Thoughts on Boeing’s Ubiquitous 737

The Boeing 737 series’ unique look is a product of design compromises. rmfox/iStock

I had just finished washing and drying Windbird’s hull and was just about to begin applying her annual coat of wax when my cellphone rang, startling me. I checked the number—my airline’s crew scheduling department—and my heart made a little leap of joy. This is not my normal reaction to a call from crew sked, especially while on reserve, but these are not normal times. I hadn’t flown in nearly six weeks, and like many of my fellow airline pilots these days, I could have really used some landings to avoid an extra trip to the simulator. I answered the call a little too eagerly.

“Hi, Sam, this is James in crew scheduling. I’m just calling to let you know you’re released to 30 hours rest at 1 a.m. this morning.”

Of course. Drat. I’d been on call for six days without an assignment, and Part 117 regulations require that I get 30 hours off duty once a week. During a normal summer, the break would be a welcome respite for a hardworking, New York-based Boeing 737 captain, but in the midst of a pandemic, there are 50-plus of us on reserve on any given day for a small handful of departures. Ironically, Dawn and I sailed Windbird north from Florida to New York City last month to make reserve duty easier; now I could just about sit reserve from the moon. I do have a request in to be the first pilot used, but so do many captains senior to me, and I’m feeling about as lonely as the Maytag repairman.

Thus, my first four months on the 737 have yielded but 66 flight hours. My airline’s massive displacement bid just came out, and as expected, I will be kicked off the airplane come December—out of the left seat altogether, in fact, all the way back to the right seat of the 757/767 from whence I came. It’s a disappointment, to be sure, but things could be much worse. I’m going back to an airplane I love, I’ll be fairly senior at the base, and I still have a job. Nearly 2,400 of my colleagues were left unassigned on this bid and are in danger of being furloughed once the CARES Act money runs out in October. The economy is tentatively starting to recover, though, and hopefully I’ll be able to upgrade again in a few years. Maybe I’ll take the opportunity to “learn French” as an Airbus A320 captain, s’il vous plait.

In the meantime, I thought I’d pass along some notes on the 737, since I’ve been critical of the design in the past. That was based solely on my (quite ample) time jumpseating on 737s and comparing them to the older 757s I was flying. Now that I’ve actually trained on the world’s most produced airliner and flown it a bit, my thoughts on the “Guppy” have evolved somewhat.

The basic 737 design has been around for a long time, since 1967, which is the airplane’s greatest strength and weakness. There are four distinct generations: the original -100/-200 model, now all but extinct; the Classic (-300, -400 and -500), also increasingly rare; the Next Generation, or NG (-600 through -900), which my airline flies; and the re-engined, beleaguered Max, now entering its 16th month of worldwide grounding. The fact that the design has been updated enough to remain economically competitive while retaining a great degree of commonality has been one of its main selling points, as is the way the various models span a wide swath of the narrowbody market. This is why companies like Southwest Airlines and RyanAir have been able to build large domestic networks using only the 737, reaping large cost savings in pilot training, maintenance, and ground handling equipment.

From a pilot’s perspective, however, this means the airplane remains mired in long-decided compromises. One of these is its low-slung stance, originally meant to accommodate launch customer Lufthansa’s ground service equipment. This greatly constrained the design as the airplane was lengthened and the engines grew more bulbous, which resulted in the famous “hamster pouch” nacelles to accommodate the Classic and NG’s high-bypass CFM56 engines. Much more regrettably, ground clearance constraints led Boeing to place the Max’s LEAP engines (also by CFM International) in an aerodynamically unnatural position and open a Pandora’s box of half-assed computer trickery to compensate.

In the cockpit (the most cramped of the six airliners I’ve flown and the second-loudest), the main holdover from yesteryear is the cluttered overhead panel. You compare a -200 overhead to an NG, and precious little has changed since 1967, which makes sense because the fairly simple systems haven’t changed much. The necessity to keep a common type rating means that things like the bleed-air and air-conditioning systems, which are almost completely automated on newer designs, are still somewhat complicated to operate. That said, much of the overhead panel is the purview of the first officer (at my airline, at least), and as a captain, I don’t have to throw many switches up there.

A more serious cockpit carryover, in my mind, is the crew alerting system, or lack thereof. Mind you, even the über-analog McDonnell-Douglas MD-88 had a centralized overhead annunciator panel. The 737 instead illuminates the master caution light plus one small annunciator that gives you a general clue of where to start hunting for the responsible fault light (OVHD for the overhead panel, for example). This is much more primitive than the EICAS on the 1980s-era 757, and it would not be certified on a brand-new design under Part 25 today. It lives on even in the Max simply because it was legal in 1967, and Boeing convinced the FAA that it would be too expensive to upgrade the design to modern standards. (It would also likely require extra training for pilots transitioning from earlier variants, which negates one of the airplane’s selling points.)

Read More from Sam Weigel: Taking Wing

On a positive note, the 737NG’s cockpit displays, FMS and auto flight systems are all quite good. The primary flight displays and navigation displays are large and bright, with highly visible, easy-to-understand symbology and a nice degree of customizability. The autopilot has similar modes and functions to the 757, with similar smoothness, but the vertical navigation features are more advanced. The FMS, too, looks a lot like its predecessor, but is much faster and has a number of useful additional features. The autothrottles are smooth and precise, and sync the engines well. The multiscan radar is excellent..

In flight, the 737 is perhaps best described as “earnest and honest.” It has a very neutral control feel and good stability. Roll control is lighter than the 757, with a slightly slower response rate, but not nearly as light as the 767 (which is also much more responsive). Pitch control has a somewhat artificial feel and requires more control deflection than both the 757 and 767, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in an airplane that is susceptible to tail strikes (on the -900 model, at least). Performance is quite good on the -700, decent on the -800, and noticeably sluggish on the -900ER when heavy. One thing I didn’t expect is that increased thrust causes a much larger pitch-up moment than on the 757, which is odd because the engines are much less powerful and not as low-slung.

Once you get used to the lower sight picture, the 737 is a pretty decent airplane to land, though the single-axle main gear trucks make truly smooth landings harder to come by. Approach speeds are fairly high, especially in the -900, because of the limited tail clearance. This, along with having only four brakes (versus eight on the 757), makes short runways a challenge, and it is common practice to land with autobrakes on their second-to-highest setting. The low engine nacelle clearance means the airplane cannot be slipped much when landing, and anything above about 15 knots of crosswind requires a crab to touchdown. The main gear castors a bit to accommodate this, á la Ercoupe, which is why you often see 737s taxiing around in a slightly catawampus, crablike fashion.

My favorite thing about the Guppy, truth be told, is not even a standard feature: the optional head-up display (HUD), which all of my airline’s 737s have installed. I’ve actually flown an airplane with a HUD before (the Dash-8), but like the 737, it was only installed on the left side, so first officers miss out on the fun. The magic of the HUD is not just the seamless transition it provides between instrument data and outside visual cues, but the fact that it displays an instantaneous flight path vector and aircraft acceleration data, and provides super-precise flight-path and thrust guidance relative to those cues. The HUD allows for a hand-flown Cat III ILS down to 600 feet visibility, and takeoffs in as little as 300 feet visibility, but most captains use it in perfect VFR conditions too. It makes a superb pilot out of an average one—I’m an instant fan.

I guess my final verdict on the Guppy will have to wait until December, when I will be sent back to the 757 for now. Will I miss the nice glass cockpit, more capable FMS and more advanced auto flight system? I think I will. I’ll definitely miss the HUD. I suspect, however, that the larger and quieter flight deck, better performance, smoother landings, better brakes, cleaner cockpit design and centralized EICAS will make up for those things. You know, it just occurred to me that Boeing could create a new narrowbody jet that combines the best features of the 737 and 757, updated with concepts refined on the 787, and it would be a world-beating design. They could call it the 797. What a concept…

This story appeared in the August 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

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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