By Mark Norman
An official Boeing sales brochure from the early nineties is filled with oversize glossy colour pictures, economics charts and operational graphics; cabin layouts, technology features and platitudes. Just like any new car brochure.
It starts with a double page picture of a 737 in Boeing house colours accompanied by a single sentence that perhaps sums up this icon. It states, “The Boeing 737 is the most popular jetliner in aviation history.” Not a platitude, but a fact.
The glint in the proverbial father’s eye occurred late in 1958, when Boeing realised they were suddenly very far behind in the short haul market. They had the long-range 707, 720 and medium range 727 as their civilian family, all based on the same fuselage.
Competition at home was from the newly minted DC9. Abroad France’s Caravelle had been five years in service and both Holland’s Fokker 28 and Britain’s BAC1-11 were in flight trials. T-tail’s all and Boeing initially felt they had to follow suit.
Boeing’s new baby, designed to take 65 pax, which fixed the fuselage length was based on the 727/707 fuselage for commonality of internal parts, toilets etc. The new design was soon nicknamed “The Square Plane” because the wings were as long as the fuselage.
But, so the story goes, they wanted to be different, so where to put the engines? Joe Sutter, the gifted Boeing designer who did great things with the 747, travelled to Germany in 1964 and glimpsed the future. At airline manufacturer Hamburger Flugzeugbau, he spied a proposed twin with wing mounted engines.
He thought of mounting the 737’s motors under the wings on struts like the 707 however the short fuselage would mean limited access, particularly at the back. Wing mounting also raised engine failure concerns, particularly asymmetric thrust issues and also meant increasing the height of the tail.
As with most things it took a single stroke of genius. Sutter apparently cut up a drawing of the 737 and in fiddling with the placements, lifted the engines so that they fitted almost flush with the wings; in fact they became part of them.
The result was a new species of aircraft with a redesigned wing. There was access to the cabin both fore and aft, any ground clearance issues evaporated and the overall weight of the plane was reduced. Moreover the cabin was wider than its rivals, sitting 6 abreast.
Lufthansa had by this stage become so enamoured with the project that they had a team in America working with Boeing. However as the day approached when a decision would have to be made, in Seattle the Boeing executives procrastinated.
In truth they knew not what they had. But one man did and without him and his foresight the legend may never have graced the world stage. His name was Gerhard Hŏltje and he was Lufthansa’s MD and chief engineer.
Lufthansa already had the 707 and 727 in service and were impressed. It was 1965 and the Bundesstaat wanted to be more European which put the Caravelle, Fokker 28 or even, Heaven forbid, something British into contention. Hŏltje was adamant.
He personally telephoned the Boeing Company on the day of his boards’ meeting and got their executives out of bed. He ordered 10 machines and Boeing agreed to go ahead. The City Jet was on her way into the hearts of millions.
9 April 1967 saw the maiden flight, an uneventful two and a half hour flip from Boeing Field with Captain Wygle in command. He said afterwards, “She is a delight to fly.” And with those words of encouragement the test programme started.
Officially designated Boeing 737-100 the prototype was soon joined by the 200, both powered by the now legendary Pratt and Whitney JT8D-7 bypass engines. These are almost pure jets and by our standards, very noisy but at the time they were state of the art.
Boeing’s brochure states, “More people have flown on a Boeing 737 than any other airplane.” How did this happen?
By the mid-sixties most countries, including America, were only waking up to the idea of the potential of affordable short-haul jet travel for the masses. Most American towns were still served by unpaved strips used by Heavy Metal.
Heavy Metal, a euphemism for the thunderous, bone-shaking prop-liners that culminated in the elegant Super Constellation, could never challenge jet power, although the regional Heavies viz. DC4, Convair, Dakotas and Viscounts ruled the small town roost.
And then there was Las Vegas… To really boom it needed a steady flow of punters. Day trippers, naughty weekenders; in and out. Heavy Metal doesn’t do the job like jets. It is a fact the explosion of that small desert town was due to the jet liner.
Of course Las Vegas was really opened up by the DC8 and 707 but the point was made, ordinary folk “wanna fly fast and above the weather.”
The backdrop to the stage onto which the Baby Boeing was born was made up of free love, drugs, The Beatles, antiwar protests and cheap oil. If this was to change dramatically in the next decade, one thing would remain constant: people would continue to fly.