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727 And The Birth Of Boeing’s ‘Family’ Plan (1962)


The new look of Boeing’s three-engined 727 caused quite a stir when it was unveiled in November 1962, as Aviation Week noted in its extensive coverage in the December 10 edition the following week.

The aircraft’s distinctive T-tail, clustered rear-engined configuration and clean wing were unlike anything seen before from the Boeing stable. The photos accompanying the special, including the cover, therefore focus heavily on these features to illustrate the radical new shape. Our correspondent, David Anderton, also went out of his way to explain in-depth the features of the new wing, in particular the sophisticated high-lift systems that would give the 727 such good field performance.

Yet, for its shockingly different looks, Anderton notes the 727 still retained the “traditional Boeing look,” a notion that was reflected in the use of a common fuselage cross section and Section 41 with the 707. The almost throwaway line belied one of the key aspects of the design, and with it the historical significance of the 727 as the true start of Boeing’s hugely successful strategy of ‘family’ designs.  The idea of developing a series of aircraft to suit vastly different markets, yet sharing common design DNA, was in its infancy in the early 1960s. But the 727, developed for the short-to-medium haul market and 5,000-ft. runways, would prove the immense value of the family concept.

Nobody knew at the time of the roll out just how popular the 727 would become.  Although only produced in just two major body length versions, and never re-engined like the 737, the 727 was for many years Boeing’s best-selling airliner. The trijet was the first Boeing commercial jetliner to exceed 1,000 sales and notched up a grand total of 1,831 orders by the time the final aircraft was delivered in 1984. The 737 did not overtake the 727 in terms of deliveries until 1991, 25 years after the first of the smaller twinjet had been delivered and seven years after production of the 727 had ended.

It is also interesting to note how times change, particularly in areas like environmental performance. Although Boeing designers were obviously aware of the noise issues that came with the low bypass ratio jet engines of the day, the surprising yardstick for improvement –- as mentioned in the article -– were piston-powered airliners of the day, as well as the raucous 707 and 720Bs. “For the community noise level problem Boeing holds out real hope,” says Anderton. “One nautical mile from the end of the runway, the 727 is expected to be making about 109 db., compared with about 110 for a Douglas DC-7C, 112 for a Douglas DC-6B, or 125 for the Boeing 707-120 using water power injection power.”

In a world where airliner flight test programs are comprised of dedicated test aircraft, we also find in this gem of Aviation Week reporting, that the 727 was the first commercial Boeing program to adopt this method as standard practice. “Flight testing of the 707 and 720 series had to be done piecemeal on airplanes made available through the cooperation of customers. Any delays on Boeing’s part generally meant that the incompleted (sic) test installation had to be ripped out and installed in another airplane, again with the customer’s acquiescence. This routine was the despair of the flight test department ... the 727 program will not go the same route.”  Fascinating stuff.

Credit: Boeing

There is no mention that I can see of other facts such as the 727 was the first Boeing jetliner to have hydraulically powered flight controls, or that it was the first jet airliner in the world to be fitted with an auxiliary power unit. But read on and enjoy such tidbits as the use of the 707 prototype (the famous Dash 80) to prove the tail-mounted engine location and Anderton’s description of the unseemly looking fifth engine “mounted like a wart on the left rear fuselage.”

As befits such a significant aircraft, the prototype 727 seen in these pages is still around today and preserved at Seattle Museum of Flight Restoration Center at Paine Field, Everett.  Following first flight in Feb 1963, the prototype was used for more than a year in the certification program before delivery to United Air Lines in Oct 1964. Retired in January 1991, it was donated to the museum after it had flown 64,495 hours, 48,057 flights and carried more than three million passengers!

Credit: Wikicommons

…and talking of longevity. The aircraft nearing completion in the background behind the 727 in the main image above from the roll out in November 1962 is a KC-135 which today is still active with the U.S. Air Force’s 434th Air Refueling Wing!

► The 727 roll out story was published in the December 10, 1962 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology. Read the report in Aviation Week's archives - free to access until December 31, 2016.


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