All photos taken by author unless otherwise noted.
The legendary 727. It’s an airplane that aviation enthusiasts love to see and hear, and one that pilots love to fly. It’s the only Boeing jetliner with three engines, so it really stands out amongst the others in the company’s famous “7-Series” family of commercial airplanes. I recently had the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the few remaining airworthy 727s, but before I dive into that, let’s take a quick look back at how the original “Baby Boeing” came to be.
In 1952, Boeing “bet the company” on the future of jets by investing $16 million of its own money on a prototype called the Model 367-80 or “Dash 80.” Yes, for all you history nuts, that’s the plane that Boeing’s flamboyant test pilot Tex Johnston famously barrel rolled (twice!) at Seattle’s 1955 Seafair. The Dash 80 prototype led to two production airplanes: the military KC-135 tanker and the commercial 707 – the latter became the world’s first successful commercial jet. Pan Am introduced the 707 in 1958, and two years later United Airlines introduced the 720 (not to be confused with the 727). The 720 was a 707 derivative designed for use on shorter runways and shorter routes – a stopgap between the larger 707 and whatever smaller jet would come next.
The Boeing Company’s 1958 Annual Report listed a handful of potential major programs for its Transport Division. Among them, a supersonic commercial aircraft, an airborne early-warning and control aircraft, and the Model 727. The Model 727 was a short-range transport to supplement the present Boeing “family” of jets, which already included the 707 Intercontinental, the 707 Jet Stratoliner and the Model 720. The 727 would find itself as the “baby” of the bunch. It was designed to compete with overseas jetliners like the Sud Aviation Caravelle, the British Aircraft Corp. BAC-111 and the de Havilland Trident. In fact, Boeing’s 727 would end up looking strikingly similar to the British Trident.
United expressed interest in the new jet in February 1960, and 10 months later, on Dec. 5, Boeing announced that the airline had placed an order for 40 of the new jetliners. Better yet, Eastern Airlines also put in an order for 40 of its own. The new airplane would be powered by three rear-mounted Pratt & Whitney JT8D turbofan engines, developed specifically for the 727. That engine would in and of itself become an aviation icon, known for its dependability, its power and (though annoying to some) its loud – almost ear piercing – roar (that’s why I say the 727 has a “whiney heinie!”). It became the most popular low bypass turbofan engine in history, with nearly 15,000 built.
Early estimates put the “break-even point” for the 727 at 200 airplanes. To help spur sales, the company sent the new jet on a world tour spanning 76,000 miles and covering 26 countries. Boeing originally planned to build 250 727s, but little did anyone know, the company would end up building nearly seven-and-a-half times that. In its 22-year production run, Boeing built 1,832 727s at its Renton, Washington, factory – nearly three times more than the combined total of Caravelles, BAC-111s and Tridents built in Europe.
The 727 was an airplane of many firsts, in addition to its record-breaking sales. It was the first Boeing jetliner to have completely powered flight controls, the first to utilize triple-slotted flaps and the first to have an auxiliary power unit or APU. Many of the smaller airports that the 727 was designed to serve didn’t have sufficient starting equipment. The APU, a small gas turbine in the right wheel well, could start up power requirements like the air conditioning while the airplane was sitting on the ground.
The 727 first flew on Feb. 9, 1963 and entered service the following year. Since then, it has flown with roughly 300 operators in a variety of roles. Today, more than 30 remain in service worldwide, mainly as freighters, though there are a few flying in transport roles for various military, government and VIP operators. Additionally, Raytheon operates one as a flying testbed, and then… there’s G-Force One. Arguably the most unique (and I’ll just say it, COOLEST!) 727 out there, Zero G’s 727-200 has been specially modified to fly parabolic arcs, which allows passengers to experience true weightlessness – just like an astronaut in outer space.
My parents met as flight attendants on Eastern Airlines in the early 1980s, and they frequently worked the 727. My mom loves that plane and often reminisces about the sound of the airplane’s flap sequence. As such, the 727 holds a very special place in my heart. Anytime I see that one is coming into Seattle, I don’t waste a second. It’s as though I snap my fingers and I’m out at the airfield, standing at attention with my camera around my neck.
Of course all 727s were created equal, but the Zero G plane is really something to see. It incites a particular excitement among aviation enthusiasts. And this plane itself has quite the history.
Line No. 1197, a 727-200, first flew April 8, 1976, and was delivered to Braniff International Airways two weeks later, wearing registration N442BN. Braniff traces its roots back nearly a century to 1926, and became well known for its unique, vibrant paint schemes. This particular jet (topmost in the below photo) was painted bright red with a gold belly, as was its sister ship N441BN (bottom). The middle plane, N443BN, was painted green, with an olive green belly.
As was the case with many airlines of the time, Braniff sadly fell prey to the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, suspending operations in 1982. A year later, the airplane was re-registered N567PE on delivery to its new operator, People Express Airlines. The low-cost airline had begun operations a year earlier and only existed through 1987, when it was merged into Continental Air Lines, which in turn assumed ownership of the plane.
Over the next decade, through various lease agreements, the 727 operated with Pan American World Airways, which flew it till they ceased operations in 1991 – and Delta Airlines, where it remained through 1993. The following year, it was converted to a freighter and fitted with a large main-deck cargo door for service with Amerijet International, where it was re-registered as N794AJ. In fact, the cargo door has proven quite useful to Zero G, as it allows for easier loading and unloading of scientific and educational experiments that are frequently brought on board.
Zero G began leasing the airplane in 2004, and purchased it outright in 2011, at which time Alaska’s Everts Air Cargo began operating it. Throughout its nearly 20 years in operation, the Zero G crew has hosted thousands of individuals, including many high-profile clients like renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and musical superstar Justin Bieber, among others.
The 727 also serves as a flying laboratory of sorts, providing a number of organizations and educational institutions the rare opportunity to perform experiments in a zero gravity environment. To date, these include everything from testing solar array deployment systems, to experimenting how to brew and pour beer in zero gravity. As someone who loves a good IPA, I can say the latter really piqued my interest.
You might be wondering why Zero G chose a relatively old airplane like the 727 to serve in this role. Well, when simulating zero gravity, the 727’s trio of rear-mounted engines gives it a unique advantage over today’s standard commercial jetliners which typically have two or four engines placed beneath the wings.
When performing the parabolic arc maneuvers, precision is key. The 727’s number two engine – the middle one mounted on top of the rear fuselage – is the perfect source of thrust to maintain precise balance while the airplane pitches up and down. In fact, during zero gravity flight, the numbers one and three engines on either side of the fuselage are set to idle, while the number two engine is set to provide a very specific amount of thrust. In doing this, the pilots are trying to avoid forward and aft drift that could cause passengers to all float toward the front or rear of the airplane. The flight crew can measure success by the way their zero gravity indicator – a yellow rubber duck – floats in the cockpit.
I saw that rubber duck when I toured the plane a couple weeks back… in fact, I noticed it right away. It stood out just as you’d expect a bright yellow “toy” to stand out among the dozens of gauges, knobs and levers in a 50-year-old cockpit. We had boarded the plane via the rear airstairs – one of the 727’s most notable features made famous by the 1971 D.B. Cooper skyjacking.
The cabin is unique. Toward the back there are several rows of typical airline seats, and in front of that… there’s just a whole lot of nothing. And I mean that. It’s empty, with bright white padding on the floor, walls and ceiling, and very few windows. It’s that nothingness, however, that makes this plane so special. The “float zone,” as it’s called, is divided into two sections, each of which can accommodate 14 people. That’s where passengers experience the magic of weightlessness. A Zero G flight lasts about an hour-and-a-half, and in that time the plane performs 15 parabolas, each one giving passengers about 30 seconds of weightlessness.
Flights aren’t cheap, but that’s to be expected when your only alternative is to actually go to outer space. The Zero G Experience starts at $8,200 per person and includes the flight itself, a flight suit and other swag, and photos and video of the experience. As someone who would much rather spend money on experiences as opposed to things, I can see why people are drawn to this.
Before heading out to the airplane for my tour, I was sitting in the lounge area of Modern Aviation as passengers were returning from their flight. They were excitedly talking about the experience… exclaiming how much fun it had been and asking one another if they had felt any motion sickness. The popping of champagne bottles and the hissing of just-opened cans of ginger ale echoed throughout the building.
It was fitting for me to hear them celebrating, because I too, was celebrating something.
This blog post marks my 100th since launching The Great Planes in 2017, and I couldn’t think of a more perfect topic to write about than my first time setting foot on an airworthy Boeing 727. The three-engine workhorse will always be my baby (Boeing) – gotta love 90s Mariah Carey! And I know countless other aviation enthusiasts show similar affection toward the 727. And even though I’d admittedly drop everything to see any one of the few that are left flying, I have to say… there’s just something special about G Force One.
I’m a frequent “golden age thinker,” meaning I often think things like, “I wish I could have lived in the 1960s.” I guess that’s why I get so much joy from being a historian. On the contrary, I’ve always been fascinated by outer space and oftentimes find myself pondering what else (and who else!) is out there, and daydreaming about what the future of space travel holds.
With that, I truly can’t think of an airplane that better encapsulates everything I love about this industry, than N794AJ. I am so proud to work for the company that built the 727 – a company that has long been a pioneer in aviation and in human space flight. And having lived in a number of different cities over the past decade, I consider myself extremely lucky to have finally made it to my forever home, Seattle, an aviation mecca that quite frequently sees unique birds such as this one.
I want to sincerely thank the Zero G team for their kindness and hospitality. I sure look forward to photographing G Force One next time it’s in town!