Among the smallest members of the Boeing 737 family ever built, the 737-500 was designed specifically to replace the ageing fleet of 737-200’s that had dated back to the late 1960’s; though, in essence, it was essentially the same aircraft.
Considerations for the -500 series dates back to around 1987, when a tender was made by American low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines to build a replacement for their extensive but ageing fleet of Boeing 737-200’s; most of which were second-hand from other US carriers and where coming up on 20 years old. The original tender required delivery of 20 units, and the aircraft would be of similar size to the -200 so as to operate on the airline’s routes to smaller airports with limited runway length.
As such, the -500 is only 1ft and 7 inches longer than the -200 it was replacing, carrying up to 140 passengers. The -500 was also a surprise in that it offered a glass cockpit with CRT monitors of the 737-400, and the previous mechanical cockpit of the -200. The reason for this was due to the fact that many airlines were reluctant to bank on new technology, primarily because of the time and cost required to retrain pilots. However, the option existed that mechanical 737-500 cockpits could be upgraded to a glass cockpit if required. Similarities between the 737-500 and 737-200 ended, however, with regard to the engines. Power on the 737-500 came from brand new CFM56-3 engines which gave a 25% increase in fuel efficiency over the 737-200’s Pratt & Whitney JT8D-7 units. The overall range of the -500 was 2,375 miles; which was further than the 737-300 and 737-400 due to it being of a lighter weight.
The 737-500 first flew on June 30th, 1989, and a single prototype was tested for 375 hours before it was certified by the FAA; entering service with Southwest Airlines on February 28th, 1990. The 737-500 immediately became a favourite of some Russian airlines, with Nordavia, Rossiya Airlines, S7 Airlines, Sky Express, Transaero, UTair and Yamal Airlines all buying second-hand examples to replace ageing Soviet-built; as well as to expand their fleet. In South America, Aerolíneas Argentinas replaced its 737-200’s with second-hand 737-500’s, while in Europe the -500 was sold to Aer Lingus, SABENA and SAS Scandinavian Airlines.
Such was the popularity of the 737-500 that eventually 389 examples were completed when production ended in 2000; the aircraft having been replaced on the product list by the notably unsuccessful 737-600.
However, a total of 9 737-500’s have been written off due to accidents, of which 5 incidents were fatal.
The first crash of a 737-500 was on July 26th, 1993, when Asiana Airlines Flight 733 crashed into a mountain on approach to Mokpo Airport in South Korea; killing 68 of 110 occupants.
The worst accident involving the 737-500, however, was on September 14th, 2008, when Aeroflot Flight 821, using an Aeroflot-Nord-operated 737-500, crashed shortly before its scheduled arrival at Perm, Russia. All 82 passengers and six crew members were killed; the resulting investigation blaming pilot disorientation as the root cause.
Today, 192 737-500’s remain in active service across the globe, but these numbers are dropping quickly. With the advent of the Next Generation series of 737’s, the 737 Classic Series of the late 80’s and 1990’s is now starting to become obsolete. While many of the 737-300 and -400 range have found a renewed life in as cargo conversions, the comparatively small size of the -500 has been its undoing. As such, the only real destination for many life-expired 737-500’s is to the graveyard. On September 5th, 2016, launch customer Southwest Airlines flew their last 737-500 revenue flight, Flight 377, from El Paso to Dallas; marking the end of 26 years of dedicated service.
While there are many 737-500’s still flying around, their days as a common commuter aircraft are starting to be numbered. As with many of Boeing’s more obscure models, the 737-500 sadly doesn’t find much love due to it’s non-standard nature, and thus I fear it will eventually go the same way as the Boeing 720 and 747-300; obscure models lost to the pages of history.