Boeing 757: A Modern Classic

Pilots enjoy the 757’s sports-car performance and stately handling. istock/igmarx

The sad saga of the Boeing 737 Max has been a slow-burning corporate, engineering, regulatory, human-interest and public-relations nightmare for going on six months now—with no end in sight. The magnitude of Boeing’s deadly foul-up is a frequent topic of conversation in airliner cockpits, and considerable ink has been spilled over the subject in both aviation and general media. Now, I’m not an aeronautical engineer, and I have yet to fly the 737, but quite a few of my friends are current or former 737NG pilots at various U.S. and European airlines. The general consensus is that the Max was simply one stretch too many of an airplane that had already been shoehorned into an ever-expanding number of sizes and roles until it barely resembled the well-considered original design.

The bigger story here, I think, is the decline of Boeing’s reputation for engineering excellence since its 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas. Since the merger, not one but two new Boeing airliners have been grounded by the FAA, the first such groundings since McDonnell Douglas’ own DC-10 in 1979. The Boeing 787, while a fine design, has suffered many quality- control problems stemming from a complex outsourcing scheme that only an MBA could love, and a union-busting move to South Carolina, bypassing the experienced and costly Seattle workforce. The most serious flaw was a subcontractor’s defective lithium-ion batteries that were prone to thermal runaway and fire, an eventuality that Boeing (and the FAA) failed to predict and mitigate. Luckily, no airplanes crashed, but the type was grounded for several months. The subsequent rushed development of the Max and the half-assed Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System that few at Boeing—and even fewer Max pilots—knew about, as well as Boeing’s pathetic dribbled-out response to the two crashes, suggest that Boeing management learned little from the 787 debacle.

Rather than kick Boeing any more while they’re down, I think it might be instructive to take a look at one of the best airplanes built by the “old” Boeing (or indeed, any manufacturer anywhere), an airplane I’ve come to regard with great respect and affection over the past several years of flying it. I’m speaking, of course, of the venerable Boeing 757. For decades, Boeing’s reputation largely rested on four excellent designs: the 747, 757, 767 and 777. Of these, the 757 has enjoyed the longest success without any significant redesign because Boeing engineers got the plane exactly right on the first go. Even today, as the 757 fleet ages, the airlines haven’t been able to find anything to replace it; there’s still no modern design that performs its mission as well as it does, and so it soldiers on in the fleets of all three U.S. legacy carriers and many overseas airlines as well.

The 757 program was born in the early 1970s, when Boeing decided to design a more modern, more efficient version of the three-engine 727, then a strong seller only a decade old. They initially proposed a stretched and modified 727-300, then discarded that in favor of a clean-sheet design—initially called the 7N7—to take advantage of recent advances in high-bypass turbofan engines, avionics, aerodynamics, and lighter-airframe construction techniques. At the same time, Boeing was simultaneously developing a wide-body replacement for the 707, which they called the 7X7. The 7N7 and 7X7 programs ended up becoming quite enmeshed, as they incorporated the same new technologies, and eventually achieved enough flight deck and systems commonality to be awarded a common pilot type rating despite significant differences in size and handling characteristics. The two designs entered service within months of each other in 1982 as the 757 and 767, respectively. Sales of the 757 were slow at first but took off in the late 1980s and stayed steady through the ’90s before abruptly tapering off after 9/11. Production ended in 2005 with 1,049 aircraft built; nearly 70 percent of the fleet is still in service today, 37 years after the type was first delivered.

Approaching the 757 from ground level, one’s first impression is the size of the airplane. It looks huge for a narrow-body, even compared to the B737-900ER, which seats nearly as many. The basic 200 model—which comprises 95 percent of the fleet—has a long, pencillike fuselage of 155 feet in length and just over 12 feet in diameter, accommodating around 200 passengers in domestic three-class configuration. The stretched 300 version seems to go on forever at 179 feet in length, and it typically seats 240. The airplane sits tall on long, spindly gear legs, an undeniable part of its sex appeal, and the engines look almost comically oversize. At 240,000 pounds max takeoff weight and 77,000 to 80,000 pounds of thrust depending on the engine option (Pratt & Whitney PW2037 or Rolls-Royce RB211), the 757-200 has the highest thrust-to-weight ratio of any airliner except Concorde. The 757 is an excellent short-field airplane thanks to its large, efficient wing with slats, double- slotted flaps and optional winglets, as well as eight-tire main landing gear with excellent carbon brakes.

The 757 was originally designed for short-to-medium routes, but it has found its true niche as a capable transcontinental, intercontinental and secondary-market transatlantic hauler. For the last role, the 757 was one of the early aircraft to be awarded ETOPS certification. (Extended Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards, though the witty may joke it stands for “Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim!”) With just under 77,000 pounds of fuel capacity (11,489 gal.), maximum range is a bit over 4,000 nautical miles, sufficient to connect most of Western Europe with the U.S. East Coast. The plane’s real strength, however, is its ability to make a 2,200 nm transcontinental flight (say, Boston to San Diego) with an alternate a few hundred miles away and ample reserves, haul an absolutely full load of passengers and cargo, and still take off from a 7000-foot runway and climb straight into the mid-30s. Nothing else can do that, neither the A321 nor the 737-900ER, though the airlines have tried. That’s why the 757 is still popular after all these years.

Up front, newcomers are often surprised at the size and comfort of the cockpit, a consequence of the maximum fuselage diameter being carried so far forward and the relatively blunt, low-slung nose. Those used to full-glass cockpits are likely to find the 757 flight deck quaintly antiquated: There are six CRT screens displaying attitude, navigation, engine and crew-alerting data, but all other instruments are “steam gauge” in appearance. Despite this, the flight deck is smartly functional and nicely ergonomic; buttons and knobs fall easily to hand from either seat, systems are grouped logically, and the “dark cockpit” concept is followed scrupulously. There’s a lot of capability here: dual GPS, triple ring-laser gyro IRS, dual Flight Management Systems, a wonderfully smooth triple-channel autopilot with Cat IIIB autoland, decent (if slightly quirky) VNAV, and the ability to perform RNAV and even required navigation performance approaches. In 1982, this was a truly revolutionary airplane.

Read More from Sam Weigel: Taking Wing

Pilots often describe the 757 as a “sports car,” but that’s only really true of the performance, particularly when light. Conversely, the handling characteristics are surprisingly nondescript, even stately, and when I first started flying the airplane, I was a bit disappointed. Over time, I came to realize the handling is almost perfectly neutral. The 757 isn’t a fingertip airplane like the 767, but you don’t have to wrestle it around either. Control response rates aren’t rapid, but neither are they delayed. Pitch, roll and yaw are just about perfectly coupled. It’s an exceedingly easy airplane to land well once you adjust to the increased cockpit height. The big rudder makes quick work of both V1 cuts and monster crosswinds. In short, the 757 flies exactly like you’d expect a good, honest, dependable classic airliner to fly. There are really only three things I’d change about it if I could: The cockpit window shades are terrible, the lack of a good N1 sync drives my internal multiengine instructor batty, and the flight-guidance panel kicks off VNAV when capturing a preselected altitude. That’s it. Fix those things, maybe replace some steam gauges with glass, and from a pilot’s perspective, you have the perfect narrow-body airliner for the next 40 years.

Alas, pilots don’t order airliners, and there’s a reason the 757 went out of production. It’s simply too much airplane, from airline management’s perspective, for any mission that doesn’t require hauling 200 folks and a full belly of cargo from sea to shining sea. Basic empty weight of a 757-200 is around 127,000 pounds, compared to about 90,000 pounds for a 737-900ER, which seats only 20 fewer passengers. Even with fairly efficient aerodynamics, hauling around all that extra weight costs a lot of gas. The 757 was a more expensive airplane to build, as well, and one with narrower profit margins for Boeing, which undoubtedly contributed to the decision to stop making them during the post-9/11 slump. Unfortunately, the invention of large-diameter geared-turbofan engines caught Boeing flat-footed without a design of adequate ground clearance. That’s how we got the Max.

The reality is, a redesigned 757—with the same basic dimensions, power and fuel load but with modern composite construction and aerodynamics and the newest geared-turbofan engines—would be a fantastic airplane. Boeing has toyed with the idea of building a “New Midsize Airplane” (presumably branded 797) for several years but kept putting off a decision despite keen airline interest. While they dithered, Airbus announced the A321XLR, supposedly a direct 757 replacement—if performance meets projections. Despite (or perhaps because of) the new competition, Boeing once again recently postponed committing to the 797, citing the strain on their engineering resources just to get the Max flying again. It’s a sad state of affairs. In this pilot’s humble opinion, Boeing management needs to demote a few bean counters, refocus on engineering, look into their culture, and rediscover some of the vision and spark that made the 757 possible. Forty years ago, Boeing designed and built one of the finest airliners ever made, and it’s my sincere hope that they can do so again.

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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