From Airliner to Freighter, The Enduring Legacy of the Boeing 727

Kalitta Charters Boeing 727 with MIA tower in the background. Photo credit: Max Taubman - @maximumaviation

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. 

Kalitta Charters Boeing 727 at MIA. Photo credit: Max Taubman – @maximumaviation

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). 

However, the aircraft did have a feature that while well intentioned proved to initially be a flaw, a rear stairwell. Otherwise known as a rear ventral airstair, it was a useful feature given the fact that jet bridges were not so common back when the Boeing 727 was rolled out and was thus a useful alternative should any airports lack proper stair platforms (Cummins, 2020).

Photo credit: Max Taubman – @maximumaviation

 On November 24, 1971, a day that would otherwise be known as a usually rainy day in the Pacific Northwest, a regular passenger  known as D.B. Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft yet escaped never to be found again, jumping out of the rear ventricle stairwell in flight (Cummins, 2020). Startled, the Federal Aviation Administration mandated a change, the aircraft would need a device known as a Cooper Vane to “[prevent] airstairs from deploying while mid-air” in 1972 (Beresnevicius, 2019).

Later famous hijackings would occur on the venerable aircraft following the D.B. Cooper incident. Lufthansa Flight 615, operated by a Boeing 727-100, was hijacked by terrorists affiliated with the Black September Organization in 1972 (Burke, 2000). Trans World Airlines Flight 355, a normal domestic 727 flight in the United States, was taken over by hijackers in 1976 demanding Croatian independence and had a destination of Paris instead of Tucson (Brockman, 1976). 

Despite a series of hijackings, economic factors would ultimately lead to the undoing of the Boeing 727 as a passenger airliner. Factors including the enhanced fuel consumption due to a third engine when fuel prices could heavily fluctuate, the additional cost of keeping a flight engineer alongside two pilots in the cockpit, and the incredibly loud nature of the Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines made the aircraft less attractive to airlines as better two engined aircraft began to enter the market (Ahlgren, 2020). 

Airlines began migrating to the newer Boeing 737 aircraft, offering similar performance than the Boeing 727 minus the cost of a third engine and a flight engineer.

Photo credit: Max Taubman – @maximumaviation

Following a steady decline to the point of rarity, the final Boeing 727 retired from passenger service in 2019 while operating a domestic Iranian flight on behalf of Iran Aseman Airlines (Boon, 2019). However, the end of passenger service by no means heralded the end of the aircraft which soon found a new role as a freighter. 

In fact, the final Boeing 727 ever built in 1984 was destined for FedEx Express (Boeing). All one needed for a Boeing 727 to become a cargo aircraft was a large side door near the front of the aircraft and a cabin clear of seats. The aircraft continued operating into the 2000s and 2010s with FedEx and UPS Airlines, another American cargo heavyweight (Post & Parcel, 2007). To this day, albeit on a smaller scale, the aircraft lives on as a freighter. 

Destination Miami, A Continued Operation


Today there are few places in the world where Scooters  are more prevalent than Miami International Airport. At the outset, Miami seems like an odd choice but is nevertheless a strategic cargo hub where South America meets North America. With daily southward cargo departures far and wide, space has been made for the historic aircraft. 

Kalitta Charters, an offshoot of Kalitta Air based in Ypsilanti, Michigan, operates a fleet of Boeing 727-264(A)(F) aircraft out of Miami International Airport on behalf of Amerijet using the Amerijet International Air Transport Association (IATA) code of M6 (flightradar24).

Kalitta Charters has  a wide operation ranging from transporting hazardous materials and operating regular cargo flights to transporting the remains of fallen American service members home on a fleet ranging from the Learjet 25 and Dassault Falcon 20 to the Boeing 737-300F and the Boeing 727-264(A)(F) (Kalitta Charters). 

Kalitta Charters Boeing 727 with registration N729CK at MIA.

On the other hand, Amerijet International has a more specific operation, while operating some flights to Brussels, it primarily operates out of Miami International Airport with a fleet of Boeing 767-200 and 767-300 transporting cargo “throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America” (Amerijet). Complementing the Boeing 767 fleet, Amerijet uses the Kalitta Charters Boeing 727-264(A)(F) primarily on cargo flights to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic (flightradar24). 

One of the Kalitta Charters Boeing 727-264(A)(F) aircraft with the registration N729CK, originally operated for the Dubai Government before transitioning to a passenger airliner with Emirates and Qatar Airways and eventually becoming a freighter with Astar Air Cargo and Kalitta Air in 2012 before finally arriving at Kalitta Charters (planelogger).

Another airline regularly operating 727s at Miami is the IFL Group. This carrier, also based in Michigan, has a total of three Super 27s with two 727-200F (A)(RE), N215FL and N216FL, along with one 727-200(A)(F) (N281FL) (iflgroup). While many Super 27s began their service with Fedex in 1984, the considerably older N281FL was built in 1978 and initially flew with Eastern Airlines (planelogger). This aircraft makes frequent trips from Miami to San Juan offering spotters the rare chance to see the 43-year-old jet roar out of runway 8R (flightradar24).

IFL Boeing 727 departing MIA at sunset. Photo credit: Max Taubman – @maximumaviation

Like an aging elder, the continuance of the Boeing 727 in operation is a testament both to the versatility of the aircraft and those who developed it along with an enduring that legacy lives on via  providing much needed freight service  to the Caribbean and beyond.

Boeing 727 at MIA. Photo credit: Max Taubman – @maximumaviation

References:

  • Boeing.com. 2021. Boeing: Historical Snapshot: 727 Commercial Transport. [online] Available at: <https://www.boeing.com/history/products/727.page> [Accessed 10 January 2021].
  • Cummins, N., 2021. The Problem With The Boeing 727’S Rear Door – Simple Flying. [online] Simple Flying. Available at: <https://simpleflying.com/boeing-727-rear-door-problem/> [Accessed 10 January 2021].
  • Beresnevicius, R., 2021. How One Elusive Man Changed Design Of Aircraft: D.B. Cooper Story. [online] Aerotime.aero. Available at: <https://www.aerotime.aero/24238-db-cooper-story> [Accessed 10 January 2021].
  • Brockman, R., 2021. Notes While Being Hijacked. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: <https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1976/12/notes-while-being-hijacked/305490/> [Accessed 10 January 2021].
  • Ahlgren, L., 2021. Why The Boeing 727 Fell Out Of Favor – Simple Flying. [online] Simple Flying. Available at: <https://simpleflying.com/boeing-727-out-of-favor/> [Accessed 10 January 2021].
  • Boon, T., 2021. Boeing 727 Completes Its Last Ever Commercial Flight – Simple Flying. [online] Simple Flying. Available at: <https://simpleflying.com/boeing-727-last-flight/> [Accessed 10 January 2021].
  • Post & Parcel. 2021. UPS Airlines Is Retiring Its Fleet Of 727S | Post & Parcel. [online] Available at: <https://postandparcel.info/17059/news/ups-airlines-is-retiring-its-fleet-of-727s/> [Accessed 10 January 2021].
  • Flightradar24. 2021. Live Flight Tracker – Real-Time Flight Tracker Map | Flightradar24. [online] Available at: <https://www.flightradar24.com/data/aircraft/n729ck> [Accessed 10 January 2021].
  • Planelogger.com. 2021. Registration Details For N729CK (Kalitta Air) 727-264 – Planelogger. [online] Available at: <https://www.planelogger.com/Aircraft/Registration/N729CK/501888> [Accessed 10 January 2021].
  • Kalittacharterscargo.com. 2021. Our Fleet – Kalitta Cargo. [online] Available at: <https://www.kalittacharterscargo.com/our-fleet/> [Accessed 10 January 2021].
  • Amerijet International. 2021. About Amerijet » Amerijet International. [online] Available at: <https://www.amerijet.com/about-amerijet/> [Accessed 10 January 2021].
  • Planelogger.com. 2021. Registration Details For N281FL (Contract Air Cargo) 727-225 – Planelogger. [online] Available at: <https://www.planelogger.com/Aircraft/Registration/N281FL/497802> [Accessed 10 January 2021].
  • Flightradar24. 2021. Live Flight Tracker – Real-Time Flight Tracker Map | Flightradar24. [online] Available at: <https://www.flightradar24.com/data/aircraft/n281fl> [Accessed 10 January 2021].

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Brent Foster

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