In the 1950’s and 60’s, Boeing truly did lead the way in terms of revolutionary jets. In 1958 the Boeing 707 took the world by storm and brought the aviation industry out of its niche among the super-rich and gave it to the people. In 1963, Boeing brought the jet age out of the international airports and put it in your back garden with the 727, the company’s first domestic jet airliner, capable of going where the bulky 707 couldn’t and becoming one of the most successful jet airliners of all time.
By the end of the 1950’s, America had got the edge over close rival Britain. The pioneering but flawed De Havilland Comet had put the UK in the back seat, and taking many tips from the Comet’s various failures, brought forward the Boeing 707 in 1958, an aircraft that would symbolise the rise of commercial aviation. The 707 was very soon the flagship of most mainline carriers, and operated most of the prestigious long-haul routes across the globe. However, the 707, though great as an international airliner, was very poor on the domestic routes, with most airports not being able to handle such large aircraft.
In 1959, Boeing attempted to redress the balance with the Boeing 720, a short-range, domestic version of the 707 which was noticeably shorter. Though the 720 was a capable aircraft, it would eventually be merely a stop-gap until Boeing developed their next groundbreaking feat.
The 727 project spawned from a joint desire by United, American and Eastern Air Lines to have a purpose built domestic airliner to serve smaller cities with shorter runways. United Airlines wanted a four-engine aircraft for its flights to high-altitude airports, especially its hub at Stapleton International Airport at Denver, Colorado. American, which was operating the four-engine Boeing 707 and Boeing 720, wanted a twin-engine aircraft for efficiency. Eastern wanted a third engine for its overwater flights to the Caribbean, since at that time twin-engine commercial flights were limited by regulations to routes with 60-minute maximum flying time to an airport. Eventually, the trio would compromise on the decision to build a trijet.
The trijet desire was added to by nationalised UK carrier British European Airways (BEA), who commissioned Boeing and De Havilland (later Hawker Siddeley) to work together on their trijet designs, the 727 and D.H.121 Trident, respectively. The two designs had a similar layout, the 727 being slightly larger. At that time Boeing intended to use three Allison AR963 turbofan engines, license-built versions of the Rolls-Royce RB163 Spey used by the Trident. Boeing and De Havilland each sent engineers to the other company’s locations to evaluate each other’s designs, but Boeing eventually decided against the joint venture. De Havilland had wanted Boeing to license-build the D.H.121, while Boeing felt that the aircraft needed to be designed for the American market, with six-abreast seating and the ability to use runways as short as 4,500 ft.
In 1960, Boeing commissioned Pratt & Whitney to fit their 727 with JT8D turbofan engines as an alternative to the RB163 Spey. Though heavier by 1,000, the JT8D’s were slightly more powerful than the RB163’s, the Rolls-Royce engines also having the advantage of being further into their development. Boeing reluctantly agreed to offer the JT8D as an option on the 727 and it later became the sole powerplant.
Engines were placed in a trio at the back, with the centre engine (engine 2) being mounted as part of the vertical fin, with an S-duct transferring flow to the outlet at the rear of the fuselage. In spite of flow distortions during take-off due to the S-Duct design, this issue was fixed by the addition of several large vortex generators in the inside of the first bend of the duct.
The overall design of the aircraft itself was to cater specifically for small airports, especially ones with no major ground facilities for aircraft. This led to one of the 727’s most distinctive features: the built-in airstair that opens from the rear underbelly of the fuselage, allowing passengers to exit if there was no provision for aircraft steps. The airstair feature would become a common addition to aircraft of this period, including being fitted to the rival Douglas DC-9. Originally, the airstairs could be opened in-flight, but following a hijacking by D. B. Cooper, and his subsequent parachute escape using the airstairs, the airstairs were refitted so as not to be opened in-flight.
Another major innovation was the auxiliary power unit (APU), which allowed electrical and air-conditioning systems to run independently of a ground-based power supply, and without having to start one of the main engines. An unusual design feature is that the
APU is mounted in a hole in the keel beam web, in the main landing gear bay. The 727 is equipped with a retractable tail skid that is designed to protect the aircraft in the event of an over-rotation on takeoff. The 727’s fuselage has an outer diameter of 148 inches, allowing for six-abreast seating and a single aisle when 18-inch wide coach-class seats are installed. An unusual feature of the fuselage is the 10-inch difference between the lower lobe forward and aft of the wing as the higher fuselage height of the centre section was simply retained towards the rear. Nose wheel brakes were available as an option to reduce braking distance on landing, which provided reductions in braking distances of up to 150m.
A later addition to the Boeing 727 would be hush kits, as very quickly the aircraft gained notoriety as one of the loudest jet airliners in existence, rivalling the phenomenal noise levels of Concorde and the Vickers VC10. Following the U.S. Noise Control Act of 1972, the 727 was required to reduce its noise levels, and many airlines either fitted its aircraft with hush kits, or purchased modified versions of the JT8D engines that were more efficient than the originals.
The Boeing 727 made its first flight on February 9th, 1963, and entered service with Eastern Air Lines just under a year later on February 1st, 1964, 2 months before the rival
Hawker-Siddeley Trident entered service with BEA. Immediately the 727 was lauded for its incredible performance, huge amounts of reliability and general in-flight ambience, being very smooth and comfortable when compared to the piston-powered aircraft it was replacing. The styling, which incorporated the nose look of the Boeing 707, became a staple of the jet age, and very soon pretty much every airline in the world wanted a 727.
Originally, the initial Boeing 727-100 model was offered in a variety of options, including the -100C (Convertible), the -100QC (Quick-Change), the -100QF (Quiet Freighter), and the C22A and C22B military variants. The Convertible and Quick-Change models allowed the 727 to be split between freight and passenger operations with ease thanks to roller-bearing floors, a useful feature, especially for flights where the 727 was relied on for delivering large cargo to remote regions together with passengers without the need for multiple flights. The Quiet-Freighter version was a later addition, being re-engined by UPS with Rolls-Royce Tay powerplants from the Fokker 100 so as to reduce noise. The C22A and C22B variants were military transport and airborne command testbeds, neither of which went into full production.
The 727 was added to in November 1967 by the 727-200, a lengthened derivative that extended the fuselage by 20ft. This was followed by the -200 Advanced, introduced in 1970 with more powerful engines, increases in both fuel capacity and MTOW, and an increase in range by nearly 50%, combined with excellent economics and improved interior, and became among the most popular versions of the 727. The -200F Advanced was launched in 1980, and came about due to the unprecedented success of the 727 among cargo operators, who had converted ex-commercial 727-100’s.
During its time, the Boeing 727 became a staple of pretty much every airline on earth, and was the ideal choice for many startup airlines that owe their initial success to the aircraft’s rugged performance and superb reliability. Just to name a few airlines that have had the 727 grace their fleet, we have; American Airlines, United Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Braniff, Panam, British Airways, Iberia, Delta Airlines, Air France, Lufthansa, Mexicana, Eastern Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, Continental Airlines, Trans World Airlines, Dan-Air London, Air Canada, Pacific Southwest Airlines, Western
Airlines, Turkish Airlines, South African Airways, Transportes Aéreos Portugueses, Philippine Airlines, Japan Air Lines, All Nippon Airlines, Hapag Lloyd, Icelandair, CP Air, Ansett Australia, Aerolíneas Argentinas, China Airlines, Avianca, LACSA and Condor.
The fascinating love of these beautiful aircraft left all its competitors in the dust. The Hawker-Siddeley Trident, an aircraft I personally adore, was sadly trampled under the much more successful 727’s foot, barely selling outside the UK. The Douglas DC-9 was the only true competitor to the 727, and would later form the basis of the MD-80 series of aircraft that would remain a prominent thorn in Boeing’s side well into the 1990’s. The Soviet Union attempted to replicate the aircraft’s success similarly with the Tupolev Tu-154, which, while a somewhat capable aircraft, was only ever an option for the Eastern Bloc market.
In 1967, Boeing followed up the success of the 727 with the Boeing 737, which was also incredibly popular due to its flexible and reliable nature. The 737 however had the advantage of being much more practical with its traditional twin-engine design and its ability to fly to more smaller airports that even the 727 couldn’t make. At the beginning of the 1980’s, Boeing chose to follow the route of the 737 by making it their flagship domestic airliner, and thus the comparatively outdated Boeing 727 was lined up for retirement, which came in 1984. By this point most commercial operators of the 727 had switched to 737’s, and thus the only variant in production was the 727-200F Advanced, the final 15 aircraft being sold to Fedex.
The 727 has sadly had its fair share of fatal incidents in its time as well. As of 2016, a total of 336 incidents involving 727s had occurred, including 118 hull-loss accidents resulting in a total of 4,209 fatalities. The 727 has also been in 178 hijackings involving 345 fatalities.
The first fatal crash of the Boeing 727 was on August 16th, 1965, when United Airlines Flight 389 crashed into Lake Michigan while attempting to land at Chicago O’Hare. The crew was told to descend and maintain 6,000ft, which was the last radio communication with the flight. The CAB was not able to determine why the airliner continued its descent into the water.
The first truly devastating crash, and at the time the worst aviation incident in history, was that of All Nippon Airways Flight 58, which collided with a Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) F-86F fighter jet, while en route from Chitose Airport to Haneda Airport in Tokyo on July 30th, 1971. The crash resulted in 162 deaths aboard the 727 whilst the pilot of the F-86F was able to eject to safety. It remained the worst crash in aviation history until the 13th October, 1972, when Aeroflot Flight 217 broke apart mid-flight killing 174.
Perhaps the most famous 727 crash was that of Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182, which, on September 25th, 1978, crashed into a Cessna 172 Skyhawk that had wandered onto the approach to San Diego’s Lindbergh Field. After striking the Cessna, the 727 tumbled to earth, crashing into a neighbourhood known as North Park at 300mph, the final tragic moments of the flight being captured on camera in photographs that would make headlines globally. In the ensuing crash, 135 aboard the 727, 2 aboard the Cessna, and 7 on the ground would perish.
However, there have also been stories of survival regarding the old 727. One of the more notable stories was that of the personal 727 of King Hassan II, when on August 16th, 1972, during an attempted coup d’état, the King’s aircraft was fired upon by Royal Moroccan F-5 Fighter Jets. The King, an experienced pilot, attempted to fool the attacking aircraft that he had been killed and therefore there was no reason to shoot down the 727. The F-5’s believe it and went on their way before the King’s flight safely landed in Rabat. So proud of his aircraft’s accomplishment, he awarded it a medal!
Today, the Boeing 727 is still a commonly used aircraft by many airlines, though its role as a major passenger aircraft has largely been diminished. While the aircraft was a major part of many flag carriers well into the late 1990’s, the fallout following September 11th saw these ageing aircraft retired as these airlines desired more efficient aircraft as part of their austerity plan, with most 727’s retired by 2005.
Of the 1,832 members built, it is believed there are around 100 examples left in
operational service, working for airlines such as Amerijet, Iran Air and Líneas Aéreas Suramericanas. The U.S. Department of Corrections also operates four specialist Boeing 727’s for use as prisoner transport, and are notable for making appearances in blockbuster movies such as U.S. Marshall’s with Tommy Lee Jones and Wesley Snipes, and Eraser with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Still, while the 727 has long since fallen out of the limelight and into obscurity, we can still remember fondly the fact that this airliner was among one of the most advanced, reliable and handsome looking aircraft to ever grace the skies. I’ve only ever flown once on a Delta Airlines example from Tampa to New York in 2000, and I remember it fondly as being something of an interesting experience! I personally adore the 727, and though it may have ruined the chances for my other personal favourite, the Trident, it doesn’t make it less of an airplane. It was a brilliant piece of kit back in 1963, and it still is now!