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Best of Airways — Boeing 777 20th Anniversary

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Best of Airways — Boeing 777 20th Anniversary

Best of Airways — Boeing 777 20th Anniversary
August 10
14:00 2017

By Jeremy Dwyer Lindgren • Airways Magazine, July 2014


Twenty years ago, the world’s largest twin-engine passenger jet took to the sky for the very first time. Boeing dubbed it the 777, this mammoth airplane would go on to be one of the most successful aircraft ever produced, not just in sales, but in design, safety, and thousands of flights worldwide every day.

The airplane began, as they all do, as a marketing concept. Fresh off the 767 project, and with the upward climb of the 747 program firmly established, Boeing was looking to design its next big product.

The company realized it had a gap between the 250-seat 767 and the 500-plus-seat 747 jumbo jet. To fill the gap, Boeing initially offered a trijet concept to compete with the similarly engined DC-10 and L-1011 TriStar. The trijet design turned out to be a flop, garnering zero interest from airlines, and the company dropped the idea for a while.

Perhaps presciently, the need for a 777 reappeared some years later, in the mid-to-late 1980s, as the same trijets the original 777 would’ve competed with came close to retirement age. At the time Airbus was working on the A330/A340 series, while McDonnell Douglas was deeply involved in the MD-11 program. Both jets were already well underway, leaving Boeing lagging behind.

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At first, the company thought it would be as simple as a 767 derivative, much the same way the MD-11 was a derivative of the DC-10 – extend the fuselage, add some winglets, and off it goes. Unfortunately, it became clear that a refreshed 767 was not what the market desired, and so Boeing set about the far more involved process of designing a new clean-sheet airplane.

Realizing that there was an advantage to being behind the pack, the company took the unusual step of asking its potential customers what they wanted in an airplane. A 23-page questionnaire was handed out to a number of airlines, and a firm design began to take shape as 1990 rolled around. It was determined that the new airplane would be a twin-engine jet, longer, and larger than the existing 767.

With the basics in place, United placed a letter of intent for 34 of the planes in October 1990. The jet began production not long after. Before hard-core construction efforts could begin in earnest, however, Boeing had to expand its already huge Everett facility. At a cost of $1.5 billion, the company doubled the footprint of the factory to over 472 million cubic feet, adding two new assembly lines.

Input from several key airlines called the “Working Together” group, firmed up additional details. United, which would be heavily involved in the design process and go on to launch the jet, requested a glass fly-by-wire flight deck, the range to fly from Chicago to Europe and Hawaii, and ETOPS on delivery. Cathay Pacific wanted a cross section similar in size to the 747 and a seating capacity of over 300. Of course, everyone wanted it to do everything cheaper than the competition.

Unlike any previous airplane at Boeing, the big jet was the first to be designed entirely via computers. The system digitally created every single part and was able to ensure they all fit together. If they didn’t, or if two systems intermixed in a non-ideal manner, the system would notify engineers. Boeing says it was even able to create a digital human to make sure hands, feet, and heads had the necessary tolerance to fit into spaces from the flight deck to access ports.

The company made a mock-up cockpit section, based on the computer drawings, and found the parts fit within fractions of an inch. Plans to build other full-scale mock-ups, a formerly traditional practice, were dropped. When the final body join of the first airplane was completed on December 15, 1993, everything from the fuselage sections to the wings likewise came together within fractions of an inch of tolerance.

Also new was the extensive sub-level work done to design the jet. Every individual part was made, tested, and retested in labs, first on its own, then in its parent region, and on until it was placed into the jet as a whole.

Some unique design features of the airplane include its signature six-wheel main landing gear boogies, perfectly balanced entry/exit door, angled wings, and the flattened blade tail. Keen to the demands of its customers, the airplane was the first Boeing to feature an all fly-by-wire flight deck, increasing the amount of software code from hundreds of thousands of lines of code to millions.

The roll out, though it can only barely be called that, took place on April 9th, 1994. With over 100,000 employees, their families and media from around the world expected to attend, not even the absolutely enormous Everett factory could hold them all for a single event.

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Consequently, Boeing saw fit to contract out Dick Clark Productions to produce fifteen splashy mini ceremonies every half hour through the day instead. Each group of 7,000 was ushered into the factory, where a rousing video emphasizing the theme “Working Together” played on a giant screen. Once finished, a mesh screen partially revealed the jet as various systems turned on and spotlights lit up certain parts. Finally, the screen dropped, and those in attendance were invited to come forward and experience the jet up close.

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Final checks to aircraft systems, software, in particular, took place in the following months leading up to first flight. Taxi testing was completed in late May. Amazingly, despite several complications, the jet was ready to go by early June.

The notoriously cloudy and wet Seattle skies kept the airplane from leaping into the air several days in a row before an opening in the weather appeared on June 12th, 1995. The giant twin-jet gracefully lifted off Paine Field’s runway 34L, while company chase planes supervised alongside. The airplane completed a nearly four-hour flight over Puget Sound, testing everything from engine shutdowns to landing gear, before touching back down on the ground.

The 777 program then began an intense, yearlong series of tests required to receive government approval. The first airplane was eventually joined by eight others. The aircraft, combined, spent thousands of hours in the air running extensive tests on avionics, performance capabilities, engines, and beyond. Boeing spent thousands of hours on the ground as well, performing brake tests, software upgrades, airport familiarity runs and more. The airplane received European and US regulatory approval nearly one year after making its roll out, on April 19, 1995.

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Perhaps most importantly– after proving airworthiness– was the program’s ability to acquire an extended range twin operations (ETOPS) rating before entering service. Typically earned over time after being delivered to the airlines, ETOPS refers to how far away from land an airplane is allowed to go safely. Boeing put in thousands of hours on the ground and in the air during the test flight program to replicate what it would normally take to earn the distinction in service.

Despite ETOPS being a requirement for entry into service, the first airplane was delivered to United on May 15, 1995, without the rating secured. The delivery ceremony took place at Boeing Field, in front of the Museum of Flight.

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Ultimately, however, the work paid off, and the FAA gave the 777-200 the green light for a 180 minute ETOPS rating just days before the airplane officially entered service. Sure enough, on June 7, the first 777 flew from London Heathrow to United’s Washington Dulles hub.

Three major subtypes of the original 777-200 have since been manufactured. The 777-200ER was released in 1997, followed by the 777-200 Long Range (LR) in 2006. The LR version was particularly impressive, capable of flying up to 9,380 nautical miles nonstop. A freight version hit the market in 2006, though orders have been few.

The 777-200 has since been largely replaced, however, by the larger 777-300 derivative. The first 777-300 was unveiled in Seattle in 1998. Designed to replace classic 747s, the airplane was given an impressive 6,015 nautical mile range and capacity for over 500 passengers. It was elongated thirty-three feet more than the 777-200, making it the longest aircraft of its time. Cathay Pacific took the first and continues to operate one of the largest 777-300 classic fleets in the world.

The 777-300 classic, along with all other subtypes of 777, would later be eclipsed by its sibling the 777-300ER (extended range). First produced in 2004 for Air France, the airplane carries a similar load to the 777-300 classic but can fly 34 percent further, to a max range of 7,930 nautical miles. To enable the changes, Boeing made multiple updates to the frame including raked wingtips, changes to the landing gear, and strengthened wings.

The airplane celebrated its 1,000th delivery on March 3, 2012. The 777-300ER was turned over to Dubai-based Emirates airlines.

It has also enjoyed a truly stellar safety record. Of the roughly 1,200 777s produced, only three have suffered verified hull losses. The first came in 2008– almost thirteen years into service – when a British Airways 777-200 jet crashed short of the runway in London. The accident was blamed on ice crystals clogging part of the fuel system. The second occurred in 2011 when an EgyptAir 777-200 flight deck caught fire at the gate in Cairo due to an electrical fault. Neither incident resulted in any fatalities.

The only verified fatalities came from Asiana Airlines flight 214, which crash-landed in San Francisco International Airport on July 6, 2013. Three died when the airplane sank too fast in its approach, hit a perimeter seawall, lost its tail, and skidded violently down the runway before coming to a stop.

Of course, the big elephant in the room is the presumed loss of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. The 777-200 jet left Kuala Lumpur, bound for Beijing, on March 9, 2014. It disappeared from civilian radar only one hour into the flight and appears to have inexplicably tacked west, and then south, according to military radar and satellite data information. Though no trace of the plane has been found, it is believed to be located in the Indian Ocean off the western coast of Australia. Once confirmed, it will be the second official fatal incident for the airplane, with potentially 239 lost.

Roughly fifty airlines have operated some version or another of the 777 since it was debuted in ‘95, many of which still fly the type today. Among the largest operators include ANA, American, Emirates, and United.

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When most airplanes celebrate their twentieth anniversary, talk begins to orient more towards retirement than renewal. Indeed Boeing’s own 757 programs wrapped up production in just over twenty years. The Airbus A340 and DC-10 were produced for eighteen years, and the MD-11 for only twelve.

Yet the 777 is destined to live on. The possibility of a rebuilt, next generation 777X first popped up in 2011. The new base model, the 777-9X, will stretch the fuselage to over 250 feet, seven feet beyond the current 777-300ER. The wingspan will increase nearly twenty feet, necessitating folding wingtips. It is expected to have a range of 8,200 nautical miles (NM) and a seating capacity of 400 passengers. A shorter 777-8X will be able to fly 350 passengers up to 9,300NM.

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The airplane garnered orders before it even hit the shelves. Lufthansa ordered 34 777-9X airplanes in September, a few months before its intended launch in Dubai. Sure enough, the airplane sold big at the 2013 Dubai airshow, with the Gulf Big Three spending tens of billions of dollars on firm orders and options for up to 225 airplanes. Asian carriers ANA and Cathay Pacific have since ordered the jet as well, though in smaller numbers than their Middle Eastern counterparts.

By the time the airplane is delivered to carriers in 2020, the 777 will have been gracing blue skies around the world for twenty-five years. And thanks to the 777X, we can likely look forward to twenty-five more.

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A Global Review of Commercial Flight since 1994: the leading Commercial Aviation publication in North America and 35 nations worldwide. Based in Miami, Florida.

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