MIAMI — Over the past year, an important topic in aviation news has been the future of the Boeing 757. Despite 10 years passing since the last delivery of the iconic “flying pencil”, some airlines and aviation analysts would like to see an aircraft capable of filling the gap it left. Although, Boeing simply does not see enough demand to upgrade the 757, while making a profit, but instead prefers to develop a new successor in the 2020s. Meanwhile, Airbus is offering some competition, but this does not completely fill the void.
While this continues to be a popular topic of debate in the AvGeek community, let’s take an opportunity to look at the history of the 757 on this Flashback Friday.
Over forty years ago, Boeing began to study further developments of its very popular 727, which had been in service since 1964. The company considered two possibilities: stretch the 189-seat 727-200 or develop a clean sheet aircraft. While the stretched 727 was the cheaper approach, a new aircraft could take advantage of the latest improvements in aerospace technology offered at the time.
Potential customers interested in a new aircraft outnumbered those wanting an improved 727. The new technologies in the mid-1970s included high-bypass-ratio turbofans, new flight deck technologies, lighter materials, and improved aerodynamics. Boeing intended to include these features in an all-new wide-body airplane, known at the time as the 7X7.
As many airlines experienced an economic rebound in the late 1970s, Boeing proceeded with developing two brand new aircraft in parallel. The 7X7 became the 767 while the 7N7 turned into the 757. The initial design would retain the 727’s cockpit and T-tail but would have two engines under a redesigned wing.
On August 31, 1978, Eastern Air Lines and British Airways became the launch customers for the new airplane with 40 orders. Boeing officially unveiled the 757 designation in March 1979, when these airlines formally signed for their orders. The company initially envisioned a short -100 series and a longer -200 but dropped the former since it did not get orders.
Airlines in the 1970s had a great interest in lowering operating costs, especially after the spike in oil prices from the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. As a result, Boeing targeted a 20% decrease in fuel consumption with the new engines, compared to the 727. Furthermore, new aerodynamic improvements would provide an additional 10% improvement in fuel burn over the 727.
Additional improvements included being able to fly 10,000 lb (5,540 kg) heavier than the 727 with a maximum takeoff weight of 220,000 lb (99,800 kg). Moreover, the new engines would provide a higher power-to-weight ratio allowing take off from shorter runways and improved operations and “hot and high” airports. In mid-1979, Boeing dropped the T-tail design to allow for more passengers in a less tapered rear while avoiding the possibility of a deep stall.
Rolls-Royce (RR), Pratt & Whitney (PW), and General Electric (GE) competed to provide the two engines for the 757. GE dropped out early because of insufficient demand while RR and PW survived as the two customer options. RR’s RB2110535C could deliver 37,400 lbf (166 kN) of thrust while the PW2037 offered 38,200 lbf (170 kN).
Eastern and British opted for RR engines, marking the first time a Boeing airplane launched with engines manufactured outside of the U.S. Delta Air Lines launched the PW variant in November 1980 with an order for 60 aircraft. At 155 ft 3 in (47.32 m), the 757-200 was 2.1 ft (0.64 m) longer than the 727-200.
Boeing essentially developed the narrow body 757 and wide body 767 in parallel, which resulted in many shared features. One of these was a two-pilot glass cockpit with cathode-ray tube (CRT) displays and increased automation, which eliminated the need for a flight engineer. In addition, this commonality allowed pilots to switch between both planes after a short conversion course.
Production and Testing
Production of the 757 took place at the Renton plant, where Boeing manufactured its narrow bodies while that of the 767 happened in Everett, the manufacturing home of the 747. Boeing produced 50% of the 757’s components in-house while it outsourced the other half to manufacturers like Fairchild, Grumman, and Rockwell International. Final assembly began in January 1981.
The first 757-200 rolled out on January 13, 1982 and completed its maiden flight on February 19 of the same year. The first flight experienced an engine stall, but test pilot John Armstrong and copilot Lew Wall successfully restarted the engine and proceeded with the flight as planned. During the test phase, orders had reached 136 aircraft from seven airlines.
Five aircraft participated in the seven-month test phase. Lessons learned from the 767’s test program helped expedite that of the 757. In addition, the prototypes turned out to be 3,600 lb (1,630 kg) lighter than planned and experienced a 3% better than expected fuel burn, which increased range by 200 nmi (229 mi or 370 km).
The RR-powered 757 received certification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on December 14, 1983 and the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on January 14, 1983. Eastern received its first example on December 22, 1982. Moreover, the first PW-powered 757 rolled out in December 1983, and Delta received it on November 5, 1984.
Entry Into Service (EIS)
On January 1, 1983, the 757 had its EIS with Eastern and British followed the next month on February 9. The early customers immediately noted the improved reliability and quieter performance. Moreover, Eastern, as the first 727 operator to fly the 757, confirmed improvements such as greater payload capability and lower operating costs from the improved fuel burn and use of a two-pilot flight deck.
A drop in fuel prices and a shift to smaller aircraft by many airlines during most of the 1980s resulted in stagnant sales for the 757. Fortunately, for Boeing, new orders from Northwest and the launch of a package freighter (-200PF) from UPS averted what would have been a costly production rate decrease. The 757 finally saw a boost in orders in the late 1980s because of increased airline hub congestion and new noise regulations.
American and United Airlines combined for 160 alone during a 322-order surge from 1988 to 1989. These and other U.S. airlines shifted to the 757 for short-haul and transcontinental routes. They saw major improvements with the 757 over their older Boeings, such as the 707 and 727, and Douglas aircraft like the DC-8 and DC-9.
In Europe, the 757 became a mainstay with British, Iberia, and Icelandair. Moreover, European charter airlines, such as Air 2000, Air Holland, and LTU, also ordered the aircraft. While Asian carriers generally, preferred larger aircraft, the 757 still managed success in China.
In 1986, the RR-powered 757 received a significant boost when the FAA granted extended-range twin-engine operational performance standards (ETOPS) that permitted flights over the North Atlantic Ocean and later mainland U.S. to Hawaii. This certification stemmed from a record of very reliable U.S. transcontinental services since EIS. PW-powered 757s received their ETOPS in 1992.
One curiosity about the 757 is that in the mid-1990s it received a “heavy” designation, reserved for aircraft heavier than 300,000 lb (136,000 kg), by the FAA under its separation rules. This happened because in some instances, small aircraft encountered wake turbulence when they were behind departing or landing 757s. The most likely cause was wingtip vortices that were even stronger than those of the larger 767s and 747s.
Boeing produced 100 757s annually during the early 1990s and began to consider improvements. The question was whether to lengthen the aircraft or give it a longer range. European charter carrier wanted a higher-capacity variant.
In September 1996, Boeing formally launched the stretched 757-300 with orders for 12 aircraft from German charter carrier Condor. This model stretched the original 757 by 23 ft 4 in (7.13 m), which allowed for 50 additional passengers and 50% more cargo. Boeing wanted a short time line and, therefore, avoided major upgrades, but it still managed to improve the engines, avionics, and interior.
On May 31, 1998, the first -300 rolled out, and the maiden flight occurred on August 2, 1998. Aviation authorities certified the new aircraft in January 1999, and Condor commenced operations on March 19, 1999. Furthermore, other carriers like American Trans Air, Arkia Israel Airlines, Continental Airlines, Icelandair, and Northwest Airlines became -300 customers.
The Boeing 757-200 and -300 share a 124 ft 10 in (38.05 m) wingspan and 44 ft 6 in (13.56 m) tail height. They also have a typical cruising speed of Mach 0.80 (530 mph, 458 kt, or 850 kph) at an altitude of 35,000 ft (10,660 m). In addition, their cabin width of 11 ft 7 in (3.54 m) allows for a 3-3 seating arrangement in economy class and 2-2 in premium.
The 757-200 seats 200 people in a typical two-class layout and 239 in a single-class setting. Its maximum range is 3,900 nmi (4,487 mi or 7,222 km). With its maximum takeoff weight MTOW of 255,000 lb (115,680 kg), the airplane requires 6,500 ft (1,981 m) of runway. Furthermore, with optional blended winglets, the -200 flies up to 4,100 nmi (4,722 mi or 7,600 km). Boeing produced 913 passenger -200s.
The 757-300 seats 243 passengers in a typical two-class arrangement and up to 295 in one class. The -300 can fly up to 3,395 nmi (3,906 mi or 6,287 km). Its 272.500 lb (123,600 kg) MTOW requires 7,800 ft (2,377 m) of runway. Moreover, blended winglets allow for a range of up to 3,595 nmi (4,137 mi or 6,658 km). Boeing produced 55 -300s, all for passenger operations.
Boeing hoped the 757-300 would 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 -300 during its introduction. Furthermore, charter operators did not follow Condor’s footsteps.
The slower than expected sales for the -300 led Boeing to consider decreasing 757 production in November 1999. Moreover, the chaotic airline financial environment post-9/11 resulted in many carriers opting for smaller aircraft like the 737 Next Generation and Airbus A320 families. Boeing briefly considered a significant upgrade to the -300 with a higher MTOW and a potential range of 5,000 nmi (5,753 mi or 9,260 km), but the idea this not bring any customer interest.
In the early 2000s, many early 757s entered the freighter conversion market with the -200SF designation. In 2003, Boeing started a new sales campaign for the -200PF and -300, but the effort only resulted in five orders. The end of the 757 family came in October 2003, when Continental converted its remaining -300s to 737-800s. The 1,050th and last 757 (a -200 series) rolled out on October 28, 2004 and went to Shanghai Airlines in 2005.
A surge in oil prices from 2004 to 2008 tripled the costs for typical domestic 757 flights in the U.S. With fuel efficiency becoming a priority, Boeing and Aviation Partners, which already introduced blended winglets on the 737, offered these as upgrades on the 757. The FAA certified the winglets for the 757 in May 2005, and they provided a 5% improvement in fuel efficiency, boosting range by 200 nmi (229 mi or 370 km). Airlines also have the option to upgrade avionics to those of the 767-400, which uses larger liquid crystal displays (LCDs), as opposed to the smaller and older CRTs.
So is the 757 really near the end of passenger operations? It depends on the airline. For example, the “Big Three” U.S. airlines (American, Delta, and United) are implementing different plans for their fleets. These carriers reconfigured the relatively newer airplanes for six to seven-hour international flights across the Atlantic and to South America while they continue to use others in domestic operations and retire the oldest ones. Furthermore, Delta, which has a unique fleet utilization strategy with older aircraft, will take five of the “newest” 757s from Shanghai Airlines by the end of this year.
Lastly, for any 757 fans hoping to see a “Next Generation”, “New Engine Option (NEO)”, “MAX”, or any other modern-sounding nicknamed 757, Boeing remains firm in its decision not to resurrect this venerable aircraft. The company does not see enough orders to make such a move profitable, despite commentary from some analysts and competitive pressure from Airbus, which plans a long-range version of its A321neo. Despite the popularity of the 757 on thin transatlantic routes, Boeing only sees this as a niche market and will likely introduce a clean sheet 757 successor later next decade.