The Boeing 727 – Why Was It Built?

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When the idea of building a rear-mounted, three-jet-engine aircraft first came about, Boeing was still struggling to build the 707. Adding to the challenge was that some airlines wanted four-engine jets while others wanted a twin. Here is how the 727 came about and why Boeing decided to build it.

Northwest Orient Airlines Boeing 727-51; N480US,
The Boeing 727 had large innovative flaps. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

What inspired Boeing to build the 727?

The inspiration behind the Boeing 727 was the aim to create an aircraft that could operate out of smaller airports that had short runways not suitable for larger aircraft like the Boeing 707. Boeing’s new plane needed to be able to descend quickly into airports while avoiding buildings and other obstacles close to the runway. To achieve this, Boeing developed a large and sophisticated flap system to provide extra lift at low speeds.

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United and Eastern were the first to order the Boeing 727. Photo: Getty Images

In another first, the 727 came with a small gas-turbine engine auxiliary power unit (APU) that eliminated the need for a ground power supply to start the engines. This innovation turned out to be a big selling point for airlines operating in less developed countries.

At the same time Boeing recognized the potential of this aircraft in the late 1950s, rival Douglas was working on the DC-9. Around the same time over in Europe, the British Aircraft Corporation was designing the BAC1-11.

Knowing they needed to sell a minimum of 200 aircraft to make the 727 a success, Boeing announced on December 5, 1960, that they had received orders for a total of 40 aircraft from Eastern Airlines and United. By the time the aircraft made its first test flight in 1963 orders were still well-below the break-even point. In a gamble to drum up business, Boeing sent the 727 on a tour of 26 counties where the aircraft clocked up an impressive 76,000 miles (122,310 km).

In 1965 the 727 crashed three times

In eerily similar circumstances of what happened with the Boeing 737 MAX, it appears as though Boeing rolled out the aircraft without giving pilots sufficient training. By November 1965, Boeing had witnessed three of its 727-100 aircraft crash within three months of each other, killing a total of 131 people. Investigators looking into the crashes discovered that some pilots did not fully understand the flap system and were, therefore, allowing the planes to descend at too great a speed.

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Despite calls from some politicians to ground the 727, Boeing and the flight safety board were adamant that nothing was wrong with the plane. The authorities did, however, come out and say that 727 pilots needed more training and that Boeing should modify the flight manual procedures regarding the final approach.

Despite all the reassurances that it was a safe aircraft to fly in, passengers boycotted the plane for a good six months until confidence in the aircraft returned.

The last 727 delivered in 1984

Boeing’s original production run was for 250 aircraft, but the larger 189-passenger 727-200 version proved so popular that the Renton factory built 1,832 of the jets, far surpassing the original target. After 22 years in production, the final Boeing 727, a 727-200F model, was delivered to Federal Express in September of 1984.

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Boeing built 1,832 of the jets, with the last delivered in 1984. Photo: Pedro Aragão via Wikimedia Commons

By 2003 nearly all airlines had retired the loud, thirsty, planes in favor of quieter, more fuel-efficient aircraft like the 737 and larger Boeing 757. Despite its precarious start in life, the Boeing 727 ended up being one of the best-selling commercial jets in aviation history. Hopefully, a similar turnaround and redemption can happen for its current 737 MAX.

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