Gerhard Höltje, Managing Director and Chief Engineer, Lufthansa

The date was 19 February 1965. Lufthansa Managing Director and Chief Engineer Gerhard Höltje paced his office. Despite the ultimatum he had issued, his phone still hadn’t rung. With a crucial board meeting about to start, he could wait no longer. He decided to take matters into his own hands. In Seattle, Boeing bosses were stirred from their sleep, called to make a decision that would affect the future of their company.

This pivotal moment had been brewing for years. Lufthansa was in need of new aircraft to replace older Convairs and Viscounts. A number of short-haul jets were being considered, including the BAC 1-11, the DC-9, and the Fokker F28. The German Government was doing its best to influence matters. Keen to integrate itself with the Western alliance, it was looking for a spread of orders—perhaps something British to add to the American Boeing 727s already in the Lufthansa fleet.

Höltje wasn’t convinced. A man ahead of his time, he suggested that government pressure should not influence an airline’s commercial development. He wanted something that satisfied the market needs of his airline and the technical requirements of his engineer’s mind.

Across the Atlantic, Boeing President Bill Allen had pushed forward a development project that had spiked Höltje’s interest. And in July 1964, Jack Steiner and Joe Sutter from Boeing visited Germany to discuss their latest ideas.

Before returning home, Sutter and Steiner visited aircraft manufacturer Hamburger Flugzeugbau. It was here that Sutter became persuaded by the idea of underwing, as opposed to tail-mounted, engines. Sutter won an in-house battle about the new design after test results clearly showed that the underwing design produced better aerodynamics, made the aircraft lighter, and increased cabin width. Höltje liked what he saw and sent a Lufthansa team to Seattle to work on the design.

 Particularly crucial was commonality with Lufthansa’s existing Boeing fleet. Höltje understood the savings on offer if he could work with common standards. Boeing guaranteed that 17% of the aircraft structure, 64% of components, and 76% of the interior of the new aircraft would be identical to the 727. Even the basic layout of the cockpit would differ only marginally.

But the manufacturer’s management team had concerns of its own. The Boeing 707 and 727 had been launched relatively recently and the team worried that a new model would cannibalize sales—especially as Lufthansa was driving for a smaller version of their design.

Höltje was in no mood for dithering. He told Boeing that he needed the project confirmed by 19 February 1965—the date of a Lufthansa board meeting that would determine what new aircraft to buy. But as the morning of the meeting dawned, the phone still hadn’t rung. Höltje was undaunted. He prompted a series of phone calls that eventually secured a green light from Seattle even though it was still the early hours of the morning there.

On 15 March 1965, an official contract was signed between Lufthansa and Boeing. The German airline would buy 21 of the new aircraft—designated the Boeing 737 130. Höltje’s subsequent press conference confirmed his insight that this would be an industry-changing aircraft. He noted the new model had been “deliberately designed to be uncomplicated,” and would deliver “a hitherto unmatched degree of technical reliability”.

The Boeing 737—branded the Lufthansa City Jet—made its first commercial flight on 10 February 1968. The reasons for its success remain as true today as they were 40 years ago.

At its heart, the aircraft is simple and cheap to operate. Loading and unloading are easier because the body sits near to the ground, maintenance is straightforward, and turnaround times are quick enough to make complex schedules possible. Such cost efficiency makes more routes viable and allows flexibility in network planning.

If it had not been for Gerhard Höltje’s determination, this industry workhorse might never have taken to the skies at all.

Thanks to Lufthansa for its help with this article