Among the smallest Boeing 737 ever built, the 737-500 was built entirely for the purpose of replacing the ageing fleet of its ancestors, specifically the -200 series that dated back to the late 1960’s, though, in essence, they’re very much 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 built 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 for the aircraft was 20 units, and the aircraft would be of similar size to the -200 so as to operate on it’s routes to smaller airfields 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. Similarly to the -200, the -500 came surprisingly with the option of both the brand new Glass Cockpit used on the 737-400, but also an older Mechanical Cockpit layout derived from the -200. The reason for the two options was that many airlines were reluctant to bank on new technology, largely due to the time and cost consumption of retraining pilots to work the new cockpits. However, the 737-500 was fully capable of having its instrument panel updated to a modern one if required. This, however, is where all similarity between the -200 and -500 ends, primarily thanks to the engines. Powerplants on the -500 were the brand new CFM56-3’s, which gave a 25% increase in fuel efficiency over the older -200s P&W engines. The overall range of the -500 was 2,375 miles, further than the other contemporary 737 models the -300 and -400, this being owed largely to its lighter weight.
The 737-500’s first flight was on June 30th, 1989, and a single prototype flew for 375 hours before it was certified by the FAA and entered service with Southwest Airlines on February 28th, 1990. The 737-500 has become a favourite of some Russian airlines, with Nordavia, Rossiya Airlines, S7 Airlines, Sky Express, Transaero, UTair
and Yamal Airlines all buying second-hand models of the aircraft to replace aging Soviet-built aircraft and/or expand their fleets. 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, eventually 389 examples were completed when it was replaced on the product listing by the 737-600 in 2000.
However, a total of 9 737-500’s have been written off due to accidents, of which 5 involved fatalities. 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 larger, and indeed older, 737-300’s and -400’s have found a niche for being converted to freight operations, the comparatively small size of the -500’s has been their undoing, with no demand at all being made for such conversions. 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.
Today, there are many 737-500’s still flying around, but 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 be going the route of the likes of the Boeing 720 and the 747-300, disappearing into history and the unknown.