This is the last installment in our “Best of” Brian’s four-part series on the origins of the 737, which originally ran on March 16, 2012. From our first -200 to this week’s nod to the NG family of Boeing aircraft, including our newest -800s, it has been an exciting and educational ride.
I like to think that when we take our first MAX 8 delivery in 2017, Brian’s spirit will be there ramp side watching over the photographer who is capturing that historic moment.
In previous installments, we looked at the Original family of 737s, the 737-100 and 737-200, and then at the Classics, the 737-300, 737-400, and 737-500. However, the achievements of these earlier aircraft were eclipsed on January 18, 1998, when the Boeing 737 and Southwest Airlines moved to a new level of achievement with the Next Generation, or NG, family.
The first example of the NG family entered service on that date when N700GS, a 737-700, operated Southwest Flight #11 from Dallas Love Field to Harlingen via a stop at Houston Hobby. In hindsight of the success of the NG family, it's kind of strange that I was the only photographer ramp side that morning to capture the departure of the first flight. The event culminated four years of planning and close cooperation between Southwest and Boeing. The -700 has a redesigned wing, with 25 percent more area (not counting the winglets, which came later) and a longer wing span, with a fuel capacity greater than the -300. The -700 flies higher (up to 41,000 feet), faster (Mach 0.82 vs. the -300’s Mach 0.79), and farther (3,200 miles—slightly more with winglets vs. the -300’s 2,400 miles). The -700’s engines, a later model of the -300’s CFM56, produce more thrust, use less fuel, are quieter, produce fewer emissions, and have reduced maintenance costs than the -300. Southwest is the world’s largest operator of the 737-700 with 372 examples. Other 737-700 operators include AirTran, United, Delta, Alaska, WestJet, SAS, KLM, China Southern, Aeromexico, and ANA. Almost 1,080 737-700s were completed by the end of 2011, and it is still in production.
Similar in size to the 737-200 and 737-500, the 737-600 is the smallest NG variant, and also the slowest selling with 69 examples delivered. The -600 entered airline service with SAS on October 25, 1998. Other operators include WestJet, Tunisair, and the late Malev. The photo above shows SAS’s first aircraft (LN-RRX) wearing Boeing house colors and the registration N7376, and the -600's shorter length is very apparent.
At the other extreme of the sales spectrum is the 737-800, which is the best selling NG variant, with more than 2,400 aircraft completed. The -800 is the NG equivalent of the 737-400. In the photo above, we see the first 737-800, N737BX, on a test flight. (This aircraft later became D-AHFA with Hapag-Lloyd, and it now flies with Air Berlin.)
Starting last year, new 737-800s were delivered with the upgraded CFM-56-7BE engine which offers reduced fuel consumption. In December 2010, Boeing began delivering the -800 with the Sky Interior that was originally developed for the 787. This new interior features mood lighting, improved sidewalls, and larger overhead bins. The German airline, Hapag-Lloyd, operated the first -800 in the spring of 1998, and the list of operators reads like a “Who’s Who” of airlines: United, Delta, American, Alaska, KLM, SAS, Ryanair, WestJet, Malaysia, Qantas, and now you can add Southwest to that list. Our initial 737-800, N8301J (above), first flew on February 23, 2012, and it and our second aircraft will enter regular service on April 11.
The last of the NG variants is the 737-900, which is a super stretch of the basic 737 design. The extra length of the -900 makes it similar in length to the now discontinued 757. On August 3, 2000, the -900 made its first flight (above). This airplane, N737X, now serves with the -900’s launch customer, Alaska, as N302AS. In 2006, the basic 737-900 design was replaced by the 737-900ER, which can carry up to 215 passengers in an all-coach configuration (the ER model has additional emergency exits). Besides Alaska, -900 operators include United, KLM, Lion, and Korean. Boeing also offers private versions of the NG, with Boeing Business Jet (BBJ) models based on the 737-700, 737-800, and the 737-900.
Counting all variants of the NG family, more than 3,800 examples were delivered by yearend 2011 (the 4,000th NG is currently under construction), and the 7,000th 737 (of all models) was delivered in December . A mind-staggering total of more than 9,300 737s of all types have been delivered or are currently on order. Those orders include Southwest’s recent order for the 737MAX. Once again, Southwest will be a launch Customer for a new family of 737 aircraft, and the first will enter service in 2017. The MAX will have updated engines and borrows some design features from the 787. It will use substantially less fuel than the NG aircraft and will be more environmentally friendly. The photo above is an artist's version of the 737MAX in Southwest livery.
The 737 holds the record for the longest production run of any airliner built. On the one hand, today’s NG aircraft and the future 737MAX have very little in common with those first 737-100s and 737-200s, but on the other hand, they are very similar. How could this be? Except for the basic shape, today’s aircraft are much more advanced with improved engine, electronics, and structural materials. Yet, today’s aircraft share the same mission as those first 737s, to carry passengers comfortably, economically, and above all, safely to their destinations.