12/15/2009: The Dreamliner Performs Its Maiden Flight

12/15/2009: The Dreamliner Performs Its Maiden Flight

DALLAS – Today in Aviation, after encountering numerous delays, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner prototype completed its maiden flight in 2009. The Dreamliner is considered innovative and revolutionary because it pushed the envelopes and boundaries in several developmental stages, increasing environmental aircraft efficiency while greatly improving the passenger experience.

Boeing unveiled its plans for the groundbreaking 787 wide-body airliner on January 29, 2003, after the company axed its Sonic Cruiser concept. With a focus on efficiency, the manufacturer launched the program on April 26, 2004, with an order for 50 aircraft from All Nippon Airways (ANA) and a targeted introduction penned for 2008.

On July 8, 2007, the prototype was rolled out without major systems. Boeing obtained the type certification in August 2011, and the first 787-8 was delivered to ANA in September 2011 before entering commercial service on October 26, 2011.

Early operations experienced numerous issues triggered by the type’s lithium-ion batteries, which caused fires on board. The US FAA grounded all Boeing 787s in January 2013 before it accepted a revised battery design three months later. In 2020, quality control issues riddled the type, but more on that later.

As of March 2020, the Boeing 787 had orders from 72 established customers for 1,510 aircraft. Furthermore, Boeing has invested US$32 billion in the program due to ballooning production costs. Industry experts forecast that the number of aircraft sales Boeing needs to break even ranges between 1,300 and 2,000.

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Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s first flight. Video: Boeing

Dreamliner Development

Boeing considered replacement aircraft programs in the late 1990s, when sales of the 767 and 747-400 slowed down. The plan was for two new aircraft. The 747X would have lengthened the 747-400 and had increased performance, while the Sonic Cruiser was poised to reach 15% higher speeds (about Mach 0.98) while burning fuel at the same pace as the 767.

The Boeing 747X’s commercial interest was poor, even though many major American airlines, including Continental Airlines (CO), were initially enthusiastic about the Sonic Cruiser. However, the market reaction to the type was weak. In the fallout of 9/11, the worst-affected airlines, those in the United States, were the ones deemed to be the most likely Sonic Cruiser customers; as a result, the Cruiser program was formally canceled on December 20, 2002.

On January 29, 2003, Boeing unveiled an alternative product, the 7E7, using a more traditional design than the Sonic Cruiser technology. The emphasis on a smaller mid-size twin-jet rather than a large 747-size aircraft reflected the shift from a hub-and-spoke model to the now common point-to-point.

Randy Baseler, VP of Marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, thought that airport congestion came from having a large number of small, single-aisle regional jets traveling to destinations where an A380 550-seater would be simply too large. The thinking was twofold: a smaller aircraft could increase by 20% in size to minimize the number of departures, and airline hubs could be avoided with point-to-point transit.

Finally, in 2003, James McNerney (who would become Chairman and CEO of Boeing in 2005), a recent addition to the Boeing Board of Directors, endorsed the need for new aircraft to reclaim market share from Airbus, especially in mid-range point-to-point niche routes.

Thus, Boeing board members Harry Stonecipher (President and CEO of Boeing) and John McDonnell gave an ultimatum to “develop [an] aircraft for less than 40% of what the 777 had cost to develop 13 years earlier, and build each aircraft out of the gate for less than 605 of the unit cost of the 777 in 2003.” The board members accepted an estimated US$7 billion development budget. Boeing was ready to build its 777 substitute.

The new aircraft was named ‘7E7’ (with a development code name of “Y2”). As part of Boeing’s initiative, technology from the Sonic Cruiser and 7E7 was to be used to replace the entire airliner product line, an effort called the Yellowstone Project (of which the 7E7 became the first stage).

An early artist’s impression of the Boeing 7E7. Photo: Boeing.

Dreamliner Design

Early 7E7 design photos featured rakish cockpit windows, a lowered nose, and a distinctive “shark-fin” tail. The “E” in the name was said to signify different things, such as “efficiency” or “environmentally friendly.” But in the end, Boeing said it was merely “eight.” For the 7E7, for which the winning title was Dreamliner out of 500,000 votes cast online, a public naming competition was held in July 2003. Other names include Stratoclimber, Global Cruiser, and eLiner.

The Dreamliner was to be a long-haul, wide-body, twin-engine jetliner featuring lightweight construction. The aircraft was to be 80% composite by volume. Boeing lists its components as 50% composite by weight, 20% aluminum, 15% titanium, 10% steel, and 5% other materials. Aluminum has been used in the leading edges of the wing and tail. Titanium is primarily found within the engine and fastener elements, while steel comprises different individual components.

A smooth nose contour, raked wingtips, and engine nacelles with noise-reducing serrated edges (chevrons) are some of the Dreamliner’s external features. The longest variant can fly up to 7,635 nautical miles (14,140 km) and even longer with the Qantas QF 9 flight between Perth Airport (PER) and London-Heathrow (LHR), flying over 7,828 nautical miles (14,497 km). The aircraft’s cruising speed was Mach 0.85 (488 kn; 903 km/h), with a design life of 44,000 flight cycles.

Boeing selected two new engines to power the 787: the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 and the General Electric GEnx. The Boeing 787 underwent extensive wind tunnel testing during the design process at Boeing’s Transonic Wind Tunnel, QinetiQ’s five-meter wind tunnel at the UK’s Farnborough, and the wind tunnel of the NASA Ames Research Center, as well as at ONERA, the French aerodynamics research agency.

The 787 is around 20% more fuel-efficient than the Boeing 767. Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways.

Dreamliner Innovations

Instead of numerous aluminum sheets and some 50,000 fasteners as in the previous aircraft, the 787 is the first production airliner with the fuselage consisting of one-piece composite barrel sections. With the tail, nose, and cockpit windows changed to a more traditional shape, the final styling is more conservative than earlier proposals.

The Dreamliner is about 20% more fuel-efficient than the Boeing 767, with about 40% in engine performance gain, plus benefits from aerodynamic upgrades, increased use of composite materials that are lighter in weight, and advanced systems. During its construction, the airframe underwent rigorous structural testing. A validated 330-minute ETOPS capability was intended for the 787-8 and -9.

The electrical design of the Boeing 787 flight systems is a crucial improvement over conventional airliners. The design is bleed less and replaces the bleed air system with electrically-powered compressors and four out of six electrically-powered hydraulic power sources, thus removing pneumatics and hydraulics entirely from some subsystems, such as engine starts and brakes. 

Boeing claims that 35% less power is extracted from the engines by this method, enabling increased thrust and improved fuel efficiency. The total electrical power available on board is 1.45 megawatts, which is five times the power available on traditional pneumatic airliners; engine start, cabin pressure, horizontal stabilizer trim, and wheel brakes are the most prominent electrically driven systems. 

Another innovation is the type’s wing ice protection. The Dreamliner uses electro-thermal heater mats instead of standard hot bleed air on the wing slats. Similar to the system used on the B-2 bomber, an active rush alleviation system increases ride efficiency during turbulence.

Finally, the Boeing 787 flight deck has an architecturally similar fly-by-wire control system to the Boeing 777. The flight deck features multi-function LCDs that use an industry-standard widget toolkit (Cockpit Display Device Interfaces to User Systems/ARINC 661) for the graphical user interface. The 787 flight deck contains two head-up displays (HUDs) as a standard feature.

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Another advantage of composite materials is their ability to allow for large windows.

Initial Customers

By 2005, customer-announced orders and obligations for the Boeing 787 had reached 237 aircraft. The Boeing 787-8 version was initially valued at US$120 million—a low figure that surprised the industry. In 2007, for the 787-3, US$157-167m for the 787-8, and US$189-200m for the Boeing 787-9, the list price was US$146-151.5m.

Japanese airline All Nippon Airways (ANA) became the launch customer for the 787 on April 26, 2004, confirming a firm order for 50 aircraft with deliveries expected to start at the end of 2008.

The ANA order was originally listed for regional international routes such as Tokyo Narita-Beijing as 30 787-3, 290-330 seats, one-class domestic aircraft, and 20 787-8, long-haul, 210-250 seats, two-class aircraft, and could carry out routes to cities not previously served, such as Denver, Moscow, and New Delhi. The original versions were the 787-3 and 787-8, with the 787-9 entering service in 2010.

Indian flag carrier Air India (AI) became the first airline to take possession of a Dreamliner produced out of the Charleston, South Carolina Boeing plant on October 5, 2012. This was the first Boeing Dreamliner created outside of the state of Washington. Boeing continued to supply the Dreamliner using both the Everett and South Carolina plants.

A KLM 787-9 is seen under construction at the Everett factory. Photo: KLM.

Featured Image: Boeing 787-8 ‘Dreamliner.’ Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways.

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