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Once a best-selling airliner, the 727 now hauls cargo rather than passengers (a Federal Express 727 approaches a runway in 2009). (Michael Durning)

The 727 Turns Fifty

Once a best-seller, the airliner’s pilots still swear by it.

To anyone born after 1990, the Boeing 727 is that odd-looking airliner in the far corner of the airport, the one with three jet engines clustered around the tail, one mounted atop the fuselage. What made the once-ubiquitous 727 such a rarity on today’s airport ramps was the noise from its engines, but at one time it was the world’s fastest-selling airliner. This year we celebrate 50 years since its first flight—on February 9, 1963—and first customer delivery (to United Air Lines, in October).

The 727 is the only airplane Boeing has ever built with three engines and a T tail, but that’s not what surprised people most when they first saw it. During its early appearances, as the 727 approached the runway, bystanders gaped at the expanse of sheet metal that extended from its wings. Like a raptor approaching its nest, the Seven Two completely changed the shape of its wings, with triple-slot flaps emerging from the trailing edge and leading edge devices protruding in front to create a low-speed airfoil of high camber, or curvature. Once in cruise, though, that flap array disappeared—folded or retracted like the blades of a pocket knife—and the wing became a scimitar enabling speeds of 600-plus mph.

Boeing created the oddly configured 727 because three important customers had somewhat overlapping requirements: American, United, and Eastern all needed an airplane to serve their shorter domestic routes and to feed their international routes, for which the 707 better fit the mission. At the same time, British European Airways was seeking a similar aircraft to serve its London-Europe markets, and the company tried to interest Boeing in a joint effort with de Havilland, which was designing its Trident for the role, with Rolls-Royce Speys providing the power. After Eastern’s chief, Eddie Rickenbacker, placed his chips on the newer and more powerful—though relatively untested—Pratt & Whitney JT8D, Boeing sent its regrets to the British. Rickenbacker also wanted that third burner to meet overwater regs for his Caribbean routes.

In addition, the airlines wanted equipment for operation at smaller airports; this requirement led to the 727’s having an airstair that deployed from the aft lower fuselage. That rear stair came in handy during D.B. Cooper’s famous 1971 hijacking of a Northwest Orient 727; he opened the door and parachuted out of the airplane and into legend.

The 727’s low approach speeds allowed Eastern to slip it into some of its smaller markets with short runways—such as Runway 9/27 at Key West International Airport in Florida, with 4,801 feet of asphalt—and its hub at New York’s LaGuardia. (Airline pilots talk of a test landing at Billings, Montana, that took 1,800 feet, from touchdown to wheels stopped.)

The Seven Two’s pilots still swear by it. Rob Buck flew all three seats during 18 years at Delta, and he still remembers the “WAGs”—wild-ass guesses, or estimates in which you take the airplane’s gross weight (150,000 pounds), drop the one and the three zeroes, divide the remaining 50 by 2, then add 2 to the 25, put a one in front of it, and that was one of your key rotation V speeds: about 127 knots (146 mph). It’s one reason he calls it “the greatest [Cessna] 172 ever made,” except that it “would go like hell.”

The stretched -200 sold like hotcakes, but the JT8Ds were loud. Hush kits kept some flying but added weight and complexity, and besides, Boeing had its single-aisle replacement ready: the 757, with an all-glass cockpit and just two engines, like a normal airplane.

About George Larson

George Larson served as editor of Air & Space from 1985 to 2005. He is currently an inactive pilot, but holds a commercial pilot's license, with instrument and multi-engine ratings. He is between airplanes at this time, but has owned or operated a Grumman American AA-5B Tiger and a Mooney 201. He has been writing about aviation since 1972, when he joined the staff of Flying Magazine.

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