The Boeing 787, more than just a new aircraft in the sky

On 07-12-2011, in The aircraft we fly, by steve

With the long awaited new 787 finally in the hands of launch customer All Nippon Airways, an 89 month run for the manufacturer has come to the end but it does not mean that they are looking to slow down in Chicago and Seattle. Two stretched versions, the 787-9 and the 787-10 are on the horizon and ramping up the production of the current model -8 is a challenge unto itself.

821 net orders for the type speaks for itself. Curiously, Airbus continues to hold that composite materials are suitable for wings and secondary structures but not for fuselage sections. They will build the A350XWB with this in mind… Well, time will tell but I do not think Boeing is a company that would get something like this wrong.

In any case, the 787 is an innovator in more ways than just its composite fuselage.


It has an interesting heritage, a kind of virtual family that never flew yet had a huge impact on what the 787 has become and what its competitors will look like (Airbus comments notwithstanding).

Back in the times when the Boeing 747-400 was still the undisputed Queen of the skies, Airbus came with the idea of building something even bigger. As the A380 slowly took shape, Boeing was faced with a dilemma. Should they compete with the new large transport head on or come with something not quite so big but so innovative that it took at least part of the limelight off from Airbus’ new baby?

The answer was not easy for two reasons: Boeing did honestly believe that there was no market for two aircraft types the size of the A380 and hence little chance of a competing line ever breaking even; if however they opted for a smaller product, they would need to avoid competing with their own best selling aircraft, the 777.

For a time, they felt that airlines might be attracted to a new aircraft that would beat everyone else by flying faster than anyone else. Not supersonic but coming close… The result of this thinking was the Sonic Cruiser, a concept that arrived at the worst possible time in terms of shifting airline preferences. It was the beginning of the times when fuel efficiency rose to the top of everybody’s agenda leaving higher speed off the wish-list (if indeed it had ever been there).

Boeing quickly dropped the Sonic Cruiser and redefined its offering, this time focusing on fuel efficiency. The 7 Efficient 7 was sketched out by engineers and soon renamed the 787 by the marketing folks.

It was clear from the start that the 787 must be something special.

Carbon fiber composite material was to be used extensively, bulky and complicated hydraulics were to be replaced by an all-electric architecture and some fly-by wire functions and an optimized on-board computing environment were the main areas of novel features. Its interior was designed to create passenger comfort on a level never before seen on an aircraft of this size, complete with larger windows that have no draw-down blind but can still be blanked by the passengers using an electrochromatic design.

Use of composites has been pushed to the max with complete fuselage barrels being produced rather than the frames and aluminum panels used on older designs.

Curiously, the 787 has thrown a high ball to Airbus even though it was not a direct competitor to anything Airbus had in their catalogue. Airbus had been mulling over a competitor for the 777 but their resources were being stressed to the limit by the demands of the 380 program which had its own problems… Making a mistake not characteristic of Airbus, they opted for a marginal upgrade of the A330 and called it the A350. When prospective users of the 350 compared it to the innovations expected on the 787, the Airbus offering looked like a very poor deal or, in other words, it looked exactly what it was, a marginal upgrade to a successful, existing product. It was turned down and even ridiculed by the more vocal airline executives.

Airbus went back to the drawing board and came up with a really new design, the A350XWB where the letters stand for Extra Wide Body. Airbus will no doubt copy some of the 787’s best selling features but they have opted to go for a more conservative fuselage structure. Aluminum alloy frames will have composite panels attached to them, an arrangement which, according to some, is the worst combination of old and new while others maintain that it is a less risky bet than Boeing’s all composite fuselage barrels.

The 787 broke new ground also in terms of how it is manufactured. Other aircraft types have seen their parts produced at various locations all over the world with the nominal “manufacturer” being more of an integrator than a builder but the 787 took this to new heights. The assemblies Boeing gets from its subcontractors are integrated to a level never before seen anywhere. The Unions in Seattle were less than happy with this level of outsourcing and their claims that the arrangement was asking for trouble soon got substantiated. Fuselage barrels that were just a little off arriving from one supplier were followed by the discovery that certain holes had been drilled the wrong way… Some suppliers had to be bought up by Boeing to avoid their going out of business while the program was on hold or simply to improve quality… Boeing itself made a few mistakes like introducing errors into the load calculations of the centre wing-box resulting in the need to have it strengthened… ooops!

Originally, Boeing was planning on a development time of 49 months, a very ambitious target. In the end, it took 89 months to get the new bird ready. Most of the clients who had opted for the 787 stayed with Boeing and the new plane even while they had to delay removing some of their old equipment or lease a few 767s to bridge the gap caused by the 3+ year delay. Those 89 months also represent one of the most turbulent times in the history of this industry and I can imagine the concern with which Boeing management watched events as they unfolded hammering their bottom line from all possible sides.

Now the 787 is out in the wild and she has the chance to prove herself and her parents’ belief in all the new technology crammed into her shapely body. The first few examples are a little overweight and eat more than originally promised but upgrades are on the way to bring things back to within 1 % of the original figures.

A 787 Operations Control Centre has also been created and it is right next to the production team in Everett. They are monitoring the performance of each 787 in real time and have all the means to intervene should there be a problem. All new aircraft throw up peculiarities and quirks which are however soon ironed out or are just accepted as part of the character of the new machine if neither safety nor efficiency is affected.

Of course the smoothest possible service entry is always one of the aims of every aircraft manufacturer and in this respect the 777 brought a record that is difficult to beat.

However, the 787 may prove to be innovative also in this respect.

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