On Naming Planes

Sara M asks: Why are Boeing planes so randomly numbered for their names?

boeing-747Although it may seem as if Boeing planes are randomly numbered, there actually is a method to their madness.

Founded in July 1916 as the Pacific Aero Products Co, but changing into Boeing Airplane Company in 1917, Boeing was re-tooling and adapting to the end of World War II when it came up with its numbering system.

Prior to the war, Boeing’s planes were more or less randomly named, including the Model C seaplane, the Boeing B-1 “flying boat” (often used for mail deliveries), the Model 8, the PW-9 fighter, the Boeing P-12/F4B and the Model 40 mail plane.

During the Second World War, Boeing’s names became more standardized, and its two primary products, the military bombers, B-17 and B-29, were reflecting this. The names were derived from the letter/number designations given during the proposed plane’s design phase. As all designs in a given area were assigned consecutive numbers, those letter/numbers missing between B-17 and B-29 were presumably designs that were considered but discarded before production.

When the war ended and Uncle Sam no longer needed lots of new bombers on a consistent basis, Boeing realized it had to transform and diversify its portfolio of products. Aiming to reach a wider audience, the company focused on four areas and numbered each in blocks of hundreds: plain aircraft were 300s and 400s, turbine engines were in the 500s, rockets and missiles were assigned the 600s and jet aircraft would be in the 700s.

There were exceptions after this system was imposed, such as the B-47 or the moniker of KC-97 (presumably a military designation) for what was technical the 367 Stratotanker. Notably, different developments of a single product were also reflected by apparently sequential numbering, such as the 367-80 (nicknamed Dash 80) version of the Stratotanker.

Regarding the Dash 80 (367-80), since it was intended to be both an Air Force tanker and transport as well as a commercial jet (the first for the company), it had to be assigned a 700 number. When Model 700 was floated, the marketing department objected that it wasn’t catchy enough, and so Model 707, which they thought had a nicer ring to it, was assigned for the commercial jet. And, since the 7-7 was the bit they liked, Boeing named the Air Force jet the 717.

After the 717, the company decided to retain the “7” exclusively for commercial jets, at the urging of the marketing department.

The only other exception in the 700 numbering system is the 720, which, as a development of model 707 was originally designated 707-20. In order to help United Airlines with its public relations, the number was shortened to 720, apparently to obscure the fact that it was a modified 707. Since then, Boeing commercial jets have been named in succession based on the 7-7 and include numbers between 727-787, and more recently, the 7E7.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Sit in the back with the cool kids. According to several studies, “passengers near the tail of the plane are about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those in the first few rows up front.”  The other advantage is that most passengers choose not to sit in the back.  So unless the plane is full, you might get the row of seats to yourself. However, other research into surviving plane crashes indicated that “those [passengers] who sat more than six rows from an exit were found to be far less likely to survive.” So if the plane doesn’t have a rear exit, that’s something to be factored in.
  • If you do happen to fall out of a plane at 35,000 feet (without a parachute), Popular Mechanics has some advice on how to survive the fall:  “The concept you’ll be most interested in is terminal velocity. As gravity pulls you toward earth, you go faster. But . . . you [also] create drag . . . . and [eventually] acceleration stops. Depending on your size and weight, and [other] factors . . . your speed at that moment will be about 120 mph [this takes about 1,500 feet. At about 22,000 feet] You sputter into consciousness [hypoxia had knocked you out from shortly after you exited the plane]. . . . Take aim . . . . Glass hurts, but it gives. So does grass. Haystacks and bushes . . . and trees aren’t bad, though they tend to skewer. Snow? Absolutely. . . . Contrary to popular belief, water is an awful choice [to cushion the fall]. . . . With the target in mind, the next consideration is body position. To slow your descent. . . spread your arms and legs, present your chest to the ground, and arch your back and head upward. . . . Relax. This is not your landing pose. . . . . [To land, assume] the classic sky diver’s landing stance – feet together, heels up, flexed knees and hips.”
  • Boeing makes billions of dollars each year, and in 2014, it had revenue of $90,762,000,000, $60 billion of which came from its commercial airplane operations, and nearly $31 billion from its defense, space and security departments.
  • Most of Boeing’s commercial airplane business comes from outside of the U.S. (70%)
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3 comments

  • In regard to Boeing’s designations, it’s worthwhile noting that many of what you’ve listed are not Boeing’s own internal ones, rather driven by the customer (War/Navy Depts up until the end of WWII and DoD after WWII). For example:

    – Boeing P-12/F4B: P stands for Pursuit so P-12 is the 12th Pursuit aircraft for the Army Air Corps. F4B is the Navy designation (F for Fighter, 4 for 4th, B for Boeing – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_aircraft_designation_systems).

    >During the Second World War, Boeing’s names became more standardized, and its two primary products, the military bombers, B-17 and B-29, were reflecting this. The names were derived from the letter/number designations given during the proposed plane’s design phase.

    That’s actually incorrect. B-17 and B-29 were respectively the Army Air Corps designations (respectively the 17th Bomber and the 29th Bomber design).

    > There were exceptions after this system was imposed, such as the B-47 or the moniker of KC-97 (presumably a military designation)

    Again these are US Air Force designations. B-47 is the 47th Bomber. KC-97 is a tanker (K) derivative of C-97 (C for Transport). The C-97 was based on Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.

    > KC-97 (presumably a military designation) for what was technical the 367 Stratotanker

    KC-97 was in fact 377 Stratofreighter. 367 Stratotanker was/is the KC-135 (close sibling of the 707). 367 is Boeing’s own internal code.

    >more recently, the 7E7.

    7E7 was the exploratory code for the efficient twin-aisle aircraft which later became the 787. 7_letter_7 is only used when the aircraft is at the initial planning stages.

  • “As all designs in a given area were assigned consecutive numbers, those letter/numbers missing between B-17 and B-29 were presumably designs that were considered but discarded before production.”

    B-24 Liberator, B-25 Mitchell, B-26 Marauder…

    That nomenclature was assigned by the War Department, not by manufacturers. Very often, the development prototypes had internal designations which had nothing to do with they were called when they went into production.

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