Monday, October 10, 2011

Boeing B787 – Making the Dreamliner a Reality

With the nightmarish events of September 11th 2001 still reverberating around the world, it took a bold move by the Boeing Company to begin production of its Dreamliner.
By acknowledging airlines’ needs to reduce costs and increase efficiency, Boeing proposed a replacement for its own 767 in 2002. Unlike its heavier cousin, however, the new ’7E7′ (later to be re-named the Boeing 787 Dreamliner) would be a super-efficient, wide-body, twin-engine aircraft capable of carrying up to 300 people from Los Angeles to Bangkok with ease.
Despite significant downturns in the aviation industry, major airlines were soon attracted. Japan’s second-largest airline, All Nippon Airways, was first to be enticed. In April 2004, it ordered 50 examples with an option to buy 50 more. In so doing, it became the largest launch order in Boeing’s illustrious history. Other operators quickly followed, with the company’s order book eventually containing the signatures of 55 more airline executives seeking a total of 846 aircraft. This most successful launch of a new aircraft in Boeing’s history was now worth an estimated $164 billion.
It’s easy to see why. The B787 was being billed as a mid-sized aircraft capable of flying the same range as a Boeing 747 (and at comparable speed) whilst using 20 percent less fuel than a Boeing 767. This was all possible thanks to its state-of-the-art design.
With half of the aircraft’s structure being made up of light-weight composites, the B787 would require far fewer aluminium sheets (Boeing estimates 1,500 fewer) than similar-sized aircraft. This was due to its innovative ‘one-piece’ fuselage which negated the need for up to 50,000 fasteners and the million or so holes that were usually drilled through a Boeing 747.
The facts and figures stacked up. The Dreamliner would be produced in two series: the 787-8; a short range version carrying up to 250 passengers, and the 787-9; the longer-range, 290-passenger carrying version. Both types would extract up to 35 percent less power from their engines thanks in part to the loss of 60 miles of copper wiring contained in most conventional aircraft.
Unlike existing aircraft, however, the Dreamliner wouldn’t be produced by one manufacturer alone. With Boeing taking the lead in design and final assembly, a third of the aircraft’s surfaces and systems would be produced and assembled by a collection of aerospace companies spread across the globe. This worldwide production, however, presented the Dreamliner’s biggest challenge.
With a wing span of 60 metres and its supplier being Japan-based, the transportation of the B787′s wing section to Boeing’s final assembly in Everett, USA, would be a slow and cumbersome process. Fortunately, Boeing had the wherewithal to introduce a much-loved aircraft to the task.
Boeing launched the ‘Dreamlifter’; a modified Boeing 747-400 passenger aircraft fitted with a hinged swing tail and boasting a greater cargo volume than any other aeroplane. These unique freighters (four would eventually be purchased by Boeing) had to be converted, certified and in operation by 2007 if the Dreamliner delivery program was to remain on schedule. But while the Dreamlifter operation was enjoying success, the Dreamliner wasn’t.
As planned, its roll-out took place, rather appropriately, on 7/8/07. But the aircraft was far from the finished article and way off its proposed schedule. Thanks to delays in component availability, the first flight, originally due for August 2007, eventually took place on December 15th 2009. As ZA001 (a 747-8) flew its wheels-down, three hour test flight over a crowd of 12,000 people, Boeing finally conceded defeat. The company was forced to revise its first delivery to the fourth quarter of 2010.
Five further test aircraft were subsequently produced and it seemed that the Dreamliner was making headway. But a total loss of electrical power to the second test aircraft on approach to Laredo, Texas, in November 2010, put paid to Boeing’s optimism. Flight tests were temporarily suspended as the company sought to establish the cause.
It is due to this (and Rolls Royce engine availability) that the first delivery of the B787 has been put back until the middle of the first quarter, 2011. Initial versions could also have a reduced range of some 6,900 nautical miles compared to the projected 8,200nm because of overweight issues. Boeing concedes that it may not be able resolve these weight issues until the production of its 21st airframe. This has led some customer airlines to seek discounts or delays in delivery.
Yet despite the many complications associated with the production of a multi-national, brand new aircraft, the Dreamliner is fully expected to be realized as an airliner fit for the modern world.


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