The Boeing 737 bows out
During the week following its last B737 scheduled service, ZK-NGI was used for a number of flights for airline staff, including this one offering an unusually clear view of Auckland and the inner Hauraki Gulf.
New Zealand’s early years of domestic commercial aviation grew from the piston engine to the new turboprops of the day, the Vickers Viscount from early 1959 and, two years later, the Fokker Friendship.
The next evolution to arrive on the domestic commercial scene ushered in the jet age. Leading the charge out of the United States was the Boeing 737, designed as a short-to-medium-range twin-jet airliner and derived from the manufacturer’s four-engine B707 and three-engine B727, using the same fuselage cross-section and some 60 percent of the B727’s structure and systems, including its Pratt & Whitney JT8D low-bypass turbofans.
The B737 has developed into a family of 10 passenger models with seating capacities ranging from 85 to 215, still in production as Boeing’s only narrow-body airliner with models -700, -800, and -900ER. A re-engined and redesigned version, the B737 MAX, is set to debut in 2017.
Out of a B737 production total of 8636 delivered as of mid-July, some 1033 of the -200/300/400/500 models are still in service, plus 5102 of the -600/700/800/900s.
Following the success of its other passenger jets, Boeing had been studying short-haul jet aircraft designs and wanted to produce something to supplement the B727 on short and thin routes. Its market research identified the need for a 50–60 seat airliner for routes of 80–1600km.
Preliminary design work began in May 1964, with first flight on 24 April 1967, well behind Douglas and British Aircraft Corporation whose short-haul airliners were already in service. The B737’s fuselage, however, permitted six-abreast seating compared to the five-abreast layout of the rival DC-9 and BAC-111—and it has outlasted both of those.
The B737-100 started airline operations in February 1968 with Lufthansa, and the slightly lengthened B737-200 entered service two months later with United Airlines. Through the 1980s Boeing launched the -300, -400, and -500 models, subsequently referred to as the Boeing 737 Classic series with added capacity and incorporating the new high-bypass CFM56 turbofans along with wing improvements. In the 1990s Boeing introduced the B737 Next Generation with four models (-600, -700, -800, and -900) incorporating multiple changes including a redesigned wing, upgraded cockpit and new interior.
The nacelles containing the original Pratt & Whitney JT8D low-bypass ratio turbofans were mounted directly to the underside of the wings to reduce the landing gear length and keep the engines low to the ground for easy line inspection and servicing. That also allowed the horizontal stabiliser to be mounted on the fuselage.
Original assembly of the B737 was adjacent to Boeing Field (now officially named King County International Airport) because the factory at Renton was filled to capacity with the building of the B707 and B727. After 271 aircraft were built, however, production moved to Renton in the late 1970s. A significant portion of fuselage assembly now occurs in Wichita, Kansas, previously by Boeing but now by Spirit Aerosystems.
Lufthansa was the only significant customer to purchase the B737-100, with only 30 aircraft being produced. Three of those former Lufthansa B737-130s were later operated by Ansett New Zealand in its start-up days back in 1987, as ZK-NEA, NEB and NEC. All returned to the USA in 1990 and a further B737-112, ZK-NED, also saw service with Ansett NZ.
The original B737-200 series received many upgrades, including improvements to the thrust reversal system, drag reduction with longer nacelle/wing fairings and improving the airflow over the flaps and slats as well as to the flap system. All these changes gave the aircraft a boost in payload and range, and improved short-field performance came from the more powerful P&W JT8D-15 engine.
Within months of the successful Boeing 737-100 first flight, NZ National Airways Corporation ordered three B737-200 series aircraft, a move that was severely criticised at the time as not buying British. Why buy an unproven type when there were such excellent British jet airliners as the BAC One-Eleven and de Havilland Comet 4B, and even the French Sud Aviation Caravelle?
But nearly 50 years of history and experience have vindicated that decision, made in the face of determined public and political opposition. The B737 has proved itself to be one of the best designed and hardy aircraft ever built, a totally accident-free airliner on the New Zealand scene, a country of high rugged mountains and severe weather.
The third B737-200 off the production line headed to New Zealand as ZK-NAC, c/n 19929, handed over to NAC on 30 August 1968. After weeks of pilot training it departed Boeing Field on 16 September 1968 for Wellington via Los Angeles, Honolulu and Nadi, arriving on 18 September after 17hr 22min flight time, under the command of Capts Allan Kenning and Peter Buck, along with Capt J. Davey of Boeing and engineer J. Lukins.
ZK-NAC made landfall at Poverty Bay and made a low and slow pass over Gisborne City, reflecting Captain Cook’s first New Zealand landfall on 8 October 1769, and continued to Christchurch later in the day.
But a persistent rumour suggests that New Zealand’s first B737 was nearly lost over the Pacific. The main deck ferry fuel bladders were insufficiently restrained, and as they were being drained on the first leg to Honolulu the fuel started to slop and the aircraft became hard to control. ZK-NAC was nursed back to Los Angles and the problem was sorted out.
ZK-NAD was delivered to NAC on 11 September 1968 and ZK-NAE on 5 October. The first B737-200 New Zealand service took place with ZK-NAC on 7 October 1968 from Christchurch to Wellington and Auckland as flight NZ440 after a Vickers Viscount disruption, but the first scheduled commercial flight was on 14 October 1968 with an early southbound flight from Auckland to Wellington and on to Christchurch and Dunedin as NZ421, using ZK-NAD. ZK-NAC operated the first northbound service on the same day.
In February 1971 the NZ Cabinet approved the purchase of a fourth Boeing 737, and on 22 July 1971 ZK-NAJ was delivered from Boeing, having been operated a short time with Aloha Airlines. ZK-NAK followed, purchased from PSA in September 1973, the start of the very large number of B737-200A (Advanced) aircraft passing through the fleet.
The fleet introduced the jet age to many provincial airports including Napier, Invercargill, Palmerston North, Rotorua and Queenstown, plus several more locations on charter work. That was followed by services into the Pacific Islands and early trans-Tasman days as business class was also added.
Many B737-200s passed through the fleet during their time, and one interesting modification was added to the B737-200As—the Nordam Hushkit to reduce some of the noise pollution of the JT8D engines. Seven kits were initially ordered and the first conversion was completed on ZK-NAY, having its first flight on 23 September 1992. A total of 10 kits was finally ordered.
With the Airbus A320 on the market and also the Hawker Siddeley HS.146 an available option for many airlines, Boeing advanced the B737 to the B737-300, replacing the -200. The first B737-300 was flown on 24 February 1984, powered by the new high-bypass CFM56-3 engines and with an upgraded digital flight deck. The -300 was certified in November 1984 and Boeing made the first deliveries to Southwest Airlines the following month. This family grew to the larger -400 and the smaller -500.
Air NZ, having been merged with NZNAC in 1978 and absorbing the fleet, moved to the B737-300 as a replacement and its first, ZK-NGA, was delivered in February 1998 and made its first scheduled flight the following month. This new type then saw the B737 becoming a regular aircraft operating on the Tasman.
As the B737-300 fleet grew, the -200 fleet was reduced, with ZK-NAB operating the last service on 17 December 2001 from Auckland to Christchurch. A rather different B737-200 with Air NZ was ZK-NQC from 1982, a quick change aircraft with a main deck cargo door and removable seats on pallets. This went to Air Post in January 2001 and finally departed overseas in June 2012.
The final change in operating the B737-300 in the Air NZ fleet started on 4 July 2002 with the announcement of the acquisition of a fleet of 15 Airbus A320s for short-haul international operations. As the A320s have grown, with some 26 currently in the fleet and still more on order, so have the B737-300 numbers reduced.
The B737-300 has seen many Air NZ developments, including the airline’s RNP procedures. Qantas pioneered procedures for Queenstown and Air NZ developed this further for its requirements. The B737-300 moved RNP on to further certification and refined procedures, leading to the A320 operations.
The airline’s second to last B737-300 in commercial operations, ZK-NGJ, was withdrawn from service on 10 August 2015 after an Auckland–Christchurch flight as NZ539. The 1113th B737-300 built and the last of that model off the Boeing production line, it arrived in Christchurch on 19 December 1999 and entered service on 6 January 2000. It is now in open storage at Christchurch awaiting confirmation of its sale.
The very last B737-300 operating in Air NZ’s teal green colour scheme, ZK-NGI, was retired on 6 September. ZK-NGI had its first flight on 3 November 1999 and was delivered to Air NZ on 20 November, arriving into Christchurch two days later from Seattle via Honolulu and Apia.
Capt Darryl Stringer and F/O Angus Black flew its last commercial service, from Auckland to Christchurch as NZ557, with some half of the 125 passengers being followers of the type as well as former staff members and current fans who wanted to be on the last flight.
Crewing the cabin were Deborah Gardner, Gary Buchan, Shannon McClintock and Janice Rodhouse, offering special treats including decorated cupcakes and French champagne to toast the last flight.
To start the late afternoon sequence I had the opportunity to be part of NZ532 on the second to last sector of ZK-NGI’s commercial operation. Up front was 25-year B737 veteran, Capt Nigel McGiven, with F/O Andrew McKeen, and I was able to follow the flight in the jump seat. Earlier in the day ZK-NGI had been earning its keep, operating from Auckland to Wellington on four sectors and then Auckland to Christchurch.
On board were 135 passengers and five crew members. It was very nostalgic listening as the ground crew said their final goodbyes to the old girl, then the ground communications were unplugged and the B737 taxied out, on to runway 02 rolling under the power of its two CFM56 turbofans, heading south and then into a right turn passing 2500ft and a climb to 35,000ft, heading north with Nigel hands-on for his final sector. John will move on to become a B777 F/O.
With a stiff tailwind we cruised at 0.75M and 452kt. Into the descent with 110nm on the DME to run, 57min after takeoff, we arrived from the east for Auckland’s runway 23L with ZK-NGI approaching for the (almost) last B737 commercial service for the national carrier. It was now a crew change and a 35min turnaround for the very final flight.
The airliner was also due to complete a small regional tour to Invercargill, Napier and Tauranga, plus a series of staff flights later the following week out of Auckland.
The evening now saw a fire tender watery farewell out of Auckland, and we were once again on our way for the very last domestic flight. As we climbed into the evening sky, sitting in row 8F I was able to see a great orange and red sunset out in the western sky as we were now flying into this aircraft’s sunset.
I reflected on my own very first commercial flights from New Plymouth to Invercargill, and a flight in the original B737 back in January 1972 on the Wellington–Christchurch sector in NZNAC’s red livery. This was now the end of a highly successful Boeing series for Air NZ, but the B737 family with three new B737 MAX family models carries on with first deliveries in 2017. Already Boeing has some 2725 orders for this airliner, powered by the new CFM International LEAP-1B engines.
The B737 can still be seen in New Zealand skies, with many airlines operating the newer models and freight operations around New Zealand. But the curtain has now come down on the B737 with Air New Zealand, a great period of aviation history for New Zealand.
(Thanks to Air New Zealand and all the B737 fans for help in making this story.)
- Report by Peter Clark, photographs by John King and Andrew Underwood.
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