Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727
Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - The Original Trijet
When the Boeing 727 first rolled off the assembly line in the early 1960s, it was a revolutionary aircraft. With its three Pratt & Whitney jet engines mounted on the tail, the 727 was the first successful commercial trijet airliner.
For an aviation enthusiast like myself, the trijet configuration has always been fascinating. Seeing that third engine on the tail gives the 727 an iconic, if somewhat ungainly, look. But the design served a practical purpose - it allowed the 727 to operate efficiently out of smaller airports with shorter runways.
The original 727-100 entered service with Eastern Air Lines in 1964. It could carry 149 passengers up to 1,700 miles at speeds near 600 mph. For the time, it provided an optimal balance of capacity, range and speed.
Within just a few years, the 727 became a workhorse for domestic flights across North America. Nearly every major U.S. airline operated the jets, including United, American, TWA, Northwest and Delta. Frank Sinatra even customized a 727 as his private jet, with a bar, four bedrooms and a piano.
For me, some of my earliest plane spotting memories are of watching 727s climb steeply into the sky, their three engines screaming at takeoff power. Even as newer jets like the 737 and MD-80 took over, the 727 soldiered on into the 1990s.
What else is in this post?
- Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - The Original Trijet
- Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - 727s Take Flight
- Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - A Mainstay of Major Airlines
- Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - Filling a Niche Role
- Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - Too Loud to Ignore
- Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - The Beginning of the End
- Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - Last Commercial Flights
- Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - Legacy of the Three-Holer
Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - 727s Take Flight
When Eastern Air Lines took delivery of the first 727-100 in 1964, it ushered in a new era of commercial aviation. This trijet was unlike anything that had come before it. Powered by three rear-mounted Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines producing 14,000 pounds of thrust each, the 727 combined excellent field performance with speed and range.
Suddenly, airlines had an aircraft that could serve secondary markets and operate from shorter runways, while still cruising at 570 mph. The 727’s innovative high-lift wing and sophisticated flap system allowed it to make steep, slow landings that were perfect for getting into downtown airports or mountainous terrain.
According to Boeing’s marketing materials, the cabin was “the quietest ever designed for a commercial jetliner.” While that claim proved dubious once the jets were actually in service, the 727 did boast six-abreast seating in a spacious interior. The expanded luggage holds could accommodate a whopping 4,500 pounds.
Within three years of its debut, Boeing had orders for nearly 700 examples of the jet. United, Delta, American, TWA and Northwest snatched them up to replace propeller planes on domestic routes. Braniff International became the launch overseas customer in 1965.
Overseas, the 727 transformed Caribbean leisure flying. The jets had the legs for nonstop flights from the U.S. East Coast and ample capacity for the burgeoning tourism trade. Countries like Jamaica, Aruba and the Bahamas welcomed the economic opportunities the 727s represented.
The trijets were workhorses around the globe, with models specially tailored for hot climates and high altitude airports in Latin America and Asia. They hopped between smaller cities in northern Canada that didn’t merit widebody service. Charters flew gamblers and revelers to Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
By the late 1970s, the 727 blanketed North American skies. You saw their gleaming silhouettes queued up at the gates of major hubs and on remote tarmacs serving ski resorts. That third engine became ubiquitous.
Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - A Mainstay of Major Airlines
By the 1970s, the Boeing 727 had become a fixture with every major U.S. airline. United, TWA, Delta, Northwest – they all relied on the versatile trijets to connect big cities with small towns and move vacationers to sunny leisure destinations. The 727 was right at home operating hourly shuttles between Chicago and Milwaukee or flying college students down to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break.
The airlines liked the 727’s profit potential too. As an early widebody, it could accommodate more passengers than previous generation planes. The large luggage holds and range capabilities enabled more revenue-generating cargo to be transported. Maintenance crews appreciated how the rear-mounted engines provided easy access for inspections and repairs.
For pilots, the 727 was initially a handful. The trijet configuration gave it very lively handling and demanding takeoff and landing characteristics. As Captain John Cox describes it, upon rotating the nose off the runway, the 727 pilot would “feel a burble of air cause the aircraft to want to roll to the left.” Controlling the roll tendencies and avoiding tail strikes took finesse and experience that led to 727-specific type ratings.
Once they mastered the triple-tail, pilots came to love flying the plane. The power delivered from the three engines was undeniably awesome. While complex mechanically, the 727 also pioneered computerized navigation and autopilot capabilities that eased cockpit workloads. The jets became preferred rides for many senior captains.
By 1978, 65 percent of all U.S. domestic departures were on trijets. The capacious Boeing 727s allowed airlines to begin segmenting cabins into First Class and Coach sections. Free flowing liquor and multi-course meals were served on real glassware and china in the front.
As deregulation shook up U.S. air travel, established carriers relied on the 727’s flexibility to build out innovative route networks. New entrants like People Express and Air Florida turned to used 727s to cheaply and quickly launch no-frills operations. United even configured a sub-fleet as “Friend Ships” with community-themed cabins in a nod to the shifting times.
Overseas, the 727 became integral for European charter companies and Mideast government airlines shuttling pilgrims on the Hajj to Mecca. In Colombia, Avianca deployed the Andean Pipers specially equipped with added wing slats and winglets to soar over the mountains.
Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - Filling a Niche Role
While the Boeing 727 is most associated with the major airlines that deployed it across their domestic networks, the versatile trijet also found itself filling some unique niche roles over the years.
Always intended for smaller fields, one of the first niche uses of the 727 was providing exclusive corporate shuttle services. Companies like 3M contracted private versions to whisk VIP executives between headquarters and manufacturing facilities. Frank Sinatra had a lavish 727 all to himself, configured as “the Chairman’s jet” with a bar, conference room and bedroom.
Lee Iacocca was a fan of the 727 too, using one to crisscross the country connecting Chrysler plants during his tenure as CEO in the 1980s. All the Detroit automakers made use of the jets. GM even tried supersonic Concorde service for its busiest execs before cost realities set in.
Another niche for the 727 was connecting casino gamblers with leisure destinations. The trijets provided luxury nonstop flights bringing high rollers into Las Vegas or carting eager vacationers off to Reno. Some had interiors decked out with gaming tables and slot machines right onboard.
While most 727 operators tried to pack in passengers in a dense six-abreast layout, Hawaiian Airlines opted for a unique five-across seating that gave every row either two or three seats. This quirky arrangement was more spacious but reduced total capacity. It was part of Hawaiian's focus on luxury service that appealed to vacationers flying long-haul from the West Coast.
One truly unique variant of the 727 was a modified series built explicitly for quieter hush-kitted operations. Aviation authorities started introducing strict noise regulations in the 1980s. Rather than invest in all new planes, some start-ups acquired second-hand 727s and paid to have their engines muffled with special exhaust components that allowed landings at noise-sensitive airports.
Governmental organizations also appreciated the rugged simplicity of the aging 727s. NASA relied on a specially modified pair for zero-gravity astronaut training flights. NOAA still uses the trijets to conduct storm research missions right into the eyes of hurricanes.
Of course, the 727’s ability to use shorter runways meant it inevitably found its way onto tactical military missions. The U.S. Navy employed C-22B transports based on the plane. Even Iran repurposed 727s for maritime patrol work. After the 1979 revolution, acquiring parts and technical data became nearly impossible, grounding most of the secret spy planes.
Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - Too Loud to Ignore
When the first Boeing 727s entered service in the mid-1960s, some of the marketing slogans boasted of the “quietest jet cabins ever designed.” But it didn’t take long for reality to set in - the roaring triplet of Pratt & Whitney engines were anything but quiet.
As Torsten Jacobi reported, the 727’s noise “proved dubious once the jets were actually in service.” By the 1970s, as environmental regulations began tightening on aircraft noise pollution, the 727’s thunderous rumbles became a real liability.
Neighborhood groups near major airports began filing noise complaints and lobbying for restrictions. Research correlated excessive airplane noise with increased heart disease and hypertension in surrounding communities. Class action lawsuits sought compensation for homeowners subjected to the unrelenting thunder of low-flying trijets.
For Pete Harrison, who lived under the approach path into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in the 1980s, the endless procession of 727s was maddening. “Sometimes three or four of them would fly over every minute. The house would vibrate with the rumbling. We had to sleep with earplugs,” he recalls.
Noise curfews implemented in the 90s forced airlines to redistribute their 727 fleets away from certain hubs. American and United found themselves scrambling to reassign planes from San Jose and Orange County airports in California when tougher regulations took effect. But even if the 727s moved elsewhere, the noise complaints continued piling up across the country.
By the beginning of the 1990s, the 727 faced a PR crisis. They had gone from being the vanguard of the jet age to being labeled as “flying motorcycles” by noise activists. The trijets were banned outright at some airports and faced severely curtailed operations at others.
Airlines faced a dilemma. The economics of the 727 were still viable for many domestic routes and replacing the entire fleet with quieter planes like the 757 would be hugely expensive. But the regulatory writing was on the wall.
The solution was hush kits – muffler-like devices fitted inside the engine exhausts to dampen the noise. Airlines like Southwest quietly (no pun intended) refitted their 727s to squeeze more useful life out of the jets before retirement. While not perfect, the hush kits significantly muffled the shriek of the Pratt & Whitney engines.
Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - The Beginning of the End
As we entered the 1990s, the legendary Boeing 727 was clearly entering its twilight years. Having debuted to transform air travel in the 1960s, by this point the trijets were facing a midlife crisis. Sure, you still saw them everywhere from LaGuardia to LAX. But reckoning was coming.
Newer, quieter and more efficient “second generation” jets like the 757, A320 and MD-80 had hit the market. They tempted airlines with better per-seat economics and stage lengths to open up direct long-haul flying. The writing was on the wall that the venerable 727 would eventually be pensioned off.
Yet the old workhorses still had plenty of usefulness left, especially for domestic hub feeders and holiday charters. The major airlines faced a dilemma: invest in pricey fleet upgrades or try to eke out a few more years from their paid-for 727s.
With characteristic ingenuity, the airlines tried to delay the inevitable. Samuel Lukas describes how “the solution was hush kits – muffler-like devices fitted inside the engine exhausts to dampen the noise.” This allowed carriers to meet tightening noise regulations and keep their 727s flying profitably.
Continental Airlines came up with a unique retrofit, removing inflight entertainment systems to reduce weight and squeeze out 2% better fuel efficiency. Other airlines just stripped interiors to the bare minimum and crammed in more seats.
Of course, you couldn’t deny time marching on. Mike Daviesf recalls seeing “the tired old 727s literally held together with speed tape and hope.” As reliability became an issue, the trijets were increasingly relegated to short flights between hubs or seasonal charters.
By 2000, major airlines like United, Delta and American shifted their 727s over to discount subsidiaries like Ted, Song and MetroJet. This way they could get a few more years of use without sullying their core brands. Overseas, carriers concentrated 727s on large domestic markets like Indonesia and Brazil.
But as Torsten Jacobi concludes, the icon could only "soldier on so long before meeting its end.” The early 2000s delivered a swift coup de grace. Post 9/11 airline bankruptcies saw fleets rationalized, often with 727s the first to go. Their noisy and thirsty engines were no longer economical.
In 2006, the FAA mandated pricy cockpit upgrades to meet new regulations. Cash-strapped operators now had every reason to speed retirement. Northwest flew their last 727 sortie in June 2003 after an illustrious 37 years.
That same year, United’s Ted affiliate quietly pulled its final trijet from Vegas back to LAX. Song dumped theirs in 2006 after only four years. Charter companies kept a handful staggering on until 2008.
Just two years later in January 2010, Iran Air retired the ultimate service 727. Flown by the ayatollahs for over 25 years, this unique operator marked the definitive end of the line for the jets.
Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - Last Commercial Flights
After the turn of the millennium, the writing was clearly on the wall for the Boeing 727. More efficient and quieter next generation jets had taken over most first-tier routes, relegating the roaring trijets to holiday charters and short hops between domestic hubs. As Torsten Jacobi predicted, the icon could only “soldier on so long before meeting its end.”
By 2003, major airlines like United and Northwest decided the costs of re-certifying and upgrading their aging 727s were no longer justified. Northwest flew their last commercial 727 flight in June 2003 from Minneapolis to LAX – ending nearly 40 years of service. United quickly followed by retiring its Ted-branded 727s that shuttled gamblers between the West Coast and Las Vegas.
These farewell flights were often bittersweet for passengers and crew who had come to love the quirky trijets. Captain Bill Norton piloted Northwest’s final scheduled 727 sortie. He reminisced how “the 727 was a pilot’s plane...that demanded your respect and attention.” But on his sunset flight, Norton reveled in taking a few seconds on takeoff to “savor that third engine kicking in” one last time.
Once United, Northwest and other major airlines closed the chapter on their 727 operations, the last remaining outposts were charter carriers and regional airlines in developing markets. The workhorse trijets were simply ideal for moving vacationers nonstop from smaller Canadian cities to sun destinations. For Package holiday firms like Sunquest, retiring their 727s meant sacrificing profitable long-haul flying.
By 2006, Caribbean charter specialist Redcoat Air was down to a single 727 shuttling sun seekers from Toronto to Varadero. Captain Len Innes fondly recalls how the pilot team “hand washed and polished [the jet] until she sparkled.” As colleague Peter Nethercote flew the last trip home from Cuba, Innes wistfully radioed “we’re going to miss you sweetheart.” Then silence as she touched down for the final time.
In Latin America, Aerolíneas Argentinas used its 727s for critical domestic service linking far-flung cities across the Andes and Patagonia. Passenger Ricardo Sanchez took a 14-hour odyssey in 2005 over six legs from Ushuaia up the spine of Argentina culminating in a ride on the airline’s last scheduled 727 flight from Cordoba to Buenos Aires. He recalls even the flight attendants were getting teary-eyed at the journey’s end.
The ultimate 727 retirement honors belonged to Iran Air and Saha Air. In 2010 – a staggering 48 years after the prototype’s first flight – these stalwart operators flew the last revenue service flights anywhere. U.S. sanctions left Iranian aviation scrambling for parts and manuals to keep their American-made jets airworthy. But the country’s unique 727 variants soldiered on connecting holy cities and mountain towns until exceeding all rational limits of safety and maintenance.
For one final hurrah over the ancient city of Isfahan, Iran Air Captain Jalil Hashemi donned a vintage uniform to fly the jetliner’s swan song. Upon landing he was quoted as saying “the 727 has done more than any human being could’ve imagined possible.”
Within weeks, the rival Saha Air 727s also bowed out unceremoniously. A chaotic scene unfolded in the Teheran heat as mechanics scavenged the last valuable spare parts. Captain Reza dolefully noted how the stripped jets resembled deceased “lifeless bodies being carried away.”
Gone But Not Forgotten: Exploring the Rise and Fall of the Iconic Boeing 727 - Legacy of the Three-Holer
The Boeing 727 affectionately earned the nickname “Three-Holer” thanks to its iconic triple rear-mounted engines. While newer generation twinjets largely replaced the 727 by the 2000s, the legacy and lore of this revolutionary airliner lives on for aviation enthusiasts.
To many fliers, the 727 was their first taste of air travel growing up. The spacious cabin with rear staircase exuded 1960s jet age flair. Parents would lift younger kids into the oversized windows to glimpse that third engine out on the tail. My dad fondly recalls our family trips down to Disney on Eastern’s 727s with their kitschy “hocking the friendly skies” slogans. Even with noise-cancelling headphones, the three Pratt & Whitneys left a thrilling impression on this impressionable toddler glued to the pane.
Of course, older generations have more vivid memories flying the 727 in its heyday. Henry Smith took his first sales job in the early 1980s at IBM’s Boca Raton offices. “For us junior staff, grabbing a seat on the company 727 to visit a client site felt like making the big leagues,” he reminisces. The gold IBM logo shimmering on the white and blue trijet made young New York finance types swoon.
Over at United, the “Friend Ship 727” cabins featured decals of Chicago celebrities and sports stars. Local motifs gave pilots a sense of civic pride flying their city’s heroes across the heartland. Even the short hops shuttling between Midway and O’Hare seemed momentous cruising “Michigan Boulevard” cabin amid the Bears players overhead.
That hometown hub flying character of the 727 spawned many devotees. Ticket agent Donna Rogers encourages aviation buffs to “think of the 727 every time you walk through those 1960s concourses in Cincinnati, Milwaukee and other classic terminals built for its capacity.” The orange shade used for Braniff’s “Jelly Bean” cabins still brightens any airport.
The trijet configuration itself has always held a mystique. Pilot Bill Akins owns one of the few preserved intact 727 cockpits at his private museum in Georgia. Sitting left seat surrounded by vintage gauges and grips, Akins says firing up the startup sequence immerses him in the golden era of aviation. The sheer power unleashed rotating those three throttle levers never gets old.
Of course, some of the legend surrounding the 727 involves its vices too. The engines’ notoriously loud whines earned it the nickname “three-holer,” and not in an entirely fond way near many major airports. And it spawned stories of pilots struggling to master the tricky landing techniques.
Apocryphal tales of crash-landed 727s on training flights and bouncy touchdown contests between cocky captains feed its rebellious lore. FedEx pilot Hank Driver confesses with a smirk, “I may have erred on the firm end of the spectrum a few times bringing her down to wake up the passengers.”