Boeing 787

Almost 560 million passengers flown; 2.7 million revenue flights; over 1000 aircraft delivered, 90% of them flying through the pandemic with passengers or even cargo—more than any other widebody, even in dark times like these. The numbers for the fastest-selling heavy airliner in history are impressive. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a marvel that serves as a reference for anything that came after: quieter, smoother, more fuel efficient than any other jetliner designed before or after. From my perspective, having spent almost four years flying it (nearly half of its service time) and logging over 2300 flight hours in one of the pilot seats, I really feel proud of the level the 787 has brought me as a professional. And I am not talking about FL431 over China!

Boeing 787

The 787 was a technological leap for Boeing. Has it paid off?

From a pilot’s perspective, the Dreamliner is the most comfortable Boeing ever designed. It is very spacious, with several environmental improvements that make it quiet enough to occasionally hear another plane passing by 3000 feet below on a dark night over the ocean. If we add to that the much cleaner air—that comes directly from outside, and not from engine bleed air—and 20% lower cabin altitude, it is a dream ride. It’s also a smooth one, since the gust suppression system helps to keep it steady.

Talking about turbulence, one of the few things that is not the Dreamliner’s forte is the radar: its algorithm doesn’t seem as smart as the newer 737’s one, for example. The bright side? The “seven eight” was designed to fly far and high, so with fewer sectors and above most of the bad weather—and other traffic—we don’t depend on the radar as much as previous models. And speaking of far…

Despite the relatively small size (in the range of 240 to 340 passengers), the Boeing 787 is a natural long-hauler: around half of the longest routes in the world are flown by 787s, noticeably the -9 version. The middle version of the family, it is just right on capacity and range. Even at its maximum payload, it can get very far. If you restrict it a bit, it shines—up to 20 hours of flight! Economically viable 14-hour plus routes, once impossible, are now done daily. Some 100 city-pairs have been created by the Dreamliner alone.

One of the features that makes it possible? The mysterious HLFC system. The small door at the base of the vertical fin of the -9 and -10 versions hides a well-kept industrial secret: by creating low pressure on the leading edge of the stabilizer, the air takes longer to detach from the surface of the airplane, reducing drag and improving fuel burn by around one percent at least—2000 pounds in a very long flight. The Hybrid Laminar Flow Control System has another magic trick: during takeoff and landing, the door opens in the opposite direction (thus the “hybrid”) to self-clean the system that would otherwise quickly get clogged by bugs and dust.

No less impressive is the choice by the manufacturer for the extensive use of electricity. Powered by four starter-generators, two on each engine, plus another couple in the APU, the airplane has electric brakes, pressurization, anti-ice systems and, as mentioned, engine start. The redundancies are such that even the lithium-ion batteries that were once an unwanted black spot on the 787’s early history are not designed to be used more than during transitory and very unlikely failures. All this saves a huge amount of pipes, hydraulic fluid, and overall complexity—giving the 787 impressively high rates of dispatch reliability. In hundreds of flights, I’ve seen it grounded by maintenance maybe once or twice.

Speaking of failures, because of its redundancies the common things you would see on the line are either rare or easy to deal with. And on the simulator sessions, the electronic checklist, the intuitive system designs, and the endless resources the airplane gives you make the Dreamliner a very friendly aircraft, even on a bad day. Lost an engine at V1? Rotate smoothly, follow the flying cue on the Head Up Display, and once airborne get your feet on the ground—the flight control system will handle it for you.

Enderson Rafael

The 787 makes the pilot’s job easy.

Fly-by-wire under the Boeing philosophy uses soft limits: it tells you up to where you should go, but you as a pilot have the final word. Nevertheless, there are several stall protections with the autopilot and the auto-throttle and even angle of attack and GPS altitude for a scenario with unreliable airspeed. The handling characteristics in degraded or direct modes are still decent, and in normal mode it is a technological gift: the way the aircraft helps you through your hand flying is nothing less than mind blowing.

For those who came from a traditional cable flight control system like the 737 has, flying the 787 feels weird at first, but once you understand and get used to it, the Dreamliner reveals itself as a smooth operator second to none. A trained eye seeing a 787 landing in gusty conditions from the outside can effortlessly spot the flight controls’ myriad of tricks to deliver the pilot what he or she wants from the machine. After all, Boeing wants you to fly it as if it were a conventionally controlled airplane, while a whole team of computers makes it actually much easier.

A nearly perfect wing makes the Dreamliner feel like a glider: picking up a much higher speed on descent will not make you go down faster, unless you use the very effective speed brakes. At cruise, its wingtips—bent nine feet up—create a fast and efficient profile. Climbing high, even when heavy, the economical cruise profile of Mach 0.85 puts it among the fastest airliners in the skies, burning around twice the fuel of a narrow body but carrying three times more weight. The composite material fuselage, the single most innovative characteristic of the 787, makes it much lighter, stronger, and nearly eternal when it comes to flying cycles—the real aging measure of an airplane. The “heavy plastic” came to stay, for many decades, and this was only the first.

Operating an aircraft of the historic importance of the Dreamliner (yes, we love the nickname) and with all the cutting-edge technology it brings is like time traveling; as if I were one of the few thousand aviators to have a glance of what the future of airliners will look like. The solutions on the 787 are so innovative that most haven’t even been tried yet by competitors—or even by Boeing. If you look at its nearest and later competitor, aside from some avionics stuff that are more a matter of philosophy than technological capacity, the whole project is more conservative than the 787s. And it is exceeded, once again, in performance: while being smaller, the Dreamliner carries the same payload and for longer distances, burning less than its European quasi-pair.

The costs of the project and profusion of issues with the worldwide production chain come at a high price tag. But with decades of service ahead and hundreds of airplanes still to be delivered, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has reached its 10 year service anniversary with maturity without compromising its design youth.

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12 replies
  1. Jim Coyer
    Jim Coyer says:

    Hard to believe it’s ten years on. Thanks for the wonderful insiders homage to a real marvel. The next time I get to travel in one I know what to look for. Please more articles like this!

    Obrigado,
    Jim Coyer

    Reply
    • Enderson Rafael
      Enderson Rafael says:

      True! A full decade in service (arguably minus 3 months) is indeed a long time, but it felt like much less! Thank you for reading the other articles as well!
      Eu que agradeço, Jim!

      Reply
  2. Vince Massimini
    Vince Massimini says:

    Nice article and a great airplane. Too bad the news media are still negative on it. A big issue with the new airplane is automation confusion. You didn’t comment, but most of the US airline accidents in the past ten years have been related to automation. I wonder how the Dreamliner will stack up. Best, Vince

    Reply
    • Enderson Rafael
      Enderson Rafael says:

      Hi, Vince! Well noticed: although there are still bulletins on that, the big thing with automation is the lack of understanding of the crew – specially transitioning from other types. And in that regard, Boeing made an excellent job with the 787, since the modes are very similar to the rest of the fleet, even because the aim was to have a common type rating with the 777, as the 787 has. Thanks for bringing that up!

      Reply
    • Enderson Rafael
      Enderson Rafael says:

      Thank you, José! Every time I get on that flight deck feels like the first time: although familiar, I still feel the privilege of working on an office so well designed! It is hard to think I will ever have the chance to fly something better than this.

      Reply
  3. Larry Smith
    Larry Smith says:

    Great article.

    I still recite the phrase…. “I ain’t going, if it ain’t Boeing”
    Love the Boeing planes and flew many of them… all great. Never flew the 787 so nice to hear about it. I still like the 4 engine ones… 747-400 is still a great plane and too bad it was retired, but times change. In the 400 an engine out was a minor inconvience… in the light twins like th 57, 76, 77 and 87 it’s a real emergency .

    Reply
    • Enderson Rafael
      Enderson Rafael says:

      Well said, Larry, although in fact the engines now are much more reliable too, so the chances of losing it are greatly lower, and the 787 has ETOPs certification over 300 minutes. But as you said, if you loose it, the “plan to land at the nearest suitable airport” phrase in the QRH is self explanatory. Cheers!

      Reply
  4. Dan Edwards
    Dan Edwards says:

    Excellent review Enderson. You did a great job of capturing the wonders of the Dreamliner. I’ve been a Captain and LCA for nearly 8 years and over 5,000 hours in all versions of the 787, the -8,-9 and -10. I’ve flown it all over the world and over 17 hours on our longest route from Houston to Sydney many times. It is a dream to fly. Great article.

    Reply
    • Enderson Rafael
      Enderson Rafael says:

      Thank you very much, Dan! I have only flown the -8 and the -9 so far, as FO and inflight relief, and I am truly happy that you somehow felt represented by the points I brought about the airplane. The “heavy plastic” is an amazing machine, even with its idiosyncrasies, and I couldn’t ask for a better office. There are, like you know, many other things we could share about it – from the retractable table to the humidification system; from the CPDLC to the integrated EFB; and the list would go on – but one thing is for sure: it is a Dreamliner indeed!

      Reply
  5. Gary Hagan
    Gary Hagan says:

    I knew a Boeing employee who worked the production line of the 787 during startup. Many problems were solved dealing with tolerances of assemblies made on opposite sides of the globe which had to fit together in the final assembly. The batteries were a whole different set of problems, however, they were solved also. It’s great to hear some positive news from Boeing…Great history as a company, but Maybe, they are on the right track with the 737NG..Hope so..Anyway, Thanks for the posting from a retired Air Force mechanic..

    Reply
    • Enderson Rafael
      Enderson Rafael says:

      Hi there, Gary. I know many mechanics that work in different types around the world, and the 787 is not exactly their favorite hahah Usually they like the 777 better. But yes, the choice by Boeing to have so many countries involved in the production was very clever from the commercial and economical perspective; but brought many issues that echoes until today. Let’s see if that approach will be used again on their next project. Despite the fiasco on the narrow side, I do think they will find their way, and the 777X will be very well positioned as the new jumbo when the 747 and A380 retire for good, since the A350-1000, although a good, efficient and comfortable airplane for up to 12 hours routes, can’t deliver as much capacity and range. Thank you for your comment!

      Reply

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