Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Maybe I'll Just Watch....

Tomorrow (or rather, later this morning, since midnight has come and gone), weather permitting, Boeing's newest airplane, the 787, is supposed to take to the sky. I've been fascinated by this plane ever since I first heard about it. I remember way back when Boeing was trying to decide between building a bigger plane than ever to compete against Airbus's A380, developing the fastest passenger jet in service (at least since the Concorde was retired), or a fuel-sipping machine that would dramatically cut fuel costs.

I'm not sure why Boeing spent so much time, money, or effort considering building a bigger plane or a faster plane--when it comes to flying, what's the most important consideration most people have when deciding what flight to take? The price, of course. Back in the days before I had Amanda to get me around the country cheap, that was always the very first thing I looked at. "Which flight is the cheapest? I'll take it." Didn't matter the time of day or what airline it was. Oh, I had my preferred times, and preferred airlines. But cost was always more important. And most people I knew felt the same way.

The only people who didn't seem to care about what a flight cost were those who didn't have to pay for it. If your company picks up the dime, who cares, right? =) When I flew from Portland to Phoenix on Intel's dime, I didn't worry much about how much the flight cost. At that point, I worried more about the time of day and choice of airlines. (My favorite time of day was about noon or so, and my favorite airline to fly was Alaska.) But even if I didn't care about how much the flight cost, it certainly mattered to Intel.

So to me, it seemed like a no brainer--the cheaper cost to fly the plane, the more popular it would be. Boeing spent years and who knows how much money before coming to the same conclusion, but that's probably not surprising. "Gut instinct" isn't always a good way to run a business. Strangely, Airbus went with the "bigger is better" theory and spent their time and effort building the biggest plane in the world. Good for them. Me? I believed that a fuel-sipping plane was the way to go--and this was back when fuel was relatively cheap.

Not long after the 9/11 attacks, I first invested in Boeing. It seemed like a no brainer to me. Given the crashing of the dot-com boom and fear of flying after 9/11, airlines were in the tailspin. Boeing was suffering from scandals. Those were dark days at Boeing. The sky was falling, and so was the stock price for Boeing.

So I bought some stock. =) Scandals come and go, and I was sure it was only a matter of time before the top management were swept out with the garbage. The airline industry was suffering, but it's always been a cyclical industry. Eventually it would turn around again. And I felt very strongly that the 787 would be a huge, smashing success. It seemed like the company had hit a point of maximum pessimism and things could only start looking up from there, so I bought.

And I've been following Boeing, and particular the progress of the 787 in the news ever since. It only took a few years for a complete reversal of fortunes. The economy started pulling up again, and the fear of flying was abating. Management was swept out, then swept out again when the replacement was caught having an affair with another employee. Orders for the 787 were rolling in in unprecedented numbers, and Airbus fell flat on its face when their jumbo A380 arrived two years late. To say Boeing was doing well was an understatement. It was doing fantastic!

So I sold half of my stock.

I was tempted to sell all of it, but I had kind of grown attached to the company, so I figured I'd at least take out my initial investment and let the "house money" do whatever. =)

Glad I did--it topped out shortly thereafter and sank into oblivion. The 787 was plagued with multiple delays. Airbus started gaining momentum again now that they sorted through the A380 troubles and started development on a plane to compete directly against the 787. And the economy tanked again, airline traffic tanked, and so did Boeing's stock.

I visited the assembly line where the 787 is being put together. Twice, in fact. The first time I took my mom on the Boeing factory tour. (It is totally worth it if you find yourself in the Seattle area looking for something to do.) We got to watch the first few 787s coming together. The #1 plane was still painted in flashy colors for when they rolled out the plane for the world to see for the first time. The other 787s were a pasty khaki color, not yet painted. Which was even more strange to see if you realized that all of the other planes Boeing built always started off green. They put on a green coat to protect the aluminum skin of the plane during construction and don't peel it all off until the plane is done and ready for painting. Occasionally I'll see one of those shiny green planes flying around and I know--it's being tested. Fresh off the factory floor, not even painted yet. So it's kind of weird to see an unpainted plane that's not actually green.

Then last month, when Silent Doug was in the area, I pushed him into going on the factory tour. The first few 787s were parked outside, painted and sitting. Waiting for their time in the air. If I remember correctly, I think they were working on plane #11, but don't quote me on that. Each plane being constructed was actually labeled with the plane number, but photos weren't allowed so I don't have pictures to verify my memory. =)

We also saw that first 747-8 that had just come out a couple of days before. Those things are big.

But anyhow.... I'm rather excited to read about this first flight of the 787. The plane is revolutionary from nose to tail. And, if all goes well, the first flight is just mere hours away.

Three of the 787s they're building are being built with the intention of destroying. One of the factory tours described a wing test they do where they pull both wings up until they snap. The carbon fiber wings of the 787 are so flexible, the guy told us that the wing tips can nearby touch without breaking. (!!!) The incredible flexibility of the wings is supposed to help reduce the effects of turbulence, but it also means the wings might look like a bird flapping in severe weather. I think it would make me a bit nervous looking out the windows and seeing the wings flapping like a bird, so I hope those engineers really know what they're doing!

The plane will have to undergo months of in flight testing before it will be certified as safe for the flying public. Imagine the thrill those test pilots must get being able to fly one of these things for the first time. I always imagined that would have to be one of the most awesome jobs EVER!

Then, today, I read Tough testing awaits the Boeing 787 Dreamliner once it takes to the air. Holy smokes! The hair on my arms stood straight up reading about some of the tests they're going to do to that plane! And now I'm thinking, "Yeah, I think I'd rather watch someone else test pilot those planes." Even if I knew how to fly, some of those tests look absolutely, utterly insane. Who are these maniacs who've volunteered for such a suicidal mission?!

First, there are the "flutter tests." Here's a quote from the article describing those:

Flutter, which occurs when natural vibration is amplified to violent levels by wind or airflow, is what caused the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge to flail to destruction in 1940.

Flutter, which occurs when natural vibration is amplified to violent levels by wind or airflow, is what caused the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge to flail to destruction in 1940.

Seeking to detect any such flutter that could rattle a plane out of the sky, electronic devices pulse the flight controls at varying frequencies to generate shaking. The pilot also slaps the steering column rhythmically with his palm and rapidly vibrates his foot on the rudder control to shake the movable control surfaces as the jet dives from about 40,000 feet.

And, if you read the small print in the caption of a diagram illustrating this test, it reads:

Only after these tests are successfully completed during the first couple of weeks is the plane deemed safe enough to allow FAA inspectors on board to observe the remaining tests.


But that almost seems boring compared to the "Maximum Energy Refused Takoff" test. This test, I'm convinced, would make Chuck Noris cry and wet his pants:

Before the test, the brake pads are intentionally ground down to the minimum allowed before they'd have to be replaced in regular service. Then, loaded to its maximum weight and full of fuel, the jet races down the runway up to a pre-calculated top speed before the pilot slams on the brakes.

When a pilot "dynamites the brakes" in this way, in the words of Joe MacDonald, former chief 747 test pilot, it generates so much heat that on earlier planes typically the steel brakes melted and the wheels caught fire, popping fuse plugs that deflated the tires. Fire personnel standing by were required to hold off dousing the flames for five full minutes in a successful test, to show that no wider fire would ensue.

This particular test they will do at Edwards Air Force Base on the world's longest runway (15,000 feet) with a dry lake bed beyond. Just in case things go wrong, it won't kill anyone except the test pilots.

Another test that made me sick just reading about it is the "tail-strike takeoff."

As the jet accelerates down the runway, the pilot points the plane's nose so steeply upward that as the nose wheels leave the ground the tail of the airplane scrapes along the runway, sending sparks flying out behind. The nose cannot physically go higher until the tail leaves the ground. When it does, the test has determined the Dreamliner's absolute minimum takeoff speed.

The article describes additional tests that the plane will be put through, but I'll tell you one thing--I'm darned glad I'm not a test pilot. Those people are freakin' CRAZY!

And if you live in the Seattle area and see a plane that appears to be plummeting out of the sky--don't worry. They're just testing planes. *rolling eyes* =)


OrbitalMom said...

Hey Ryan, ever see the movie "The Right Stuff," those test pilots were crazy!!! Back then everyone believed that to hit Mach 1 meant immediate death, but those test pilots just keep pushing the envelope!!! And then they turned and volunteered to be the first Americans to fly in space!!! Insanity!!!

Hendel D'bu said...

It's awful pretty all painted up and sittin' in the sunshine.

I'm all for Boeing doing well, as my DH has been there for a very long time. I don't want him test piloting, though :-)

RHCD said...

You do know that most Boeing employee's would give their right arm to be on any of the test flights? Well maybe just the employees I hang out with. I know I would and pretty sure my DH would give both arms, a leg, but then again he's an airplane nut.

Honestly today will probably be one of my best memories, seeing that plane fly over me after it took off.