The mighty 7! One of Boeing’s best and best selling products, the 777 was among the first wide-body jet airliners to only have two engines as opposed to three or four, at the time revolutionary when you consider how old this design actually is. But nevertheless, it remains in production today and continues to prove its worth as a reliable and integral part of many airline fleets.
Believe it or not, the Boeing 777 concept goes way back to the early 1970’s. The original plans for this aircraft were to make it a trijet to take on the likes of the DC-10 and the L-1011. Boeing’s market range was to consist of a heirachy from short-range to long-range aircraft, with the 777 sitting with the 747 at the top of the long-range, high capacity ladder. However, development of such an aircraft was put on the backburner while the company invested its efforts into the medium-range Boeing 757 and 767, both of which were launched to critical and commercial acclaim. However, the absence of a medium to long-range, wide-body airliner left a gap in the market between the 767 and the 747, a gap filled by its competition in the form of the Airbus A330 and A340.
As such, Boeing launched a new project that was originally dubbed the 767-X, an enlarged version of the successful airliner. The concept was simple, create a wide-body, long-range intercontinental airliner that was flexible, economic and efficient. By 1989, the 767-X had evolved into its own class of aircraft, the 777, and offers began to be issued to potential customers.
Similar to the 747-400, Boeing offered its customers a chance to have input as to the final design for their new, perfect airliner. For the first time, eight major airlines, All Nippon Airways, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, Japan Airlines, Qantas, and United Airlines, could share their ideas on how the idea was to develop, the result being a basic design configuration of a cabin cross-section close to the 747’s, capacity up to 325 passengers, flexible interiors, a glass cockpit, fly-by-wire controls, and 10 percent better seat-mile costs than the A330 and MD-11. Eventually, United Airlines secured itself as launch customer in 1990 by ordering 34 of these aircraft, intended to replace the DC-10’s.
Construction was to take place alongside the 747 at the Everett factory in Washington. The 777 was the first commercial aircraft designed entirely by computer. Each design drawing was created on a three-dimensional CAD software system known as CATIA, sourced from Dassault Systemes and IBM. This lets engineers assemble a virtual aircraft, in simulation, to check for interference and verify that the thousands of parts fit properly—thus reducing costly rework. Boeing developed its own high-performance visualisation system, FlyThru, later called IVT (Integrated Visualisation Tool) to support large-scale collaborative engineering design reviews, production illustrations, and other uses of the CAD data outside of engineering. Boeing was initially not convinced of CATIA’s abilities and built a physical mock-up of the nose section to verify its results. The test was so successful that additional mock-ups were cancelled.
The actual production of the 777 was incredibly complex, and involved subcontracting to the largest number of external companies for aircraft construction at that time. International contributors included Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries (fuselage panels), Fuji Heavy Industries, Ltd. (center wing section), Hawker de Havilland (elevators), and Aerospace Technologies of Australia (rudder). The initial 777-200 model was launched with propulsion options from three manufacturers, General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls-Royce, giving the airlines their choice of engines from competing firms. Each manufacturer agreed to develop an engine in the 77,000lbf and higher thrust class (a measure of jet engine output) for the world’s largest twinjet.
To accommodate production of its new airliner, Boeing doubled the size of the Everett factory at the cost of nearly $1.5 billion to provide space for two new assembly lines. New production methodologies were developed, including a turn machine that could rotate fuselage subassemblies 180 degrees, giving workers access to upper body sections.
On April 9th, 1994, the first 777, line number WA001, was rolled out in a series of 15 ceremonies held during the day to accommodate the 100,000 invited guests, with the first flight taking place on June 12th the same year. Testing of the 777 took 11 months, and it
was flown to numerous locations to evaluate how it would respond to differing conditions, including the hot deserts of California, to the snow and frost of Alaska. At the successful conclusion of flight testing, the 777 was awarded simultaneous airworthiness certification by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA) on April 19th, 1995, after which it made its first commercial flight with United Airlines on June 7th, 1995.
By the time the aircraft entered full scale production, it had already garnered orders for 118 units from a majority of the world’s major airlines. Boeing 777’s quickly found their way into the fleets of American Airlines, British Airways, Air New Zealand, Thai International, Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Air India, and many, many more, their influence quickly spreading across their respective fleets. Earlier versions of the 747, the DC-10’s, the L-1011’s, were all swept away by the arrival of the 777, and by 2000 the aircraft had secured its place among the great aviation designs.
At the same time, the 777 began to distort the lines of the market as it provided a greater flexibility and capacity at greater efficiency and lower operating costs. This meant that a market that had usually been the sole domain of the larger Boeing 747 was now being intruded on by the 777. Prior to the 777, the 747 had had almost a monopoly on the high capacity, long-range market, but now it had a rival, a rival from its own ranks no less! With that in mind, Boeing were quick to develop an even larger version of the 747, while the revolutionary and extremely popular 747-400 was slowed to retirement. Where the 777 has been most effective in terms of changing the market has been on the likes of the Airbus A380 Super-Jumbo, the largest commercial airliner ever built, but the launch of which and subsequent production statistics left it looking like a bit of a damp squib. After nearly 10 years of production, only about 200 of these aircraft have been produced, a fraction of the Boeing 777’s production numbers for all its derivatives, and with the
newer Boeing 787 sharing many of the same principles, it’s clear that the domination of Jumbo-Jets may be fast approaching its conclusion.
The 777 itself however has proven itself a reliable and sturdy aircraft, and for the first 13 years of its life it suffered no hull-losses or passenger fatalities. However, the first aircraft to be damaged beyond repair happened on January 17th, 2008, when British Airways Flight 38 crashed short of the runway at Heathrow Airport after ice crystals suspended in the aircraft’s fuel clogged the fuel-oil heat exchanger. Thankfully, no one was killed thanks to the incredible skill of the BA crew, but the aircraft was written off.
The first fatal accident of the 777 however, among the passengers at least, was on July 6th, 2013, when Asiana Airlines Flight 214, crashed while landing at San Francisco International Airport after touching down short of the runway. In all, three people were killed, two on the aircraft, and one who was struck by an emergency vehicle outside of the aircraft. The official accident investigation concluded in June 2014 that the pilots committed 20 to 30 minor to significant errors in their final approach, and that complexities of the automated controls contributed to the accident.
Perhaps the most mysterious loss of a 777, and one that continues to baffle investigators, is the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on March 8th, 2014. After the search for the aircraft began, Malaysia’s prime minister announced on March 24th, 2014 that after analysis of new satellite data it was now to be assumed “beyond reasonable doubt” that the aircraft had crashed in the Indian Ocean and there were no survivors. As of October 2016, no cause has been found, although pieces of the aircraft have now been recovered after washing up on shorelines across the Indian Ocean. One hopes this tragedy will eventually find closure.
Three months later however, tragedy struck the 777 again when, in one of the most controversial events in recent history, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile on July 17th, 2014, when flying over the war torn Ukranian countryside. In all, 298 people lost their lives when the aircraft was reportedly struck by a Soviet-built Buk missile.
The latest loss of the Boeing 777 was on August 3rd, 2016, when Emirates Flight 521 crash landed at Dubai Airport, resulting in no loss of life among the passengers, but the death of a fireman when the aircraft later exploded.he preliminary investigation indicated that the aircraft was attempting a landing during active wind shear conditions. The pilots initiated a go-around procedure shortly after the main wheels touched-down onto the runway, however the aircraft settled back onto the ground apparently due to late throttle application. As the undercarriage was in the process of being retracted, the aircraft landed on its rear underbody and engine nacelles, resulting in the separation of one engine, loss of control and subsequent crash.
However, as construction of the Boeing 777 reaches its 13th year, one must still admire the technical marvel that this aircraft is. Perhaps a little mundane in terms of styling, not exactly being as recognisable as the 747 that preceded it, the 777 remains a reliable and important part of the aviation world, and one we hope will continue to ply its trade well into the future.