18 December 2009

Boeing's 787 Dreamliner: Great take-off, but what about those wings?

B787 first flight
I've not had a chance till now to collect my thoughts on the maiden flight for Boeing's new generation "plastic" airliner, the B787.

Tuesday's first flight (click 'webcast' to see the vid) in some truly dreary weather (!), was hailed as a triumph by aviation workers and enthusiasts...mostly in the U.S. obviously, but also around the world.

Triumph? Well, yes and no.


The flight appeared to go like clockwork and was certainly a relief for all concerned with the project but the wild enthusiasm and jingoism probably overplays the success of this event.

For a start, much of the relief is due to the project finally getting 'off the ground' because it is already two years behind schedule and Boeing fans (Americans) are acutely aware that in the meantime the European Airbus A-380 (not a direct competitor - phew!) is already in service, and the A-350 (competitor - eek!) is well into development.

The background: Almost a decade ago when Airbus announced it was starting work on a giant airliner (A-380), Boeing fumbled.

They reacted by first announcing a near supersonic airliner, plans for which they quickly ditched in favour of a more realistic proposal to build enlarged versions of their 'proven' B747 Jumbo, and then finally said (I paraphrase): "Actually, we're not playing, because we think the future of air travel is in smaller fuel-efficient aircraft flying point-to-point rather than big aircraft flying to hub airports where passengers link to regional services".

Who's to say they were not right? Well, Airbus, who are building for both scenarios, leaving Boeing's new flagship to do commercial battle with not one, but two European airliners.

So, if the Dreamliner represents a 'new generation' of airliner, what is so revolutionary about it?

Well, there are lots of things but the main one is: it's built out of carbon fibre, not aluminium, (You mean, like the A350? SSSH!) making it much lighter and stronger than traditional airliners... and that brings us to the wings.

I wasn't aware of it till Tuesday but carbon fibre wings are a lot more bendy than metal ones.

As the B787 took to the air and then headed away from the airport it was the first thing to really stand out about the aircraft (other than the wiggly engine cowlings, she's a pretty ordinary looking plane made much prettier with make-up. The blue paint job gives her curves she doesn't really have) and I wasn't the only one to notice. Twitter lit up with comments about it, and so did the aviation forums.

B787 first flight, landingI wondered at the time if the effect wasn't exaggerated by camera optics - telephoto lenses can have that effect - but there's no doubt about it, with or without optical assistance, those wings flex a great deal. You could see it again when she came in to land, and this is a maiden flight with little load. What on earth will those wings look like when she's full of passengers, luggage and a long-haul fuel load?

Why is this important?

B787 first flight lift-offWell, passengers know wings flex. They look out of the cabin window in amazement as the wings come apart in sections for landings and watch them wobble up and down. It's a very impressive display of unbelievably superb engineering. But they don't like it. Wobbly wings make passengers nervous. And instinctively they sense that if something bends a lot, sooner or later it'll snap.


Aeronautical engineers and airmen know that too, which is why airframes - wings in particular - are tested to destruction. In order to prove its airworthiness and be licensed to fly the B787, in common with other new aircraft, had to show that its wings can carry 150% of its total possible weight. They do. But when the load tests were done, parts of the wing root (where the wing joins the fuselage) showed enough stress that Boeing decided to redesign and strengthen them - which delayed the first flight to dreary December.

None of this will help to reassure the public, and that's where I'm going with this post. I think they will love the modern amenities and extra space (esp the large overhead lockers) inside the cabin, but the signature feature will be the bendy wings. "The Dreamliner? Oh yes, that's the one with the flappy wings!"

Of course Airbus' plastic airliner, the A350, will also have bendy wings, but it will be the B787 that has to get the public used to it.

What do you think? Will you prefer the B787 to build up a bit of a trouble-free service record before you are happy to fly in it?

2 comments:

Lina Zaproudi said...

Yes, I would (wait), to answer your last question.
I watched the launch on TV but did not notice the wobbly wings syndrome!
Does not sound reassuring, with the background you mention.

Why I would wait?
Well, as it is not exactly a totally different type of aircraft (like a real supersonic or Concord-like), the element of curiosity and excitement is not enough to overcome any safety concerns.
So I would wait until it proves itself with a good flying track record.

onliner said...

Hi Lena

Thanks for your thoughts.

Yeah, I'm not criticising the plane itself. And since everyone at Boeing, including the guy who sweeps the corner of the hanger, is way smarter than me, I'm certainly not suggesting it is anything but the safest plane in the skies.

I'm really just saying, as you seem to bear out, it may take people a while to get used to bendy wings.

Maybe that'll happen when the A-350 comes along and there are more of them around.