The Spotter's Guide to the Boeing 727

The 727 is one of the most successful commercial aircraft in aviation history. Well over 1700 were produced between 1963 and 1984. As of November 1995, the majority of those produced are still used in regular commercial service.


During the late 1950's, Boeing commenced a number of design studies to examine the possibility of a medium-to-short-range jetliner that would complement its soon-to-be-introduced 707 jet. While the 707 was an aircraft primarily designed for longer-range flights, between 2,000 and 4,000 miles, the 727's mission would be targeted at shorter range routes, mostly between 500 and 2,000 miles.

Boeing also wanted to take a larger share of the short-haul aircraft orders that in the mid-to-late 1950's appeared to be going only to turboprop aircraft such as the Lockheed Electra, Vickers Vanguard (a larger version of the smaller but better-known Viscount), and the Fokker F-27 Friendship.

Also of concern to Boeing was an effort by Convair (General Dynamics of San Diego) to market a four-engine jet aircraft called the Convair 22 (later called the Convair 880), quite similar in configuration to the 707 but with a smaller capacity and shorter range. Naturally, Boeing's archrival Douglas was also toying with varous short-haul jet designs of its own, as was Hawker Siddeley of Great Britain, which had announced plans for its short-haul ``Trident'' jet.

Before the 727 design was finalized, in order to meet the threats posed by its competitors, Boeing created a smaller derivative of the 707 called the 720. (The 720 is discussed in another section.) Strategically speaking, the 720 was produced as a preemptive strike against Convair and others until the 727 was ready for production. As things turned out, however, the 720 developed its own market niche distinct from that of the 727.

By 1960 Boeing had firmed up the basic design characteristics of the 727. It would be a three-engine jet, with two engines mounted on each side of the fuselage and a center engine buried in a ``T Tail'' stabilizer, which some say was ``borrowed'' (or stolen) from the British Trident design. The idea of rear-mounted engines also was not unique to Boeing, as the French-built Caravelle twin jet had already employed this concept, albeit with a different tail design. In fact, the Caravelle had already been in scheduled service for one year before the 727's design was finalized. Particularly alarming to Boeing was that United Airlines had ordered 20 Caravelles for delivery starting in 1961.

A highly advanced wing was designed to enable the 727 to operate at airports with short runways that previously could only be served by either propeller or turbo-prop aircraft. New were full length ``leading edge'' and triple slotted flaps. Also new (for Boeing) was a rear ``ventral'' stairway located below the tail, also similar to that of the Caravelle. Powerplants would be a variation of Pratt & Whitney's new JT8D fan jets, which were just being offered on its latest 707 models. The front landing gear configuration was very similar to the 707's. The main gear was a twin tire set-up on each wing.

From a plane spotter's perspective, the other unique attribute of the 727 was its sharing of cockpit and cabin width dimensions with the 707. Most turboprop aircraft at the time had either five- or four-abreast seating. Boeing believed that if it could ``graft'' the basic six-abreast 707 cabin dimensions on to the 727, many 707 operators would be attracted to the commonality and higher passenger and cargo capacity.

The 727 represented Boeing's first attempt to produce a ``family'' of jet aircraft after the 707/720 series: an aircraft with a distinct mission yet with many features that were common from an operational perspective. Earlier Boeing designs for the 727 were more Caravelle-sized (70-90 passengers) but matured into configurations of from 94 to 130 passengers, depending on the class mix. Aircraft range also increased to 2200 miles, just short of transcontinental capability.

Eastern Airlines was first to order the 727 in 1960, followed shortly by United, TWA, Lufthansa, and American. The great success of its 707 series aircraft resulted in many 707 carriers ordering 727's,and between 1960 and 1962 Boeing received orders from over 50 carriers, all before the prototype had flown.

The -100 Series

The prototype first flew in the fall of 1962. As with its Boeing 707 aircraft, the initial design was designated the -100 series, and also received airline "sub designator" number assignments: Eastern's were 727-125's, United's, 727-122's, American's, 727-123's, etc. The prototype aircraft was used by Boeing on an extensive world sales tour in late 1962 and this resulted in even more sales.


108 ft.

-100 series: 133 ft.
-200 series: 153 ft.

Maximum Takeoff Weight:
142,000 lb.

Cruising Speed:
570 mph

2,000-2,200 miles

Engine Thrust:
14,000 lbs (3)

Eastern flew the first revenue 727 service in February 1964 between Boston and Miami, and utilized it primarily on Northeast-Florida routes as additional aircraft were delivered. United, TWA, and American followed shortly thereafter, deploying their 727's coast-to-coast mainly through midwest hubs such as Chicago, Denver, St. Louis, and Dallas. Arrival of the 727's greatly accelerated the retirement of propeller aircraft. In March 1964 Lufthansa began the first intra-European 727 flights from its Frankfurt hub.

As it had done on its 707 aircraft (in 1962), Boeing offered ``combination'' passenger/cargo versions of the the 727. While the combination model 707's were generally identified as ``C'' models, Boeing decided to call the 727's combination version QC, or ``Quick Change.'' Like the 707, a QC model was fitted with a large cargo door just aft of the main passenger entry door. (No pure freighter version was offered initially.) Unlike the 707, however, the 727 QC also came with specially designed floors which permitted rapid removal of seats for cargo loading. United was the first U.S. carrier to order QC models and they were delivered between 1965 and 1966.

The -200 Series

With airline traffic booming, Boeing received many requests for a larger-capacity 727 model. In 1965 Boeing offered the 727-200 series, with an increase in fuselage length of 20 feet and with seating up to 189 (all coach). Service and passenger door locations were changed as a result. Two service doors were added just ahead of the side mounted engines, one each side. The -100 mid-fuselage location of the right service door was moved forward to be across from the main passenger entry door, which stayed in the same location, as did the small double emergency doors located on both sides over the wings.

Aside from the increase in fuselage length, no other dimensions were changed. Also unchanged from initial version was engine thrust, despite the heavier weight. Since Boeing had equipped the -100 series with somewhat overpowered 14,000-lb. P & W JT8D fan jets, it was thought that the same engines would be adequate for the -200 model. Early operators of the -200 soon found that this was not the case. Pilots complained that power was ``marginal'' in certain conditions and generally sluggish most of the time. As a result, more powerful engines were offered shortly thereafter.

From a ``head on'' view, one physical attribute that allows spotters to quickly distinguish a 727-100 from a 727-200 is the shape of the number 2 (center tail mounted) engine inlet opening. On the 727-100, the opening of the engine has a slight oval shape (with a vertical bias), while on the 727-200 series the opening is a round symetrical shape and is about 6 inches higher (from the fuselage) than in the -100.

First flight of the -200 was in 1966, and revenue service began in late 1967 with Northeast. Other early operators of the -200 series included American, TWA, Eastern, and United. The -200 was also offered in the QC configuration, but still not as a pure freighter model.

By 1970 almost all 727 orders were for the -200 model, so Boeing decided to stop production of the shorter -100 series and focus on improving the -200.

-200A Series

The -200A model was offered to the airlines in the mid 1970's as an upgraded replacement to the -200. While externally identical to the -200, the -200 ``A'' (A for Advanced) model incorporated numerous avionics, powerplant and cabin improvements. First flight was in 1977. Most -200A's were delivered between 1977 and 1981.

-200F Series

727 sales started to decline in the late 1970's as fuel costs increased. Newer, larger-capacity Boeing 737 models that were more economical to fly (with only two engines and two pilots) began to cannibalize sales. An outgrowth of a larger 727 design proposal by Boeing eventually turned into the 757, which was launched in 1979. 727 production was planned to cease in 1982, but a last-minute reprieve was given by Federal Express.

In 1982, Boeing responded to a request from Federal Express for a pure freighter model of the 727. In fact, the 727-200F model was the last 727 version built of the 727 by Boeing between 1982 and 1984, when production ceased. Externally, the 727-200F is identical to the 200QC, except that there are no passenger windows, overwing emergency exits, or rear service doors. Federal Express was the only carrier to order the -200F, although by the mid 1990's, several had been sold to other express and freight organizations.

Plane Spotting

Large numbers of 727's (especially -200A's) are in service as of November 1995. American, United, Delta, and TWA continue to fly relatively large fleets in the U.S. However, the 727's days are numbered in the U.S. since it does not comply with stringent new noise regulations due to go into effect in the late 1990's. No major U.S. passenger carrier continues to operate the 727-100 (United retired the last active -100 in 1993). While some carriers (such as Federal Express and UPS) have elected to retrofit earlier 727's (UPS and Federal have a large number of second-hand -100s) with hushkits or new engines, the majority have elected to phase them out gradually during the next several years.

Many 727-100 aircraft are being scrapped, although a significant number wind up with third-world carriers as either freight or passengers models. Except for the earliest -200's, most -200's are finding homes as freighters and passenger carriers, both in the U.S. and abroad. Few -200's have been scrapped thus far.


Within each series, most 727-100's or 727-200's have very similar if not identical window and door configurations. There are some exceptions, however. On early non-advanced -200's, instead of the final configuration of having two windows appear behind the rear service door on the port side, some aircraft have three (many of these are in the United Airlines fleet). Those passengers who attempt to look out this window (generally rows 27 or 28 in coach) will find that their view is blocked by a JT8D engine, so perhaps that is why the window opening was eventually removed by Boeing.

Also on some early version -200's, an additional ``mid-sized'' exit door appears on the port side, located halfway between the main passenger entry door and the overwing emergency exits. Apparently this extra door was installed because of some Federal exit requirement for aircraft with high capacity all-coach seating, but for some reason it was not required later because almost all carriers that had 727-200's with this extra door sealed and plugged them within several years of the original service date.

A rare sighting is 727-100 with additional rear service doors installed in a position similar to that of a -200, that is, just forward of the rear engines. At least two Central American airlines which received second-hand -100's had these doors installed after delivery. I recall seeing these aircraft at Miami International in the late 1980's, and I must say they looked strange: it is akin to installing two extra doors on a Volkswagen Beetle without lengthening it. One can only guess why they were installed, but perhaps it was necessitated by the very high density all-coach seating that they reconfigured the aircraft with.