A hazard of flying that makes my palms sweat is turbulence (rough air or chop in pilot parlance). When a jetliner is zipping along at 600 MPH and hits a pocket of rough air, the aircraft can feel like it is careening out of control.
So hopefully Boeing’s new “gust suppression system” in the 787 Dreamliner will deliver on its promise to dampen the unsettling effects of rough air. The best coverage on this topic was by Chuck Murray who covered electronics when I was editor-in-chief at engineering magazine Design News. We won several awards for our groundbreaking 787 technology coverage for which I am extremely proud, including the 2008 IEEE Distinguished Journalism award for yours truly. The IEEE is pre-eminent standards setting organization in the field of electrical engineering. Without the IEEE, you wouldn’t have iPods, notebook computers or the wall sockets into which you plug appliances. For that matter, you wouldn’t be reading this or any blog.
The 787 is chock full of smart and innovative technologies. In a first for a big jetliner, many of its key systems such as brakes, air conditioning and even some flight surfaces that could save the plane in event of a massive hydraulic failure are electric . The engines promise a 15% fuel savings and 50% of the plane is made from a carbon fiber and epoxy composite. Major reductions in maintenance costs have been guaranteed in the customer contracts. These advances are why Boeing has so many orders - 886 as of early May despite 57 cancellations this year. And that’s with a two-year delay in first flight and deliveries.
Boeing has some cool 787 videos and photos at newairplane.com.
On May 21, the engines were started for the first time on plane number one (ZA001) which Boeing has confidentially said will fly in June. Flightblogger Jon Ostrower wrote a great account of this milestone and shot some photos. I hope to be at Boeing Field for first flight.
The gust suppression system uses algorithms in concert with a combination of sensors, accelerometers and microcontrollers in the aircraft to counteract wind gusts before the plane’s initial, aka “inertial” response. Using that realtime data, flight control surfaces such as the rudder, spoilers, flaps or aerilons can be positioned to minimize jarring bumps. In particular, Boeing focused on the type of bumps that make passengers grab for the barf bag. Typically, those last between one and five seconds and have up and down motion.
How much this will lessen the impact of rough air won’t be truly known until the plane flies. But I am hopeful. The first commercial deliveries are scheduled for August to ANA Airlines.
There are other creature comfort improvements on the 787 including more light from bigger windows, better humidity characteristics to avoid the dryness than makes passengers feel lousy post-flight and a cabin altitude that simulates a more human-friendly altitude of 6,000 feet instead of the usual 8,000.
Of course for now, all these improvements are just on paper as far as Joe Sixpack passenger is concerned. And Boeing had has some had issues with plane weight which has made some customers nervous about the promised fuel efficiency and range. But like I said, I’m hopeful.
Image credits: Boeing