The Boeing 757
With American Airlines announcing their accelerated retirement of the Boeing 757-200, less and less of the airplane can be seen flying. In the midst of these tough times for the aviation industry, let’s go back to the late 1970s where the story of the legendary airplane begins.
The story of the 757 begins in the 1970s, when Boeing is looking into further development of the widely popular 727. They considered either stretching the 727 or develop a new aircraft, to take advantage of the new improvements to technology. Customers in favor of a new aircraft outnumbered those wanting an improved 727. Some new technologies used in aviation in the mid 1970s were high-bypass-ratio turbofans, lighter materials, improved aerodynamics, and brand new cockpit technologies. Boeing intended to put these new features into a widebody airplane, initially named the 7X7 program.
As airlines experienced economic rebounds in the late 70s, Boeing proceeded with building 2 new airplanes. The 7X7 would later become the 767, and the 7N7 became the 757. The initial design would have the same flight deck as the 727 and the T-tail, but with 2 engines placed under a redesigned wing.
On August 31, 1978, Eastern Airlines and British Airways became the launch customers of the Boeing 757, with 40 orders. The 757 designation was officially unveiled by Boeing in March 1979, when the airlines formally signed their orders. Initially, Boeing envisioned a shorter 757-100 and a longer 757-200, but dropped the -100 because it did not receive any orders.
Airlines in the 1970s were interested in lowering operating costs for their aircraft. Because of this, Boeing aimed for a 20% decrease in fuel consumption with the new engines compared to the 727. Furthermore, aerodynamic improvements would give an additional 10% decrease. Additional improvements include a 220,000 pound max takeoff weight, 10,000 pounds more than the 727. The new engines would also provide a higher power-weight ratio, allowing takeoffs from shorter runways and improved performance at high altitude airports. In mid 1979, Boeing dropped the T-tail design to allow for more passengers in a less narrow rear, while avoiding the possibility of a deep stall.
Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney, and General Electric competed to provide the engines for the 757. General Electric dropped out early because of inadequate demand, leaving Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney. Rolls Royce’s engine, the RB211, could provide 37,400 pounds of thrust while Pratt & Whitney’s PW2037 generated 38,200 pounds of thrust. Eastern Airlines and British Airways both chose the Rolls Royce engines, marking the first time a Boeing airplane launched with engines made outside the US. In November 1980, Delta Air Lines ordered 60 757s with the Pratt and Whitney PW2037 engines.
Boeing developed the 757 and 767 in parallel, meaning the shared many similar features. One of these features was a two pilot glass cockpit with cathode-ray tube displays and increased automation, removing the need for a flight engineer.
Production & Testing
Production of the Boeing 757 took place at Boeing’s Renton plant outside of Seattle. Boeing produced half of the 757’s components in house, while it outsourced the other half to Fairchild, Grumman, and Rockwell International. The final assembly began in January 1981. The first ever Boeing 757 was rolled out on January 13, 1982, and had it’s maiden flight on February 19, 1982. The first flight even experienced an engine stall, but the test pilots successfully restarted the engine and proceeded with the flight. During the test phase, orders reached 136 aircraft from 7 airlines.
Five 757s participated in the 7 month test phase. Lessons learned from the 767’s tests helped expedite that of the 757. The prototypes turned out to be 3,600 pounds lighter than planned and experienced a 3% better fuel burn than expected, increasing range by 200 nautical miles.
The Rolls Royce powered 757 received certification by the FAA on December 14, 1983, and by the CAA on January 14, 1983. Eastern Airlines received their first 757 on December 22, 1982. The first Pratt & Whitney powered 757 rolled out in December 1983, and Delta received it on November 5, 1984.
Entry Into Service
On January 1, 1983 was entered into service with Eastern, and with British Airways on February 9, 1983. The early customers immediately noticed the improved reliability and quieter performance. Eastern Airlines even confirmed the improvements such as greater payload capability and reduced operating costs from the improved fuel burn and a 2 pilot flight deck. A drop in fuel prices and a shift to smaller airplanes by many airlines during the 80s resulted in a decrease of sales for the 757. Fortunately, new orders from Northwest and the launch of a package freighter by UPS averted what would have been a costly production rate decrease. The 757 finally saw a boost in orders in the late 80s because of increased airline hub congestion and noise regulations.
American and United combined for 160 orders alone during a 322 order surge from 1988 to 1989. These and other major US airlines shifted to the 757 for short haul and transcontinental routes. They saw major improvements with the 757 over their older 707s, 727s, DC-8s, and DC-9s. In Europe, the 757 became an important part of many airlines like British, Iberia, and Icelandair. European carter airlines such as Air 2000, Air Holland, and LTU ordered the 757. While Asian airlines generally preferred larger aircraft, the 757 still managed success in China, for example.
In 1986, Rolls Royce powered 757s received ETOPS certification, permitting flights over the Atlantic Ocean and, later, US to Hawaii flights. Pratt & Whitney powered 757s received ETOPS certification in 1992. This certification stemmed from a record of very reliable US transcontinental services since the entry into service.
A curiosity about the 757 is that in the mid 1990s, it received a heavy designation, reserved for airplanes over 300,000 pounds by the FAA. This is because smaller aircraft encountered wake turbulence when behind a departing or arriving 757. The likely cause was wingtip vortices that were stronger than that of the 767 and 747.
Boeing produced 100 757s a year in the early 1990s and considered improvements to the type. The question was whether to extend the fuselage or increase range. In September 1996, Boeing launched the 757-300, with orders for 12 aircraft by Condor, a German charter carrier. The 757-300 was 23 feet, 4 inches longer than the 757-200, held 50 extra passengers, and allowed 50% more cargo. Boeing wanted a shorter timeline, therefore, they avoided major upgrades. They still managed to upgrade the engines avionics, and interior.
On May 31, 1998, the first 757-300 was rolled out and the maiden flight took place on August 2. The airplane was certified in January 1999, and Condor began operation of the type on March 19, 1999. Other airlines including American Trans Air, Arkia, Continental, Icelandair, and Northwest became 757-300 customers.
The End Of An Era
Boeing hoped for the 757-300 to be a 767-200 replacement for major customers like American and United. However, these airlines were in a weak financial position to commit to the 757-300 during it’s introduction. The less than expected sales for the 757-300 led Boeing to consider decreasing 757 production in November 1999. Furthermore, the chaotic airlines financial environment after the events of 9/11 resulted in many airlines opting for smaller airplanes like the 737 Next Generation and the Airbus A320 family. Boeing briefly considered a 757-300 upgrade with a higher max takeoff weight and a potential range of 5000 nautical miles, but this idea brought no customer interest.
In the early 2000s, many old 757s entered the freighter conversion market with the 757-200SF designation. In 2003, Boeing started a new sales campaign for the 757-200PF and 757-300PF, but the effort resulted in just 5 orders. The end of the 757 family came in October 2003, when Continental converted it’s remaining 757-300s to 737-800s. The 1,050th 757, the last 757 ever to be built, rolled out on October 28, 2004 and was delivered to Shanghai Airlines in 2005.
An increase in fuel prices from 2004 to 2008 tripled the operating cost of typical domestic 757 flights in the US. With fuel efficiency becoming a priority, Boeing offered blended winglets on the 757. The FAA certified the winglets in May 2005, and they provided a 5% improvement in fuel efficiency, while boosting range by 200 nautical miles. Airlines were also granted the option to upgrade the avionics panels to those of the 767-400, which use larger liquid crystal displays opposed to the smaller and older CRTs.
That concludes the story of the Boeing 757, one of the most successful and popular airplanes built. If you enjoyed reading this topic, please let me know.