If Boeing learns anything from today’s maiden flight of the 787-10 Dreamliner today, it means something has gone wrong.
That’s because the planemaker has left the Wright brothers’ system—build something, throw it off a sand dune, observe—far in the past. Instead, the company’s engineers have spent the past five years testing, tormenting, and torturing every last scrap of metal on its latest widebody commercial jet destined for customers all over the world—before letting it leave the ground. Today’s maiden flight is a milestone more than anything, signaling the new jet is ready to take off—and endure yet more testing.
“Today is about getting the plane up in the air,” says Frank Rasor, who runs flight testing for all Boeing aircraft. “We won’t learn anything in a first flight.” In this case, ignorance is bliss.
Measuring 244 feet from nose to tail and listed for a cool $306 million, the 787-10 is the latest, longest variant of the 787 Dreamliner. The twin engine jet’s 7,400-mile range won’t take it quite as far as its shorter siblings (it follows the 787-8 and 787-9), but it seats 330 passengers, 90 more than can sardine into the 787-8. Boeing built the plane to battle Airbus’ A350-900 in the growing Middle Eastern market.
The 787 itself, launched in 2011, is still among the most advanced jets on the planet, built from lightweight carbon fiber and stuffed with the latest in aviation tech. Each pilot gets a head-up display, the plane spots and counters turbulence, and offers extra large windows. Boeing plans to deliver the “Dash 10” starting next year, but first, it’s got to prove its mettle.
That testing process is baked into the development process, starting at the most basic level. Before attaching a bolt to a nut, Boeing engineers will hammer at each bit until it breaks, gauging material strength. As the myriad components take shape, they undergo their own rigorous tests.
As each piece secures approval, it moves up into a larger system, which then faces its own test: Landing gear takes the full impact of a landing without leaving the ground. That process takes the plane all the way to the runway for a taxi test, where the pilot accelerates to 100 mph—just shy of takeoff speed—before slamming the brakes so hard, they glow orange with heat.
Today’s flight out of Boeing’s Charleston, South Carolinaplant (takeoff time is TBD, weather depending) signals the final stage of testing. At last, Boeing will test the plane as a whole, in the air where it will spend its life. “It’s about the ultimate system integration testing,” Rasor says.
For this maiden voyage, the two test pilots—no passengers for the inaugural flight—will take it easy on the plane. They’ll fly at a casual 300 mph (max speed is twice that), moving up and down between 10,000 and 15,000 feet. They’ll spend four hours aloft, testing systems like the flaps and landing gear, before touching down back at the plant. All the while, a team on the ground will crunch reams of data far beyond what any pilot needs, making sure everything, down to the speed and movement of the wingtip, checks out.
From there, life gets hard on the 787-10. The test pilots will take it all the way to “dive speed” and up to its 40,000 foot ceiling, introducing new challenges with each flight. No one will repeat test pilot Tex Johnston’s famed barrel roll in the Boeing 707—the days of unauthorized aerial tricks are long dead—but the crews will push the new jet to climb nearly vertical, banking hard enough to empty even the most iron of stomachs. They’ll fill up water ballast tanks to make the plane heavier, and fly as slowly as they can, to see how the plane handles stalls, when it’s no longer generating enough lift to stay airborne.
For a brand new kind of plane, the regimen demands 4,000 to 5,000 hours in the air, in a series of roughly four-hour flights. Because the 787-10 is just a variant of the 787, it gets cleared for service after about a quarter of that. Instead of retesting every component it shares with the other members of the 787 family, which are well proven at this point, Boeing will focus on what’s different. Here, that means the handling and speed tests, because the plane’s longer body changes how it acts in midair.
Because Seattle isn’t the world’s roughest place to fly, Boeing takes the plane abroad: to the baking heat of the Arizona desert, the high altitude of Bolivia, the humidity of Curaao, the frigid temperatures of northern Russia, and the brutal crosswinds of Iceland.
So the first time you climb aboard the new bird, treat it real nice.After all, it’s been through a lot.