LONDON – Retirement, a word often dreaded by aviation enthusiasts, has achieved record usage by way of the COVID-19 pandemic. As airlines have been forced to cut back costs for the sake of mere survival so too have they been forced to retire aircraft types ranging from the McDonnell Douglas MD-88 at Delta Air Lines to the Boeing 747-400 at British Airways.
Some airframes of the Boeing 747-400 will remain in service as freighters helping to deliver everything from COVID-19 vaccines to consumer electronics around the world while nearly all the MD-88 airframes will be heading to the scrapyard. However, there is one plane, predating both the Boeing 747-400 and the MD-88 that has eluded retirement while still going strong in the cargo realm, the Boeing 727-200.
Over fifty years old, the Boeing 727-200 or “Scooter” is a three-engined aircraft with a storied history with roles ranging from passenger transport to hijacking platforms along with that of a cargo workhorse. This article will explore the unique history of the Boeing 727-200 along with the current role it plays as a freighter connecting Miami to the Caribbean.
A Long History
The history of the Boeing 727 can at best be described as a storied one. Rolling out of a Boeing production line on November 27, 1962, the aircraft with a “rakish T-shaped tail and [a] trio of rear-mounted engines” soon cast a distinctive appearance at airports large and small around the world (Boeing).
Large and small, the aircraft was developed “to service smaller airports with shorter runways than those used by Boeing 707s” while still holding transcontinental range capabilities (Boeing). The three-engined rear came about from conflicting demands from airlines, some wanted a full four engines while some merely wanted two and a compromise with three engines was eventually met, allowing for airlines to meet what at the time were Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards (ETOPS) requirements to the Caribbean (Boeing).
Home to many technological feats, the Boeing 727 pioneered many seemingly normal aspects of aircraft design that are taken for granted today. For example, the aircraft was the first in Boeing production to undergo the same rigorous fatigue testing that has been used on aircraft ranging from the Airbus A220 to the Boeing 787 to this day (Boeing).
In addition to having powered controls and triple slotted flaps, the Boeing 727 also pioneered the use of the auxiliary power unit (APU), “a small gas-turbine engine that eliminated the need for ground power or starting equipment in the more primitive airports of developing countries” (Boeing). APUs today are used in virtually all commercial airliners and are oftentimes responsible for loud noises on the tarmac while providing lights and cool air to the cabin.
Such features helped the aircraft enter the market with gusto, starting with Delta Air Lines and Eastern Airlines but soon spreading from around the world with over 1,832 aircraft produced with operators ranging from Sterling Airlines in Denmark to VARIG in Brazil (Boeing). Eventually demand was so high that Boeing was compelled to make a -200 version of the aircraft, the Boeing 727-200 with the capacity to carry 189 passengers as opposed to the 131 of the original Boeing 727-100 (Boeing).