On brand-new wings

An airliner's first day on the job

February 1, 2012

Southwest Airlines' new 737

Photography by Chris Rose

The life of a legend

The Boeing 737 is sort of the Douglas DC–3 of modern times. Starting out as an airliner, the DC–3 soldiers on in commercial and private service more than 75 years later. The 737, while much younger, already has a long and storied history. Developed in 1965 and first delivered in 1967, it is the most produced jet airliner of all time, with 6,970 having flown away from the Seattle factory.

As the model heads toward its fiftieth birthday, production rates continue to accelerate. As of late 2011, the 737NG airplanes were emerging from the factory at the rate of 31.5 per month, but Boeing has a goal of reaching 35 per month in early 2012; 38 per month in the second quarter 2013; and 42 per month in the first half of 2014. At something around $60 million apiece—you do the math on whether the program has been a success for the legendary company.

Southwest Airlines in December 2011 placed the largest order in Boeing history when it signed up for 208 737s with a list price value of some $19 billion. The 737 MAX represents 150 of the orders. The order secures Southwest as the launch customer for the 737 MAX, a new variant powered by the CFM International LEAP-1B engine that promises reduced fuel burn and lower CO2 emissions. In all, Boeing has 900 737 MAX airplanes on order from 13 customers plus another 6,600 737NG orders in the pipeline. Even at 42 per month, that will keep the production line busy for years to come. —TBH

From the second-story window, I peer out at the pristine, new airplane gleaming on the ramp just below. A small tree and some shrubs frame the scene and the thought occurs to me that this is as close as that airplane will ever get to any vegetation—if all goes as planned. You see, this is a working airplane that, once turned loose from the delivery center, will spend the next couple of decades racking up hundreds of thousands of hours moving the likes of Aunt Millie and Uncle Fred from one miles-longstrip of pavement to another. And while, with any luck, all of those days will be plain and uneventful, this day is special. For today N967WN, a shiny new Boeing 737-700, leaves her Seattle, Washington, birthplace and begins a life of service that will have her crisscrossing North America and perhaps beyond for years to come. When I’m retirement age, this girl will still be at work.

Today, instead of a jetway and throngs of people waiting to board, tugs and fuel trucks scurrying around below, it’s just an airstair and the seven of us from the airline and AOPA Pilot on the ramp, staring up at the shiny purple, red, and orange paint scheme that shouts Southwest Airlines. Buying a $60 million airliner is a surprisingly low-key affair, at least if you’re Southwest buying it from Boeing. The two companies have been close partners for decades, with Southwest only flying 737s for most of its 40-year history.

A few documents are reviewed and signed during breakfast and then, in this case, Bert Seither—chief pilot for Southwest’s Baltimore-Washington International base—formally accepts the airplane and is handed the pink temporary registration form, just as if he were buying a Cessna 172.

Regarding that price, the negotiated price between Boeing and its airline customers is a closely held secret; even Seither says he doesn’t know what Southwest pays, but most agree that the price off the lot is around $60 million. Whitewalls extra. Among the documents Seither, a U.S. Naval Academy grad and former F–14 pilot, signs is one stating that he will not do any low flybys of the field. Apparently, some customers have in the past been known to make victory passes over Boeing Field on the way out of town. “I find it so hard to believe that pilots would do such a thing,” Seither deadpans as he signs the form.

Free to move about

Many airlines have elaborate procedures and multiple acceptance flights before taking delivery, but Southwest—Boeing’s largest customer—accepts the word of Boeing test pilots that the airplane is tiptop. In exchange for the trust and simplicity of the process, Boeing delivers each Southwest airplane with a full tank of gas. With 6,875 gallons on board, we are truly “free to move about the country.” Instead, we briefly consider absconding with the airplane to a beach in Mexico.

737 group With the pink temporary registration slip in hand, our fearless crew of pilots is ready to board the new airliner. How many pilots does it take to fly a new 737? All seven on this flight were pilots, including (left to right) the author, Diane Newton, David Newton, Bert Seither, and Chris Rodriquez. Missing from the photo are AOPA Live Executive Producer Warren Morningstar, also a pilot, and AOPA photographer Chris Rose, a student pilot.

Seither and today’s co-pilot, David Newton, a senior manager of Nextgen Airspace in Southwest’s Operations Coordination Center, at the company’s Dallas headquarters, do a thorough preflight of the new ship—or at least as thorough as you can when most of the airplane is untouchable because of its height. As we move around the towering airplane, Seither contrasts the 737-700, which is the first of the Next-Generation 737s, to the all-new 787 Dreamliner we had toured earlier in the day at Boeing Field and which we had seen under construction at Boeing’s factory at Paine Field the day before. The mostly composite 787 has complex aerodynamic shapes on the wings and the wing root, unusually scalloped engine nacelles to reduce noise, and relatively few fasteners. In fact, the 787 has some 1.2 million fewer fasteners than most other Boeing models. By contrast, the new mostly metal 737 seems small and, well, old in design. The wheel wells are pristine and tidy, but contain much more hardware, plumbing, and systems gear than the 787 wheel wells.

With the captain satisfied that all of the pieces his employer paid for were in the right places, we take a few requisite photos and climb the airstairs. I feel a bit like we’re in a space shuttle as a Boeing employee closes the door from the outside and the airstairs are backed away.

I stand in awe of a sight I’ve never seen before—a completely empty airliner cabin; 137 empty blue-and-tan seats that have filled the cabin with that new-leather smell. Usually my view at this point would be the back of some guy who is bumping down the aisle banging the knees of fellow passengers with his oversized carry-on bag. Meanwhile, other Southwest passengers already seated (having scored the coveted “A” boarding passes) are averting my eyes, hoping that I will bypass the empty seat next to them.

Short of magazines in the seatback pockets, the new cabin is completely configured by Boeing to Southwest’s standards—except for one thing, the coffee pots. Apparently Southwest has struck a better deal with a coffee pot company on its own, so those will be installed in Phoenix, our destination today and one of only two Southwest bases that accept new airplanes into the fleet. And the lavatories—let’s just say they will never look or smell this fresh again. Boeing supplies the TP and the Southwest-branded liquid soap. You get a lot for $60M.

Take your seat

737 instrument panel The spiffy new flight deck of the 737-700 includes an abundance of screens, head-up display, autoland capabilities, and autothrottles—all a far cry from the original 737 first delivered in 1967.

Today, I can sit anywhere I want—absolutely anywhere. At first I try out 16B, a middle seat, just for grins. On this flight, however, the middle seat is not the most uncomfortable one in the house. So while I could lounge in the aisle or window seat of my choice, I instead opt for the least comfortable seat onboard, the folding jumpseat behind Seither and Newton. While uncomfortable, it provides the best view and, for a pilot, is the place to be—short of the left seat, of course.

Tugged away from the delivery center, Seither and Newton start the big CFM 56-7B turbofans and we’re soon waddling down the taxiway. With no passengers or baggage aboard, we are well below the maximum takeoff weight of nearly 155,000 pounds. So it’s not surprising that the young airplane leaps off the runway and we rocket skyward like the space shuttle.

With no schedule to keep or connections to make, we take advantage of all that free fuel and head southwest toward Reno, Nevada, where we make a few practice RNP approaches. Newton has been the lead developer in the airline’s aggressive move toward flying these new types of approaches that have the potential to reduce fuel consumption, as well as noise and air pollution. Airplanes equipped with the “required navigation performance” gear can fly complex, curved approach paths that will also allow access to terrain challenged airports even in bad weather (see “Turbine Pilot: RNP Primer,” December 2009 AOPA Pilot). The procedures can be flown so precisely that the approach paths can snake through canyons leading to mountain airports, improving safety and access. Southwest’s newer 737s all have RNP gear and autothrottles that make flying the approaches a snap. We sit back and watch as the autopilot flies the RNAV (RNP) Y approach to Runway 16R at Reno/Tahoe International. The approach path arcs between mountains to deliver the airplane to 16R. I find it somehow unnerving to watch the thrust levers automatically moving fore and aft to keep the airplane precisely on airspeed throughout the procedure.

Bert Seither Bert Seither, chief pilot for Southwest Airlines' Baltimore-Washington International base, shows the author differences in how the Boeing 737-700 is constructed compared to the all-new 787 Dreamliner.

As we tool along farther to the southwest, I slide into the right seat for a little stick time. Although the span of one of the 737’s wings is significantly greater than the entire wingspan of my Bonanza, I am not surprised to find that the 737 flies like, well, an airplane. It is easy and pleasing to fly with nicely balanced control forces. Boeings have always had the reputation of being pilots’ airplanes and the 737 is a fine example of that. The 737NG airplanes offer a host of enhancements over the Classic 737s that date back to 1967, including glass cockpits, autothrottles, and automatic braking. But it’s surprising what they don’t have, including WAAS GPS (thus no ability to fly an LPV approach), satellite weather, or georeferenced digital en route and approach charts shown on panel-mount screens—things that are becoming routine in even light GA airplanes. While the all-new 787 does show digital approach plates and taxi diagrams on built-in screens, they are not georeferenced to enable the ship’s own position to be shown on the chart—a handy feature.

Reality check

Thomas HainesOur plans to escape to Mexico scrapped, all too soon Phoenix shows up on the horizon and we begin our descent into the busy airspace. Seither and Newton guide the big airplane onto the pavement and we taxi through the terminal maze to a back corner of the airport where Southwest has a maintenance facility. Before deplaning, I stop at the top of the stairs to pat the fuselage, the dazzling paint scheme hard to look at in the bright sunlight. Next door in the maintenance hangar, an older 737 with its slightly oxidized paint looks a little forlorn next to our prize.

No. 967, as she’ll be known in the Southwest fleet, was put into service a few days later, once the maintenance crews had loaded all of the airline-specific software and installed those coffee pots. Look for her when you’re out and about riding the airlines. Let her know I’ll be checking in on her regularly.

Email the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org; follow at Twitter.com/tomhaines29.

Six degrees of separation

Logan, Indiana Jones, and me

Logan DavisI’ve never met Logan Davis, but I have him to thank for the opportunity to be involved in the delivery of a brand-new Boeing 737 to Southwest Airlines. Everyone at Southwest and Boeing was amazingly friendly and helpful. All of the employees I’ve met at both companies seem to have a remarkable can-do attitude and a real respect for customers. Everywhere I turned at either company, I ran into AOPA members—active GA pilots, all of them. And while the trip was one of the more memorable ones of many memorable experiences that come with this job, I would be happy if this one had never materialized. You see, Logan’s life and mine only intersected because he is sick—really sick at times.

The 11-year-old son of Southwest Airlines pilot A.J. Davis, Logan has been struggling with Ewing sarcoma—a rare bone cancer—for several years. Round after round of chemotherapy has finally kept the disease at bay, at least for now, but the chemicals have also damaged his kidneys.

Like many boys his age, he has developed a fascination with larger-than-life characters and especially with Indiana Jones, the recurring character played by Harrison Ford in the film series by Steven Spielberg. In fact, I’m told that Logan can recite all of the lines from all of the movies. He’s a big fan.

If you’ve been following along for the past couple of years, you’ve noticed that Ford is an enthusiastic pilot and frequent supporter of AOPA causes. Knowing that, Southwest pilot Garrett Woolley contacted me to see if I could arrange for an autographed photograph to brighten Logan’s days. I contacted Ford and Logan was delighted to get his signed photo.

The series of phone calls and emails to arrange for the photo led me to get to know Bert Seither, chief pilot for Southwest at BWI. Here’s a guy who seems to treat his staff of pilots as if they were family. He and the 900 Southwest pilots at the BWI base, and the rest throughout the company, are heavily involved in supporting Logan and his family through this ordeal.

Through the friendship, Seither asks me if I would like to be involved in picking up a new 737. Of course, I hesitate about a nanosecond on that one. Making the arrangements took nearly a year and we invited Ford to go along, but unfortunately he couldn’t make it. While in Seattle for the delivery, Seither holds his phone up for me to see. There’s an image of a round-faced little boy grinning ear to ear as he holds a signed photo of Indiana Jones.

So, while I had a remarkable trip and I was blessed to get to know some really caring people at Southwest and Boeing, I’d trade it all for Logan not to ever see the inside of a hospital again. Feel better soon, little man. —TBH

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.