January, 2020 - Modern Airliners

Boeing 777x First Flight

Boeing 777x Roll out

After two failed attempts, called off due to high winds, the latest addition to the 26-year-old Boeing 777 family has finally taken to the air. At 09:08 am, Saturday 25 January 2020, aircraft registration WH-001 started its takeoff run on runway 34 Left at Paine Field, Everett. With an 8 knot tailwind, broken clouds at 3,000 feet with 6 miles visibility, the largest twin-engine jet took a mere 30 seconds to become airborne. Applause and cheering from the crowd was drowned out by the worlds biggest jet engines, the GE Aviation GE9x.

Maiden flights of new airliners don’t happen very often, maybe once or twice a decade. Whilst the first flight of the Boeing 777x is a cause for excitement, Boeing must be feeling the pressure of getting this completely right in light of the 737 MAX situation. But enough of that.

The test flight lasted four hours out over the Pacific Northwest, a major milestone and the beginning of a very rigorous aircraft certification program. Before the aircraft can be delivered to airlines and begin carrying passengers, it has to go through a certification process. This is done with the F.A.A. (Federal Aviation Administration) and then no doubt with other agencies such as E.A.S.A. (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) before it can fly to, or overfly those regions. By current estimates, Boeing expects to be in a position to start delivering the first aircraft to customers in 2021. The first of those is expected to be Emirates. The order book for the 777x stands at 309 airframes with a list price of US $442M per aircraft. Of course, this is not necessarily what airlines will pay as they will have negotiated with Boeing for discounts around things like, number of aircraft ordered, or being the launch airline. Nevertheless, the sooner Boeing starts delivering, the sooner the income for this project will start.

The wingtip deployment can be clearly seen in this video as the Boenig 777x takes to the sky for the first time on a wet Seattle day.

So after 26 years of 777s (Tripple Sevens), what is so special about the 777x? Well, the original 777 was a step forward in its day, being computer designed it brought a lot of new ideas to the airliner design table. The 777x is carrying on that tradition by using technologies that have been tried and tested in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. This includes using more composite materials in its construction, to make use of lighter stronger materials as well as materials which are far less susceptible to corrosion. Larger windows and an updated passenger cabin will be great news for passengers on this aircraft that Boeing maintains is the most efficient twin-engined airliner in the world.

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The standout feature is the folding wingtip………

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The stand out feature, however, is the folding wingtip. This feature, until now, was typical of fighter aircraft that were assigned to aircraft carriers. To save space when the aircraft was stored below decks, its wings would be folded upwards and thereby reducing the side to side space required for its storage. This is a concept that Boeing went with. To create the largest twin jet in the world, that is required to fly further than the previous version, was going to require a wing that gave more lift than the previous version. Winglets could have solved the problem to some extent, but it has been found that a longer tapered wing gives more optimal lift. The Boeing 787 and the Boeing 747 8 are testament to Boeing’s findings in this area.

So why folding wingtips? Well, let’s look at the Airbus A380. When it was introduced in the early 2000s, airports were required to make adjustments to gate areas to enable a much wider aircraft to be accommodated. They had to be “A380 Ready” before that airliner could land there. A huge upheaval and expense but it was seen as the new future and therefore was seen as an investment in that future. We now know of course that the days of the A380 are numbered, now that the giant twin airliners are coming of age. Boeing wanted to avoid the restrictiveness of requiring airports to upgrade to be able to handle an oversized wingspan. They wanted the 777x to be able to fly everywhere that the current generation of 777s can fly to. So was born the folding wingtip idea. The wingtips allow the 777x to change from a wingspan of 235 feet in the air down to 213 feet on the ground.

As the wingtips are a totally new technology in the passenger airliner space, the F.A.A. has come up with a set of 10 conditions that have to be satisfied before certification can take place. Boeing has stated that the non-deployment of the wingtips on takeoff can lead to catastrophic results. This is logical, as a fully laden aircraft, depends on the lift that those wingtips provide. If you suddenly have smaller wings than required, you are going by road with tragic results. The 10 conditions are designed to put fail-safes in place to

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… you are going by road with tragic results……..

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prevent the non-deployment of wingtips on takeoff as well as the failure of the wingtips to stay in place during flight. These conditions revolve around a comprehensive warning system to alert the crew to the fact they are attempting takeoff without the wingtips deployed. In addition, if that is ignored, there is the ability for the aircraft to prevent takeoff until wingtips are deployed. With every new technology comes a whole raft of things to consider and conditions to be tested for.

Like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner which started its early days as the 7E7, the 777x will no doubt be dropped in favour of the actual variant names of 777-8 and 777-9. Some basic statics on the two models are as follows:

777x VariantRangePassengers
Boeing 777-816,170km (8,730nm)384
Boeing 777-913,490km (7,285nm)426

Be sure to visit our Boeing 777x page for more details.

At 251 feet, the Boeing 777-9 will be the longest commercial aircraft in the world.

The road to this first test flight has not been a smooth one. From the time that the 777x was first rolled out of the hangar in March 2019, it was found that the new GE9x engine experienced excessive wear when run. In September when the wing stress testing was done, there was an explosive decompression event when a tear appeared in the fuselage. The manufacturing of the 777x was to be done in a fully automated assembly line by robots. Challenges in this area have forced Boeing to revert back to the traditional human-driven process.

The 777x is in the air at last. We certainly look forward to watching its progress toward certification.

Airbus Versus Boeing

United Airlines Airbus A320 and Boeing 737-800 on final approach at San Francisco.

For the first time since 2011, Airbus has outperformed Boeing.

As we all know, there are two main plane makers in the world today making the lions share of commercial passenger-carrying aircraft. Boeing and Airbus are more or less a duopoly in the skies and have been keenly fighting for market share for a number of years now. They’ve both had wins and setbacks from which they have managed to recover with lessons learned.

Now that 2019 is behind us, a year that many are quite glad to have in the rearview mirror, it might be interesting to see how it washed up for Boeing and Airbus.

It’s not hard to see which aircraft model was the most prolific in 2019. The Airbus A320 family of aircraft has been selling well for Airbus and in a year where the Boeing 737 MAX was not compromised by groundings, that aircraft should have been delivered in the same numbers.

Let’s not forget the turn around in the fate of the Super Jumbo Airbus A380. That aircraft was set to pick up the reins from the Queen of the Skies, the much loved Boeing 747, and take us into the new Millenium in style. What Airbus failed to recognise was that the advent of much better engine technology. This technology paved the way for the giant twin-engined jets to service those long overwater routes previously reserved for the four-engined airliners. This was bad news for Airbus as the sales of the A380 fell well short of the break-even point where the aircraft sales had covered the development and manufacturing costs. As if on a signal, different airlines cancelled their A380 orders or at least reduced them. The huge Emirates order will keep manufacturing going for a limited time until all orders of the type dry up.

It is not all bad news for Airbus, however. Where some of the A380 orders were cancelled, they were replaced by orders for the new A350 XWB. Even Emirates converted some of its A380 orders to A350 XWB orders. Obviously a cheaper option for airliners, and one that will continue to be developed into the future.

The smaller A320 family of aircraft have a higher production rate than the other models which is obvious from the graphic. These aircraft are produced in multiple locations to try and keep up with demand. Airbus is also ramping up the A220 production. The A220 was, of course, bought from Bombardier of Canada.

So, mixed results for Airbus. What of Boeing?

Boeing’s story is perhaps much more dramatic and has been very much in focus throughout 2019. As we know, the first event that gave a clue that all was not well with Boeing’s new 737 MAX happened in October 2018, when Lion Air flight 610 crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff from Jakarta, Indonesia. The investigation started to show there was a problem with the system that prevents the aircraft from going into a stall. The heightened likelihood of a stall was anticipated due to a larger engine on this model needing to be placed further in front of the main wing to allow it to be raised higher to achieve ground clearance.

The Boeing delivery figures for 2019 show clearly the gap left by the delivery of the smallest model, the 737. The MAX deliveries should have been around the 570 aircraft mark, not 121 as shown above. The larger aircraft such as the 787 and 777 have longer production times and so fewer are produced compared to the 737.

Tragically, this assessment was further proven correct when a second 737 MAX, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, crashed in similar circumstances after departure from Addis Ababa in March 2019. Not even six months after Lion Air. The aviation world immediately responded by grounding the Boeing 737 MAX pending further investigation and rectification of any issues that were found. Boeing continued to produce the 737 MAX in the hope that the grounding would be lifted and deliveries could commence. As 2019 wore on it started becoming obvious that the MAX was not going to allowed back in the air anytime soon. The production was slowed from 52 to 42 aircraft per month, and on 14 March 2019, the first cancellation of a MAX order was received. It was from Garuda Indonesia for 49 aircraft. There have been a number of others and as we write in January 2020, Boeing has suspended production. To be honest, I believe they simply don’t have the space to park any more.

There are around 400 aircraft ready to be delivered. If and when the all-clear is given and dependant on what remedial work needs to be done on completed airframes to make them airworthy, Boeing will schedule the delivery of those aircraft while firing up the production lines again.

United Airlines Airbus A320 and Boeing 737-800 on final approach at San Francisco
Here we see a summary of the 737 MAX order book from first orders back in 2011. Everything is progressing quite well, with a bit of lull in 2015 and 2016. First deliveries start rolling out the door in 2017 and 2018 shows a good solid performance. In 2019 we see the wheels fall off. We have negative orders due to cancellations by Garuda Indonesia and others and deliveries all but dry up as well.

There have obviously been some bad decisions taken down at Boeing. We can only hope that they can learn from their mistakes and turn this into a win for all. Faith needs to be restored with the airlines and of course their customers, the travelling public. There is a common saying used by many, “if it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going”. They need to make people feel like that again to get back in the saddle.

So Boeing versus Airbus? Clearly it has been a win for Airbus in 2019. The European planemaker came late to the party, compared to Boeing and its long history, but there is no doubt that they are a worthy adversary in the big airliner market.