A Dream Plane Is a Technology Winner

It could be a pleasure to fly in and a boon to the environment. On Sunday, Boeing unveiled the new 787 Dreamliner, a commercial aviation breakthrough in both technical achievement and environmental progress. The Everett, Wash., aerospace giant threw a spectacular party for the debut of the completed prototype of the Dreamliner, with some 15 000 in attendance and millions more tuning in to the premiere via satellite broadcast and online webcast.

The point of all the hoopla was to show off the new aircraft's remarkable innovations in design and construction. At Spectrum, though, we needed little in the way of ceremony to appreciate some of the super-jet's most advanced features. We first wrote about the 787 more than a year ago. In our January 2006 special issue on Technology Winners and Losers, we proclaimed the Dreamliner's special composite-based body to be one of the winners in our annual review of futuristic technologies (please see "Winner: Carbon Takeoff").

Boeing promotes the Dreamliner as the world's first "mostly composite" commercial aircraft. It states that the next-generation jet will use 20 percent less fuel per passenger than similarly sized models, produce fewer carbon emissions, and will make quieter takeoffs and landings.

"Our journey began some six years ago when we knew we were on the cusp of delivering valuable technologies that would make an economic difference to our airline customers," Mike Bair, Boeing Commercial Airplanes' vice president/general manager of the 787 program, said in a statement to the press. "In our business, that happens every 15 or so years, so we have to get it right."

In our 2006 article on the Dreamliner's advanced composites technology, Associate Editor Erico Guizzo noted that the plane's designers decided to go with an all-composite wing for the 787 only after years of experience with composite structures in previous planes, notably the tail of the 777, which has been operational for a decade.

The earlier work gave Boeing engineers better understanding of the advantages of composites -- as well as their drawbacks. Problems can vary from moisture absorption that can reduce stiffness to tiny fissures that can go undetected and result in abrupt cracks, Guizzo pointed out. And then there's the simple fact that aircraft designers have more experience with metals. In fact, Boeing is using aluminum, steel, and titanium in some parts of the 787.

Though Boeing will not disclose the total cost of developing the Dreamliner, Guizzo's research puts an estimated price on the overall project at between US $8 billion to $10 billion. The aerospace firm said in its announcement on Sunday that it already has 47 customers worldwide lined up to take delivery of 677 aircraft worth more than $110 billion. The company and its international partners will initially build six test copies of the new jet in Everett in the weeks ahead, with first flights expected later this summer. After shakeout testing, scheduled for completion next year, Boeing intends to begin delivering fully certified 787s for passenger service by May 2008.

That sounds like something worth celebrating. But, of course, we knew that all along.

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