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A look back on the 737, as Boeing delivers its 7,500th
Nearly every airline owns one, nearly every traveler has flown on one -- highlighting the most successful commercial jet ever built
In the time it takes you to read this story, more than 600 Boeing 737s will have landed or taken off, somewhere in the world.
This week, Boeing delievered its 7,500th 737, to Malaysia-based Malindo Air. There are a further 3,100 orders for 737s, making it the most commercially successful air liner in history.
Boeing's 737 output single-handedly outnumbers the entire Airbus fleet.
And the plane recently got a new engine and a new "Sky Interior."
The hype surrounding Boeing's workhorse can't compare to that of the Airbus A380 (the largest jet ever built) or the Boeing 747-8 (the longest) or the Boeing 787 (the most high-tech).
It's not glamorous, it's not eccentric, and it's often overshadowed by its bigger, sparklier peers.
But the 737's success lies in its ability to continually reinvent itself.
The original series
The first 737 -- the 100 model -- entered service in February 1968. With a typical two-class seating capacity of 85 and a range of only 2,850 kilometers, the 737-100 wasn't terribly popular.
Launched simultaneously, however, was the 200 model. With slight increases in length and fuel capacity, the 200 could carry 97 passengers up to 3,500 kilometers on roughly the same amount of fuel.
A far better proposition for airlines, Boeing sold 1,114 of the 200 model, compared with just 30 of its 100s.
Superseding the 737-200 was the 200 Advanced, with technological improvements to thrust-reversal, flaps and two larger, more fuel-efficient engines, giving operators yet another 15 percent increase in payload and range.
The classic era
In the early 1980s, Boeing completed its first major overhaul of the jet, with the release of three new models in what is now called the “Classic” series.
The updated aircraft offered more power, more range, more seats and a shiny, new, digital flight deck.
The 737 Classics were up to 36.5 meters long, 20 percent longer than the popular 737-200, and had a range of 4,200 kilometers or more with 25 percent better fuel efficiency.
The catch for the new, more-powerful jets was that they were too big to fit on the wings, resulting in a redesign into a shape aptly dubbed the “hamster pouch.”
Even so, the jets still had an uncomfortably shallow 46 centimeter ground clearance.
The Classics also inherited the then-new 757's funky new interior.
All together, 1,988 Boeing 737-300s, -400s and -500s were built.
The next generation
When the Airbus A320 began stealing otherwise loyal 737 operators, Boeing decided on a second major revamp of the 737 brand, launching the Next Generation (NG) series. The company left nothing untouched.
The wingspan on the NG planes is 5.4 meters longer than the Classic design, fuel tanks 30 percent larger and the interior 100 percent cooler.
Carbon brakes are also now standard on NGs, lightening the load by around 300 kilos, helping make the series up to 14 percent more fuel efficient than the Classics.
The NG series introduced the extra-long 900ER (“Extended Range”) model. At 42.1 meters, today's biggest 737 is 68 percent longer than the original 100 series aircraft.
So far, more than 6,000 Next-Generation 737s have been ordered, bringing the total number of 737 orders to more than 10,500 since the airplane's launch in 1968.
The 737, like any motor vehicle, has come with a number of factory-fitted options, including noise-dampeners for the original 1960s engines, gravel kits to allow the jet to operate on unpaved airstrips and the most noticeable option, blended winglets.
Winglets aren't new, but the upward curve, making it a natural extension of the wing, is a novel approach designed for the Boeing Business Jet version of the 737.
It's now offered as a retrofit on older models and other Boeing aircraft.
Drag-reduction derived from the blended winglets actually reduces noise: less drag means less thrust, means less noise.
Taking it to the MAX
Announced in August and due in 2017, the 737 MAX series will add even larger engines -- 168 centimeters compared with 155 centimeters on the NGs.
It will also be quieter and produce 28 percent more power on 16 percent less fuel than the engines on present-day 737s.
Blended winglets will be standard on all models and the 787 Dreamliner's super-swanky “Sky Interior” will be standard for the 737 MAX.
To boldly go ...
Many of the advances made can be retrofitted to older planes, boosting their efficiency and further extending the useful life of even the Classic series planes. Cheers to Boeing for recycling.
For more on the 737 family, its history and future, go to www.newairplane.com/737.
First published October 2011, updated March 2013