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Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Technology ...

I heard a story on Bloomberg radio the other day about how Boeing is updating the design of its old 737 airplane. In addition, some airline just bought a bunch of them, sight unseen. (The airline is the Irish low-cost carrier RyanAir, and the new plane design is called the 737 MAX 200, a plane that won’t be ready to fly until 2017. RyanAir committed to 100 of them, with an option for 100 more.)

Hmmm, I find that interesting, given that the 737 has been around for quite a while now. Other planes that flew along side the 737 are now gone. So, being a person who admires survivors, I did a bit of research on the 737. Turns out that the plane first flew in 1967, and started carrying passengers regularly in 1968. By now it’s the best selling commercial airplane; a little over 8,000 of them were built (with more to come, obviously).

Boeing was actually late to the party with the 737; it was intended to fill the niche for a smaller, intermediate-range jet flying from shorter runways in smaller cities, a market that had already been opened up by the Douglas DC-9 and British Aircraft BAC-111. Both of those planes looked a bit like shrunk-down Boeing 727’s, with their engines attached at the rear of the plane body near the tail. The 737 was more like a regular 707 or DC-8, having its engines mounted beneath its swept-back side wings.

That configuration turned out to be “the future”; the 727 engine configuration was abandoned in favor of wing-mounted engines in all future commercial passenger aircraft (747, 757, 767, et al). Wings just turned out to be a better place for engines, I guess; recall how the DC-10 and L-1011 put engines in the tail (in addition to the wings), and were relatively short-lived. Both planes came and went, well within the life of the 737.

It makes me wonder, why does a particular engineering design sometimes turn out to be “just the thing”; why do some things remain useful far longer than one would expect. And why do some “hot designs” (such as the Supersonic Transport Plane of the mid-1960s, when the 737 was on the drawing board) turn out to be flops, or at best a curiosity.

I guess that humility is called for here; we really don’t see too far into the future when we plan out our futures. We actually design mostly for the problems and concerns of today, and even for yesterday. By the time a big project like the 737 gets off the ground, its initial concerns certainly have become “yesterday”. And yet, once is a while, a design just gets lucky and somehow remains relevant despite a fast changing world. Maybe it’s like that with people too, with our own lives. We design ourselves and our circumstances around what we imagine the future will be like. But our imagination is usually just an extension of the past and the present.

I guess the best we can do is to remain flexible and expect the unexpected, then try to adapt the best we can. And not get too upset when something we invest in turns out to be unnecessary or even wasteful or hurtful (and by the same token, avoid bragging when we do get away with something that later pays big dividends in our lives, whether financially, emotionally, egotistically, practically, whatever).

I haven’t been on an airplane in over 20 years now (and I’m not in any hurry to end that streak!), but back in the mid-1980s I had a job that involved some traveling. So I made a handful of trips on the 737. Most of those trips were quite boring and uneventful, nothing much to remember other than lots of beige plastic.

But I do recall one 737 trip because of an interesting landing. It was late October or early November, when cold weather is coming in and the winds get gusty. I was on a 737 making a landing approach just after sunset (not even sure where . . . may have been Newark International, where I usually flew out of and into, but can’t say for sure), and all was normal. We were about 10 seconds from touching the runway, when the plane started rocking to and frow along its axis (I think they call that “roll”, in aeronautical terms; there might have been a bit of sideways “yaw” thrown in too). Somehow the pilot or the airplane computer (or both) “caught” whatever was affecting the plane just in the nick of time (it seemed like a sudden and unexpected gust of wind to me) and we hit the runway nice and level and had a normal landing. Perhaps having engines spread out on the wings helps a little plane like the 737 to avoid rocking and helps pilots to get control back when a side-gust of wind hits, versus the engines-in-the-back design.

So, I’m glad to see the 737 is still flying, but . . . I’m also glad that people other than me are being flown by it! Especially when the seasons are changing (like they are just about to do as I write this). The 737 is an admirable little machine . . . and in more ways than one, it rocks!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:48 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I can’t say I know one plane from another; for that matter, I can’t say I know one car from another. Awful and ridiculous I know. But the only thing I require of transportation (including trains, bikes, scooters, etc.) is that if I am required to use one, I want it to start when I want it to take me some place, get me there; start again and get me back when I want to return. So I can’t really comment on the engineering aspects of the 737 that you mention.

    I have been in airplanes – not very often and not lately. Back in the late 1960s I took planes several times and in the 1980s once or twice. (I have no clue of what kind they were.) Most of my travels for almost 30 years were on trains – a three hour commute each day; oh, how I wanted those trains to start and get to my destination safely. (I know some individuals who worked several years in almost every state; they were constantly on planes; so perhaps my miniscule airline travel should be dismissed summarily.) That’s the extent of my airplane travels. I can speak of trains (and even cars) much more fluently and with greater authority. But airplanes are the topic here.

    Just as you remembered one plane trip for the landing, I also remember one plane trip for its landing. (What is it about landings that are so memorable? I guess the answer is easy – they tell all on the plane whether they are safe on the ground after being 5 or 6 miles high for who knows how long.) Just as we approached the landing and were literally a few feet from the ground, a massive rain storm of some kind hit. (Why the pilot(s) didn’t see this ahead, I’ll never know.) Suddenly, the engines were gunned and we rose again in the air. Presumably, the landing was aborted, one might say. What I remember most is the people in the plane. Absolutely everyone, without exception, became incredibly quiet; it was almost as if breathing itself had stopped. I suppose we all wondered what I was wondering: Are we going to crash? Or not?” We went around again and landed OK the 2nd time. I’ve often tho’t of that landing and the sudden and complete quiet of everyone on the plane. As I say, all I require of transportation is take me, get me back *safely*.

    I find your analogy to people and how they see life very interesting. I think you’ve got something there when you say we design our lives presuming that the future will be like what we have now when it almost always turns out incredibly different than anything one can imagine.

    As I look back on my own life that covers 80 years, I consider that I always looked to the future (which is getting shorter at this point for me). Yet, what I envisioned my life would be lasted for some “few” years, other parts of life lasted longer, some other parts still longer (with overlap of the parts). In the end none of it really turned out as I might have *planned* it. All that happened (so far) in my life somehow occurred / happened; and when I do have tho’t of what did happen, turns out that I’d never have guessed it in a million years. A great big, “Who knew?”

    I think that’s about the same analogy you make with the 737. And if I may refer back in some tangential way to previous posts, one might wonder if all of life is happenstance, willy-nilly (my mother always said she felt like a leaf blown by the wind).

    Life may be somewhat like the business with the 737. Then again (back to previous post discussions), does someone “else” plan it all out ahead of time *for us*? Sometimes I’ve tho’t it could be God. More times I lean toward thinking that it’s the consciousness that survives past life on this planet that plans our life out ahead of time, before people are born on this planet. I *do* doubt if we plan out it as we proceed thru life here. But when it comes to life, I always come back to “Who knew?” MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 11, 2014 @ 10:48 am

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