The Flying Pencil, Stick Insect or Atari Ferrari. Call it what you like, but from its first flight on February 19th 1982, the Boeing 757, which entered service with British Airways in Europe and Eastern Airlines in the US, defined and dominated a market. It had no rival, and has yet to be directly replaced. Let’s take a look at this unique aircraft.
In the late 1970’s, airlines came to Boeing asking for a replacement for their venerable 727’s. The 727 was a high performance, medium range, medium-sized trijet airliner, capable of carrying up to 150 passengers for its largest variant: the -200 Advanced. Airlines loved its ability to travel up to 2,500 miles and fly from small airports, thanks to its higher than average power-to-weight ratio.
Boeing offered an upgraded 727, but the airlines essentially dismissed it, demanding a brand new design, and only two engines to reduce operating and maintenance costs whilst retaining the ability to be able to operate from the smaller airports served by the 727. Boeing initially named the project ‘7N7’.
As development progressed, the scale of the aircraft grew from an initial 180 passenger design to that of a 220 passenger design. As it grew further from the 727 it was designed to replace, Boeing took the decision to integrate a lot of the 767’s technological advances into the now called 757, as the 767 was already under development.
The fusion of old and new
The top half of the fuselage for the 757 was borrowed from the 707, 727 and 737, which gave its cross section an ‘ovoid’ shape, the same as the 737, offering a slightly larger cargo area below the floor than the 707 it’s based on. The most crucial borrow from the 767 was the flight deck and systems. Using the same new flight deck, which utilised CRT displays to show the same information that would previously have required many analogue gauges, eliminated the role of the Flight Engineer, reducing the flight crew from 3 to 2.
This would also allow the two aircraft to utilise the same ‘type rating’, which means that it requires a single certification to fly both aircraft. Operations, such as checklist order, could be kept virtually the same. In order to pull this off, Boeing needed to fit the new, highly-computerised flight deck into the single-aisled fuselage. The result gave birth to the 757’s most unique design feature – the shape of its nose.
While pilots need to step up to enter the cockpit of the 767, they have to step down into the 757 to do the same. This is because the flight deck had to be much lower to fit it to the fuselage. Because Boeing can’t bolt on a wide body nose to a narrow body, the 757 gained its characteristic low and aggressive, yet graceful, nose. There were some unexpected benefits to the new design too – it was more aerodynamic than the 707/727/737 nose and proved to be a much quieter place to be when in flight.
Using American Airline’s old livery, we can clearly see how the cockpit is much lower than the 727. Notice how the blue cheat line on the 727 (left) meets the middle of the cockpit window, yet on the 757 it has to be angled down to meet the top of the window?
Now we turn to the exciting bit – getting a bigger, heavier aircraft to take off from the same short runway as the machine it replaces, using one less engine. Enter the Rolls-Royce RB-211. A high bypass turbofan jet engine originally designed to power the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, an aircraft of similar size to the much larger sister 767, but with an extra third engine in the tail. A giant engine for a narrow-body aircraft, it provided more than enough power for the 757’s requirements. In fact, the 757-200 with RB-211 engines has the highest power-to-weight ratio of any passenger jet currently in service.
To fit these giant engines to such a comparatively small aircraft meant that new longer and tougher landing gear was needed. Fans of the 757 comically describe it as having “slender long legs and two big… engines”. The extra power meant that it can cruise more efficiently, and the extra size means more room for fuel. As a result the 757 has a colossal range of just under 4,000 miles, nearly double that of the 727 it replaces. The extensive use of computerised systems and such power gave birth to its wonderful nickname ‘Atari Ferrari’.
All of these advances meant that the 757 was up to 80% more fuel efficient than the 727 it replaced.
Pratt and Whitney offered the PW2000 as an alternative power plant later into the development, but the engine provides less power than the original RB-211, and also looks significantly different. This VC-32 (United States Air Force VIP designation for the 757) uses the Pratt engine. It’s worth noting that it has also been retrofitted with winglets.
Getting more technical, there is also a visual difference between two variants of RB-211 that were offered in the early days of the 757. One more closely resembles the Pratt and Whitney engine, whereas the newer model is unique. The DHL 757 is an ex-British Airways airframe, converted to a freighter using the earlier RB-211-535C engine, and the British Airways ‘retrojet’ below uses the newer, more popular RB-211-535E4.
The latter is more fuel efficient than the earlier ‘C’ engine, but due to the longer casing it is also slightly heavier. That longer ‘tail’ to the ‘E4’ also means its slightly quieter than the ‘C’, but because of their differences in weight and thrust reverser they’re not interchangeable without also changing the pylon, so most ‘C’ engined 757’s still use the older engine.
Defining a market
The extra capacity and range of the 757 over its predecessor meant it could offer transatlantic routes whereas the 727 could not. This opened up the ability for airlines to operate long and thin routes like Newark (New Jersey) to Hamburg or Berlin, where demand is not enough to warrant the use of a wide-body. This market is known as ‘Middle of Market’ – right between the 737 and A320 narrow bodies, which are perfect for inter-European and domestic US routes, and the smallest wide body, the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, which directly replaced the 767.
The commonality of the 757 and 767 was very favourable to smaller charter airlines, such as TUI and Condor, as pilots can swap between the two, yet they serve two totally different markets.
The last 757 rolled off the production line in 2004 to Shanghai Airlines, and Boeing have teased at a ‘797’ replacement to be announced in the coming years. But until then, the ageing 757 will slowly be withdrawn from service and many are being converted to freighters. Of the 1,050 757’s made, there are approximately 600 still left flying in service today. As we wait for Boeing’s announcement, and the numbers dwindle, airlines will have to make do with the closest current offering in terms of size and range: The Airbus A321neo as Boeing’s 737 MAX 10 falls shorter on both.
Boeing 757-200 average performance figures
|Capacity (single class)||221|
|Cruise Speed||Mach 0.8|
|Maximum Speed||Mach 0.86|
|Engines||RB211-535E4 or PW2000|
|Maximum Take-Off Weight||115,660kg|