One of the first things any aviation enthusiast or pilot learns is how to tell one airplane from another. Usually, those of us aviation obsessed types pick this up as kids.
But a few frequent fliers, airline employees and maybe even some pilots may not be able to catch all the nuances that separate the various types of jets. We’ve broken down the differences between the various Boeings to make you a better spotter. So the next time you fly, see if you can spot the differences.
707: Let’s face it. If you see the 4-engine narrow body Boeing 707 flying around, it’s probably painted in Qantas colors and it’s owned by John Travolta. There aren’t many 707s still flying. There are, however, a number of military KC-135 tankers flying that supply fighters and transport aircraft with fuel. This airplane is a re-engined 707 that has been in use for decades.
The 707 is somewhat easy to confuse with the Douglas DC-8 that’s still widely in use by freight operators. But the DC-8 has two scoops on the nose that drive a turbo compressor which pressurizes the airplane. The 707 also had a long
pitot tube HF radio antenna mounted to the top of the vertical stabilizer.717: This is the oddball of the Boeing fleet. Inherited when Boeing purchased McDonnell Douglas, the 717 is essentially a re-engined MD-80. Unlike the MD-80, however, the 717 features a larger engine made by Rolls-Royce and the vertical stabilizer is squared off at the top, and especial toward back. Airtran (soon absorbed by Southwest) and Midwest are the two main operators of the 717 in the U.S. These are the only Boeings with two engines mounted at the rear.
727: This is an easy one. The T-tail and three engines mounted at the rear of the airplane give it away. The only other non-Russian tri-engined airplanes are widebodies that don’t have the horizontal stabilizer mounted on the top.
FedEx and other cargo operators such as Amerijet still operate the 727. There were two types of 727s made, the -100 and the -200, with the more rare and shorter -100 featuring a slightly oval shaped number two engine inlet.
737: Offered in the late ’60s as a more fuel efficient airplane than the 727 it is by far the most popular Boeing. This type has so many variants that we’ll use the engines, tail skids (or lack thereof) and over-wing exits to tell them all apart, starting with the…
737-100: Since only 30 -100s were built, and none are actually flying since 2005, we’ll go ahead and skip the slightly shorter 737 that was initially delivered to Lufthansa.
737-200: The easiest way to spot a 737-200 is to look at the engines. If they look like long and narrow tubes below the wing, then you know they’re the late ’60s to early ’80s 737 that many of us grew up with. They were also much louder on takeoff. Today a number of Central and South American countries still fly the 737-200. The airport in Caracas is filled with them, in fact.
737-300, -400 and -500: These 737s, now called the ‘classic’ at Boeing, were easy to spot from the -200. The engines are much larger, and in many ways similar to the ‘New Generation’ engines on the most recent 737s. The easiest way to tell them apart, however, is the flatter lower cowling on the classic 737s. The -500 is the shortest, followed by the -300 and then the -400, which seats enough passengers to require two over-wing exits like the -800 and -900 below.
737-600, -700, -800 and -900: The ‘next generation’ 737 as Boeing calls them, are the most popular 737s in the sky today. They’re much more fuel efficient than their predecessors, and most are now fitted with winglets that increase their efficiency a further 5%. Some of the classic 737s have also been retrofitted with winglets just to throw you off. In fact, the 737-500 can be fitted with winglets, but so far, the newer 737-600 which is the same length, can not.
737 Max: Boeing has recently announced the 737 “Max” which will follow the same shape as the -700 through the -900, with the name 737-9 “Max” used to differentiate these updated narrow-body Boeings. So far the only way I can tell them apart is with the engines which are differently shaped and include v-shaped cutouts at the trailing edge of the cowling called chevrons. But truthfully, we don’t know what the final look of the 737 Max will be. It’s scheduled to go into service in 2017.
747: With it’s bulging upper deck, the 747 is by far the easiest Boeing to spot. The -100 to -300s didn’t have winglets, while the newer two-pilot cockpit -400 has abrupt winglets at its tips. The new 747-8 has a completely new wing design that doesn’t need winglets to eek out maximum efficiency. It has the chevrons that are featured on the 737 max and the 787.
757: Some say it’s the prettiest Boeing, with it’s long legs and tall stance. The nose on the 757 was completely redesigned when compared to the more traditional 707, 727 and 737 front ends to reduce the drag and noise inside. In Boeing airliners, the pointier the nose, the noisier the cockpit. The blunt nose 767 is one of the quietest.
It’s sometimes easy to confuse the 757 for the 767, but if you look closely at the bottom of the aft fuselage, the 767-300 has a tail skid. The 757 and the short and stubby looking 767-200 don’t have this tail skid as they’re less prone to tail strikes on takeoff and landing.
767: The 767 is a widebody airplane that shares the same cockpit features and layout as the 757, which means that pilots can fly both airplanes, even switching between the two in the same day or same trip. On landing, the 767 wheel ‘trucks’ hang down, while the 757 trucks hang at an upward angle.
777: The quickest way to tell the 777 from the 767 or any other Boeing is to look at the tail ‘cone’ at the end of the fuselage. It’s flattened into a wedge which gives it a unique look. Taking a hint from some Russian airplanes, the main landing gear features three trucks of wheels compared to the two sets on the 757 and 767.
787: One look at the upward bending wing and swooping rudder on the 787 and you know it’s not like any other Boeing. The cockpit has gone from six to four large windows. And as mentioned before, the back side of the engine cowlings feature ‘chevrons.’
While this post wasn’t meant for the super spotter or seasoned pilot, it just might help people who are casual flyers pay attention to what model or type of Boeing they prefer to fly aboard.
Next week I’ll talk a little about how pilots of each of these Boeings have discovered their different personalities, both good and bad.
Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.