The grass airstrip in Hope, British Columbia, is best suited for hobby flying — Cessnas, Piper Cubs and gliders.
In 1972, though, the Hope Aerodrome helped resurrect flagging Boeing 737 sales and avoid the program’s cancellation.
Now, the single-aisle airplane can be found on flight paths and at airports around the globe. It is the best-selling commercial jetliner ever and makes up about a quarter of the world’s passenger jets, with one taking off every two seconds.
That wasn’t the case in the program’s early years. It almost was cancelled before it was even launched. In 1964, Boeing leadership was split over developing a small, regional jetliner. Its biggest competitor, the Douglas Aircraft Co., had already beaten it to the market with the DC-9, as had several European airplane makers. So Boeing executives punted on making a decision.
Boeing’s visionary engineer, Jack Steiner, pushed the company to commit to the 737. Finally, he went around Boeing chief executive Bill Allen to directly lobby company board members to back the airplane program, which they did.
In early 1965, Lufthansa ordered 21 of the compact airplanes only after Boeing promised it wouldn’t cancel the 737 for lack of orders. United Air Lines ordered 40 airplanes a couple of months later. The airline wanted something bigger than the 737-100 version ordered by Lufthansa. So, right away, Boeing stretched the plane into the 737-200, the first of 12 commercial versions.
Airlines ordered 83 737s that year, which, at the time, wasn’t bad for a new jetliner. But Douglas collected nearly three times as many orders — 209 — for the DC-9, which also went into service in 1965. The Long Beach, Calif., company’s jet regularly outsold Boeing’s 737 for the next few years.
With sales lagging, Boeing leadership considered selling the 737 program to a Japanese manufacturer, said Peter Morton, a retired Boeing vice president who was the 737 program’s marketing manager from 1969 to 1974. Before that he was an engineer on the program.
“It was a volatile time. The company was in financial straits, and everything was on the table,” he said.
One of his first jobs as marketing manager was to lead a task force studying whether to keep, close or sell the airplane program.
His team’s answer to company executives was clear: Keep the 737. It can compete and even outsell the DC-9, he said.
The task force figured that the 737 could serve customers and markets ignored by the DC-9 and other small jets. The 737 could operate from remote airports with unpaved runways, and it could carry a mix of cargo and passengers on its main deck.
Morton knew he had to show customers that the plane could fly in and out of rough airports. Looking for a nearby airport to show off the plane’s capabilities, he came across a 4,000-foot-long grass runway in Hope, British Columbia. On Sept. 13, 1972, with a camera rolling, a 737-200 painted in the company’s black-and-mustard-brown livery touched down in Hope, the plane’s nose wheel digging a deep rut in the ground.
“I believe the Hope authorities billed us pretty heavily to get the ruts out of that airport,” Morton says in the marketing video shot that day.
Boeing engineers figured out how to keep future ruts from happening and to keep dust and gravel out of the engines. With the video in hand, Morton and other 737 program members scoured the world for sales.
“We took that airplane all over the world” and found plenty of new ways to show it off, he said.
During a sales pitch in Peru, a bird was sucked into one of the plane’s engines. The Boeing pilot “ever so calmly cut the engine that had swallowed the bird,” he said. “You could smell the burnt bird. When we landed, there were still feathers in the engine.”
A handful of sales in the early ’70s to Sabena, in Belgium, plus a trio of jointly-operated Brazilian airlines and the U.S. Navy were vital to keeping the program alive.
“We sold 10 planes to Sabena, and the place went nuts. The factory bells were ringing, people were cheering. These days, no one blinks when you sell 10 planes,” Morton said.
Even as the 737’s fate hung in the balance, engineers and designers were working on improvements.
“Boeing’s a complicated company,” he explained. “You can have a team of engineers improving the airplane at the same time you have the bean-counters running the numbers on closing the program.”
Over the past 49 years, the 737 has been reinvented for the evolving market. The 737-100 was so unpopular with customers only 30 were ever made, and most of those were for Lufthansa’s first order.
“Basically, it was — what’s the technical term? — a crappy product early on,” said Adam Pilarski, a leading aerospace economist. He is a vice president at Avitas, a consulting firm in Virginia.
Boeing unveiled the first major overhaul — the 737-200 Advanced — in 1971. It could hold more passengers and fly farther. It quickly became the standard for the 737-200, which ended production in 1988 after more than 1,000 airplanes. Two years later, the 737 became the best-selling commercial aircraft.
“Boeing is really good at continuously improving products, and that’s what they did” with the 737, said Pilarski, who worked for McDonnell Douglas.