Most airline geeks know that the 737-700 was the first of Boeing’s Next Generation (NG) 737s to enter service. The -600, -700, -800, and -900 represent major improvements in range, emissions, and carrying capacity over the Classic Generation’s -300, -400, and -500 aircraft. In turn, the Classics were a quantum leap over the two Originals models, the 737-100 and the 737-200. Southwest Airlines was the first airline to operate a Classic Generation 737 in scheduled service when we introduced the 737-300, and the occasion was a huge deal with Bob Hope heading a big party, and General Chuck Yeager flying on the first flight the next day. The first 737-300 was christened The Spirit of Kitty Hawk because it flew on December 17, 1984, the 81st anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. We also introduced the 737-500 into scheduled airline service in 1990.
Given our close association with the 737, it’s no wonder that we introduced the 737-700 and the NG line of aircraft into service. On July 14, 1997, one of the test aircraft, N709GS (above), was parked at our Dallas Maintenance Base, and Employees could tour the new aircraft and get a taste of the future. The tests operated simulated schedules over much of the Southwest system to give our Employees firsthand experience with the new airplane.
However, the first revenue flight was a very low key affair with no publicity. This is a bit surprising, given the celebration we gave the 737-300. This is especially so when you consider that, for Southwest, the introduction of the 737-700 required new interiors, new training procedures for all operating departments, new scheduling possibilities, and months of testing. Yet, given all that, the 737-700 basically snuck into service on January 18, 1998. N700GS sits (above) at the gate waiting for the ground crew to load the first bags.
No company photographers were there that morning to record the first flight, although fellow blogger Bill Owen joined me on the ramp prior to pushback. This photo represents the “old” and the “new” of 737s. Behind N700GS, a 737-300, N651SW taxies away from the gate. This photo freezes a seminal transition point in air travel. The 737-300 reigns supreme, at least for a few minutes more.
After Bill and the other first-flight Passengers head upstairs and settle in for departure, I am the only photographer left on the ramp to document the departure of Flight #11 to Houston Hobby and Harlingen. The picture above is the first revenue pushback of a NG 737.
The tow bar is disconnected, Captain Greg Crum powers up the engines, and Flight #11 heads off for the runway. If our collective memory serves correctly, Captain Milt Painter, who was the lead Pilot on flight testing and designing the training curriculum, was the flight’s First Officer. A new air travel era begins just that quickly as a new airplane is about to enter the sky. My camera and I are the only observers of this landmark event for commercial aviation, Boeing, and Southwest Airlines.