I've heard a lot of names for the 727.
Some have called it the "DC-3 of the Jet Age".
At my company we called it the "Jurassic Jet", "Slave Ship" (because it flew the toughest schedules), or "Whistling Sh$thouse" (because of the lavatory's proximity to the cockpit).
Call it whatever you want, I loved flying it.
I've always loved the 727. When I was a kid, if I was doodling a picture of a jet airliner (instead of paying attention in class) it probably looked like a 727. It just looks fast with those sharply swept wings and the way it sits nose-down on its wheels like a muscle car.
When I was older and flying as a passenger I liked them because they had a nice ride and an enviable safety record.
And when I finally got my chance to fly one (after six months of sitting sideways in them) I was thrilled.
First Officer on a 727 was about the best job in the airline business. The Engineer does all the work and the Captain has all the responsibility. All I had to do was drive the jet. And what a jet it was.
Time for a little history. After the success of the 707, several airlines wanted a smaller jet that could economically service smaller cities over shorter routes. United wanted enough performance to operate out of Denver. Eastern wanted to fly from LaGuardia, with its short runways, to Miami and from Miami to the Caribbean.
What they came up with was a design with engines in the tail, leaving the wing clean and allowing the use of high lift devices along the entire wing. Note that Boeing didn't invent this, the French and British were already doing it with the Caravelle and B.A.C. 111.
To this day most smaller jets use the tail-mounted engine configuration because the wing sits too low for pod-mounted engines.
Finally, the airlines wanted the plane to be self supporting for when it operated out of smaller airports with limited facilities. It was given an Auxiliary Power Unit (tucked into the wheel well) so it could self start and the characteristic rear air-stairs.
The end result was an aircraft capable of .90 mach and a range of 2700 miles yet able to operate out of a 4800 foot runway.
So how's it fly? This is the last of the old school airliners. You actually fly it, you don't program it. The cockpit has just the basics. Old fashioned "steam gauges" plus a fairly basic autopilot. Most of ours didn't even have GPS, so we were going from VOR to VOR just like the old days.
They can be a bit underpowered depending on which flavor of JT8D engine the plane is equipped with. If you're lucky enough to fly one of the re-engined "Super 27s" they're rocket ships.
Oh but they're fast! Climbing out at 250 knots below 10,000 the plane feels like it's "mushing" through the air. Once you lower the nose and start accelerating past 300 it "planes out" like a powerboat. It doesn't really come alive until you get some speed.
Top speed is .90 mach or .88 in the stretched 727-200s. Not much goes that fast anymore. A few business jets will but that's about it. A 757 maxes out around .84 and we mostly cruise around at .80 to save fuel.
Handling is superb. No other big jet I've flown has felt as crisp and responsive on the controls. It reminds me more of the T-38 than anything else.
The ride is Cadillac smooth. The high wing-loading dampens a lot of the smaller bumps.
I always felt safe in a 727. It's built like the proverbial tank. They threw in some extra metal just for good measure. As one instructor told me:
"These were built back when we were still afraid to fly"The flight controls were powered by dual hydraulic systems, one engine-driven and the other run by electric pumps. If all that failed, there were good old-fashioned cables and pulleys. Probably the last airliner to have manual reversion. Mr. Boeing doesn't like a single point of failure.
What's most amazing is the ability to slow from .90 mach down to 130 knots and land on a short runway. Even Boeing won't build a wing this complex any more. Both inboard and outboard ailerons, plus spoilers. Full width leading edge flaps and slats. It's an amazing piece of engineering.
The trick was to flare the plane and then ease off just a touch and "roll" the mains onto the runway. And whatever you do, don't pull the power until it's about ready to touch down or it will come down like a brick.
So what's not to like? Why aren't we still traveling across the country on these things?
Fuel prices mostly. A 727 burns roughly 10,000 pounds of fuel an hour. A 757 will carry the same payload for around 7,000 lbs/hr. A 737-800 or A320 will do it for even less. Plus you only have to pay for two pilots on those airplanes.
Upkeep is also expensive. Those round-dial gauges look simple but they're more like Swiss watches - with all the expense and complexity. Modern flat screen displays are a lot less expensive and there's not much to break.
Finally, they're just getting old. The last ones were built almost 30 years ago. Unlike military aircraft, airliners get flown a lot. A 30 year old airliner most likely has seen plenty of service. Some of our older 727-100s had so many leaks they would barely pressurize. At some point it's just cheaper to buy new.
I still love the 727. If I absolutely had to fly through some horrible weather it's the plane I would pick to get me through it.