylum in Taiwan. After multiple attempts, the pilots were unable to convince Jiang to allow them to land at either Guangzhou or Hong Kong, and thus the plane ran dangerously low on fuel, forcing the aircraft to land. As the aircraft approached Guangzhou Baiyun airport, Jiang managed to wrestle control of the aircraft from the pilot. The 737 landed at an excessive speed, and sideswiped a parked China Southwest Airlines Boeing 707-3J6B, slightly injuring the pilot, who was in the cockpit at the time. Still unable to stop, the out-of-control 737 collided with China Southern Airlines Flight 2812, a Boeing 757 waiting to depart to Shanghai, before flipping over onto its back and skidding to a halt. The crash quite literally sliced the 757 in half, resulting in the deaths of 46 of 110 passengers. Aboard the 737 itself, seven of nine crew members and 75 of 93 passengers died, including Jiang.
Today, a total of 99 Boeing 737-200’s are known to still be in revenue earning service across the world. Official production of 737-200’s ended in August 1988 following the introduction of the 737-300, with 1,114 examples built.
The popularity and flexible nature of this aircraft kept it in service with many major carriers well into the 90’s, and even the early 2000’s. However, the advent of later models such as the 737-300 and -400, together with it being comparatively inefficient, especially following the aviation downturn of 9/11, meant that the -200’s time in mainline service quickly ended. The last major US carrier to operate the type was Aloha Airlines of Hawaii in 2008, and that was only because the airline went bankrupt. On September 17th, 2010, the last T-43 flight was flown at Randolph Air Force Base, and it was subsequently retired from the active Air Force duties after 37 years of service.
Most 737-200’s you’ll find today are usually in the hands of charter operators or smaller airlines that operate to remote regions. In Europe they’re all but extinct, while many continue to see operation in Africa, Latin and South America, and Canada, their sturdy and reliable nature making them ideal for the remote or ill-equipped airports they serve.
Overall, the 737-200 is the aircraft that put the 737 range on the map. While the 737-100 was a promising machine, the -200 perfected the winning formula of reliability, capacity, range and performance that has kept its descendants in production for 50 years, with thousands of its younger cousins now cruising across the sky globally.