The first brand-new Boeing model since the 777 in 1993, the Boeing 787 is now the essential flagship of the company, and has already become a major hit with many of the world’s major airlines. However, to get this dream a reality, it had to delve into the realm of nightmares.
The Boeing 787 project goes way back to the late 1990’s, where intentions were to upgrade the Boeing 767 and 747-400 production lines with extended-range models, hopefully revitalising what were ostensibly slowing sales. The result was two models, the stretched 747X and the Sonic Cruiser, an attempted competitor and possible replacement for Concorde. The 747X was not seen with much enthusiasm but the Sonic Cruiser was, seeing as the aircraft could travel at Mach 0.98 but only cost as much to run as a regular Boeing 767, unlike Concorde which guzzled fuel and was only available to the 1%.
All these projects and more met their premature end however following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, as the aviation market downturn and increased fuel prices put people off the idea of major investments. From now on, speed was irrelevant, efficiency was the new byword in the aviation industry. Flight times increased to save on fuel at lower speeds, older, less efficient models like the DC-10, early 747’s and even Concorde were retired, and money was put into developing a universe of much more efficient airliners.
The Sonic Cruiser was officially cancelled in December 2002, but Boeing had already begun putting the technology from this aircraft into its new design, the Boeing 7E7, which was formally announced on January 29th, 2003. The design called for Sonic Cruiser technology, such as fuel efficiency and other technology derived from its research, but in the configuration of a conventional aircraft similar in size to the Boeing 777-200.
The plan entailed a wide-body, twin jet aircraft with an extended range that would remove the need for large Jumbo-Jets such as Boeing 747’s and the proposed Airbus A380. The project was dubbed the ‘Yellowstone Project’, under code name Y2, and early concept images were produced as early as July 2003. I remember well sitting in Primary School reading up about this upcoming aircraft, wondering if it would ever make it to the sky or if it would go the way of the Sonic Cruiser.
The name 7E7 came under speculation as well, with many believing the term meant “efficiency” or “environmentally friendly”; however, in the end, Boeing said that it merely stood for “Eight”. In July 2003, a public naming competition was held for the 7E7, for which out of 500,000 votes cast online the winning title was Dreamliner. Other names included eLiner, Global Cruiser, and Stratoclimber. The launch customer was officially announced as All Nippon Airways’ in 2004, placing a firm order for 50 aircraft with deliveries to begin in late 2008.
Initially, there were 3 options for the 787, the 787-3; a short-fuselage, medium range aircraft similar in size and purpose to the Boeing 757, the 787-8; a long haul standard model similar in size to the 767-400 or 777-200, and the 787-9; which was to be the size of the 777-300 and have the highest capacity. The 787-3 was eventually dropped as there was no real market for such a large airliner, though high-capacity routes such as Japanese
domestic operations had been considered.
The 787 was designed to be the first production airliner with the fuselage comprising one-piece composite barrel sections instead of the multiple aluminum sheets and some 50,000 fasteners used on existing aircraft. Boeing selected two new engines to power the 787, the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 and General Electric GEnx. Boeing stated the 787 would be approximately 20% more fuel-efficient than the 767, with approximately 40 percent of the efficiency gain from the engines, plus gains from aerodynamic improvements, increased use of lighter-weight composite materials, and advanced systems. The airframe underwent extensive structural testing during its design. The 787-8 and −9 were intended to have a certified 330 minute ETOPS capability.
During the design phase, the 787 underwent extensive wind tunnel testing at Boeing’s Transonic Wind Tunnel, QinetiQ’s five-meter wind tunnel at Farnborough, United Kingdom, and NASA Ames Research Center’s wind tunnel, as well as at the French aerodynamics research agency, ONERA. The final styling was more conservative than earlier proposals, with the fin, nose, and cockpit windows changed to a more conventional form. By 2005, customer-announced orders and commitments for the 787 reached 237 aircraft. Boeing initially priced the 787-8 variant at $120 million, a low figure that surprised the industry. In 2007, the list price was $157–167 million for the 787-8 and $189–200 million for the 787-9.
Aircraft construction took place at the Boeing Factory in Everett, Washington, and, in arguably its first instance, production was outsourced to hundreds of international contributors. Previously, Boeing preferred to keep designs in-house, or, at the very least, from within the United States. Instead, Boeing chose to reduce the development and production effort on Boeing itself by outsourcing the construction to foreign contractors.
Subcontracted assemblies included wing manufacture (Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Japan, central wing box) horizontal stabilizers (Alenia Aeronautica, Italy; Korea Aerospace Industries, South Korea); fuselage sections (Global Aeronautica, Italy; Boeing, North Charleston, US; Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Japan; Spirit AeroSystems, Wichita, US; Korean Air, South Korea); passenger doors (Latécoère, France); cargo doors, access doors, and crew escape door (Saab AB, Sweden); software development (HCL Enterprise India); floor beams (TAL Manufacturing Solutions Limited, India); wiring (Labinal, France); wing-tips, flap support fairings, wheel well bulkhead, and longerons (Korean Air, South Korea); landing gear (Messier-Bugatti-Dowty, UK/France); and power distribution and management systems, air conditioning packs (Hamilton Sundstrand, Connecticut, US).
To speed up deliveries, Boeing modified four used 747-400s into 747 Dreamlifters to transport 787 wings, fuselage sections, and other smaller parts. Japanese industrial participation was key on the project. Japanese companies co-designed and built 35% of the aircraft; the first time that outside firms played a key design role on Boeing airliner wings. The Japanese government supported development with an estimated US$2 billion in loans. On April 26th, 2006, Japanese manufacturer Toray Industries and Boeing signed a production agreement involving US$6 billion worth of carbon fiber, extending a 2004 contract. In May 2007, final assembly on the first 787 began at Everett.
However, while 2007 saw the first completed airframe, it also saw a world of issues that would delay this aircraft extensively. Boeing intended for a first flight by the end of August 2007 and premiered the first 787 at a rollout ceremony on July 8th, 2007, by this time having garnered 677 orders. However, the rolled out aircraft was, essentially, just an incomplete shell, with many of its internal fixtures having not being fitted, specifically fastners. At the rollout, the 787 was fitted with non-aeronautical types, a last-minute, temporary feature to keep the aircraft on schedule for its launch which would later be replaced by Flight-Ready fastners.
The fastner issue, plus problems in finalising the software, meant the project was delayed
by 3 months from September 2007. 3 months came and went, and the problem had yet to be resolved, so Boeing called for another 3 month delay. 6 months behind schedule, the 787 program manager, Mike Bair, was removed from his position, and Boeing announced yet another 3 month delay, citing insufficient progress on “traveled work”. On March 28th, 2008, in an effort to gain more control over the supply chain, Boeing announced plans to buy Vought Aircraft Industries’ interest in Global Aeronautica; a later agreement was also made to buy Vought’s factory in North Charleston.
In April 2008, Boeing announced a fourth delay, pushing the intended first flight back to the end of that year. By the time December 2008 came around, many airlines were starting to lose faith in the ability of the company to deliver, especially when announced that the first flight was to be delayed a fifth time to an unspecified date in mid-2009. Airlines, such as United Airlines and Air India, stated their intentions to seek compensation from Boeing for the delays.
Eventually, on December 15th, 2009, two and a half years after the initial rollout, the 787 took to the skies for the first time. Originally scheduled for four hours, the test flight was shortened to three hours due to bad weather. Following the flight, Boeing began a rigorous 9 month testing programme comprised of 6 aircraft.
However, 2010 soon turned out not to be a good year for the 787, as a slew of problems began to rear their heads, chief among which was with that rather important feature, the engines. On August 2nd, 2010, a Trent 1000 engine suffered a blowout at Rolls-Royce’s test facility during ground testing. The failure due to the timeline for installing Trent 1000 engines being reevaluated; on August 27th, 2010, Boeing stated that the first delivery to launch customer ANA would be delayed until early 2011.
On November 9th, 2010, Boeing 787, ZA002 made an emergency landing at Laredo International Airport, Texas, after smoke and flames were detected in the main cabin during a test flight. The electrical fire caused some systems to fail before landing. Following this incident, Boeing suspended flight testing on November 10, 2010, ground testing continued. After investigation, the in-flight fire was primarily attributed to foreign object debris (FOD) that was present in the electrical bay. After electrical system and software changes, the 787 resumed flight testing on December 23rd, 2010.
Eventually, on August 21st, 2011, four years after the rollout, the Boeing 787 was given FAA certification and was now ready to be delivered. The first 787 was officially delivered to All Nippon Airways (ANA) on September 25th, at the Boeing factory. A ceremony to mark the occasion was also held the next day. On October 26th, an ANA 787 flew the first commercial flight from Tokyo Narita to Hong Kong. The airliner was planned to enter service some three years prior. Tickets for the flight were sold in an online auction, the highest bidder had paid $34,000 for a seat. An ANA 787 flew the first commercial long-haul flight on January 21st, 2012 from Haneda to Frankfurt.
So, after such a calamitous production and development, what is the Boeing 787 actually capable of?
Well, the aircraft features among the most light-weight constructions ever put on a commercial airliner, 80% of the aircraft being comprised of composite materials. Boeing lists its materials by weight as 50% composite, 20% aluminium, 15% titanium, 10% steel, and 5% other. The longest-range 787 variant can fly 8,000 to 8,500 nautical miles, enough to cover the Los Angeles to Bangkok or New York City to Hong Kong routes. Its cruising airspeed is Mach 0.85, equivalent to 561mph at typical cruise altitudes.
Among 787 flight systems, a key change from traditional airliners is the electrical architecture. The architecture is bleedless and replaces bleed air and hydraulic power sources with electrically powered compressors and pumps, while completely eliminating pneumatics and hydraulics from some subsystems, e.g., engine starters or brakes. Boeing says this system extracts 35% less power from the engines, allowing increased thrust and
improved fuel economy.
The 787 has a “fly-by-wire” control system similar in architecture to that of the Boeing 777. The flight deck features LCD multi-function displays, which use an industry standard Graphical user interface widget toolkit (Cockpit Display System Interfaces to User Systems / ARINC 661). The 787 flight deck includes two head-up displays (HUDs) as a standard feature. The 787 shares a common type rating with the larger 777, allowing qualified pilots to operate both models.
The 787-8 is designed to typically seat 234 passengers in a three-class setup, 240 in two-class domestic configuration, and 296 passengers in a high-density economy arrangement. Seat rows can be arranged in four to seven abreast in first or business. Cabin interior width is approximately 18 feet at armrest level. The Dreamliner’s cabin width is 15 inches more than that of the Airbus A330 and A340, 5 inches less than the A350, and 16 in less than the 777. The 787’s cabin windows are larger than any other civil air transport in-service or in development, with dimensions of 10.7 by 18.4 in, and a higher eye level so passengers can maintain a view of the horizon. The biggest party-piece of the 787 is its LED interior lighting as standard, allowing the aircraft to be entirely ‘bulbless’. LED lights have previously been an option on the Boeing 777 and Airbus aircraft. The system has three-colour LEDs plus a white LED.
However, just because the 787 and its disastrous construction were now behind it, it doesn’t mean it was free from problems. Since its entry into service, the aircraft has suffered numerous fuel leaks and electrical faults that have nearly started on-board fires. The first instance was on a Japan Airlines (JAL) 787, which experienced a fuel leak on January 8th, 2013. On January 9th, United Airlines reported a problem in one of its six 787s with the wiring near the main batteries. These issues were enough to arouse the suspicions of the National Transportation Safety Board.
By January 13th, JAL had noted 3 incidents of fuel leaks on its aircraft, and while the NTSB studied whether or not it was because of faulty valves, the valves were not the same in each incident, and thus a root cause was not determined.
The most serious incident that brought the 787 into doubt was on July 12th, 2013, when a fire started on an empty Ethiopian Airlines 787 parked at Heathrow Airport before it was extinguished by the airport fire and rescue service. Investigations indicated that the fire was due to lithium-manganese dioxide batteries powering an emergency locator transmitter. On July 26th, 2013, ANA said it had found wiring damage on two 787 locator beacons. United Airlines also reported that it had found a pinched wire in one 787 locator beacon. On September 28, 2013, Norwegian Long Haul decided to take one of its two 787s in its fleet at the time out of service after the two aircraft broke down on more than six occasions in September, being replaced temporarily by hired Airbus A340’s.
Overall, there are numerous faults with the Boeing 787 which, in some instances, can endanger the aircraft as a whole. Aside from battery issues and fuel leaks, other incidents have included the nose-gear collapsing, issues with the General Electric GEnx-1B PIP2 engine suffering damage and non-restartable power loss while flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet, and a worrying FAA airworthiness directive stating that in certain weather conditions “erroneous low airspeed may be displayed …”, and there was concern that “abrupt pilot control inputs in this condition could exceed the structural capability of the airplane.” Pilots were told not to apply “large, abrupt control column inputs” in the event of an “unrealistic” drop in displayed airspeed.
However, in spite of these many problems and issues, the 787 has truly found itself a market. Today, almost ever major carrier has at least one of these aircraft, usually to replace older Boeing 777’s, 767’s and 747-400’s.
The 787 is, in theory, a good aircraft, but it’s a flawed one. I feel that due to the haste in getting the aircraft into production and delivered on time, Boeing has overseen some key fundamental issues regarding its construction, some of which have come very close to causing a fatal incident. One obviously hopes that Boeing can redress these issues and make the 787 the dream it deserves to be.