Thinking Tech

Thoughts leaving Seattle after 787 first flight

Thoughts leaving Seattle after 787 first flight

Posting in Design

Now 787 test flights begin in earnest. See dramatic video of what that will entail and a nice shot I took of the first 747-8. And thoughts leaving Seattle.

[this was mostly written as I left Seattle yesterday.]

It's 4:45 a.m. and I am passing Boeing Field on my way to Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Boeing 787 ZA001, which flew yesterday, has been moved a couple of hundred yards north outside a large square building from the tent-like hangar where it was towed after the seminal flight Tuesday.

Gone were swarms of media and cheering Boeing employees who fawned over it after the maiden voyage yesterday. There was no one around, but I wondered if technicians were still inside downloading test data. Probably not because yesterday's trip was abbreviated due to foul weather and only half the scheduled tests were performed.

747-8 waits for its turn to fly.

For all the 787's innovation such as carbon fiber construction, fuel efficiency and lower emissions,  it looked like all the other new planes that undergo tests at Boeing Field prior to customer delivery. Most are smaller 737s made in the nearby Renton plant and a few military planes including one with an exotic flat hammer-head nose that a colleague told me has a laser to shoot down enemy missiles.

To the casual observer, the 787 could easily be mistaken for a 767, 777 or even an Airbus A330. Therein lies the Boeing's winning design philosophy of emphasizing comfort and efficiency instead of the traditional aviation drivers of speed and power.

It wasn't always that way. Boeing foresaw a future of rising fuel prices, the depressing geopolitics of oil and passenger disdain for flying. So early in the decade, Boeing abandoned the 787's predecessor known as the Sonic Cruiser whose name suggests speed just as Dreamliner implies comfort.

In an industry where one failed product can doom the company, Boeing appears to have bet correctly. A more comfortable and efficient airplane that can be made profitably is right for the times and its bulging order book proves that. All that's left to be done is execution.

So now the real fun begins. Six test 787s will face all types of conditions that a passenger never sees (I'm lovin' this nice smooth flight on a United 757 to Denver where I connect to my flight for Boston). Check out the dramatic video below of 777s being put through the their paces. The video shows the plane landing nearly sideways in severe cross winds using a sideways maneuver known as crabbing. The plane also literally drops out of the sky and recovers, wheels through several inches of water and brakes to the point of conflagration. Now, it's the 787's turn.

Chief 787 test pilot Mike Carriker remarked yesterday how much more satisfying it is to fly the actual plane than use the simulator. And that was after a pretty turbulent flight yesterday.

Here's a few other 787 first flight odds and ends.

The last minute nature of first flight limited media attendance. I saw no one from major newspapers except the local Seattle papers (the Seattle PI now is all digital). It was mostly aviation, tech pubs, bloggers like me and many reporters from Japan given I presume that ANA and Japan Airlines will be big 787 customers.

There were a lot of TV stations because airplanes are such fetching eye candy. But a colleague and veteran of many test flights told me that in comparison, the 787's debut flight was something of a muted media affair. One thing that struck me is that Boeing execs don't mingle with the media. They did for a bit after yesterday's press conference with the test pilots, but none showed up at a media reception Monday night.

The media throng at Paine Field

Compare that to nearby Microsoft where Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates liberally held court with reporters following press events back in the 80s and 90s. And the ever voluble Ballmer still does. Boeing and Microsoft may both be technology companies, but when it comes to cultures, one is from Venus and the other is from Mars.

Here's a slightly humorous media vignette. A wire service reporter I was chatting waiting for the 787 to land showed me a Dow Jones dispatch on his Blackberry that said the 787 had landed. It was timestamped 1:12 p.m. PT. The plane touched down 21 minutes later.

Finally, Paine Field next to Boeing's huge Everett plant is an amazing place and I got a good shot of the new and first 747-8 which is also late and will fly early next year. Sporting new wings and engines, the 748 as it sometimes called is the 15th model of the venerable jumbojet.

Even parked, these planes are absolutely magnificent to observe. Flying is even better. In sheer size, noise, function and power, they are the ultimate expression of engineering and technical brilliance.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure