Boeing’s 787-9, the second member of the Dreamliner family and one that many expect to prove the biggest seller, lifted off from Everett’s Paine Field on its maiden flight Tuesday morning.
Just over five hours later, it touched down at Boeing Field in Seattle at 4:17 p.m. after a zigzag test flight over Eastern Washington.
As the first of this larger 787 version rose into the sky with the trademark curve to its slender composite-plastic wings, its extra 20 feet of fuselage length made it seem considerably more massive than the original 787-8 version.
“We really shook out the plane, and it came out great,” said 787-9 senior project pilot Mike Bryan after landing. “We’re ready for another flight, as quick as we can go.”
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Randy Neville, the 787 chief pilot who co-piloted the plane Tuesday, called it a “very successful flight.“
“There were no surprises,” he said.
Tailed by two T-33 chase planes, the 787-9 initially swung west out over Puget Sound. But with rain approaching, it then swung immediately east and headed inland toward Moses Lake.
Flying as high as 20,000 feet at speeds up to 250 knots, the plane then crisscrossed the empty air space north of Moses Lake, trying out various performance conditions that marked the beginning of its test and certification program.
The 787-9’s debut offers Boeing a fresh start, a chance to get past the disastrous delays and troubles that bedeviled the first model.
And so far, this newest Dreamliner’s development has gone relatively smoothly and approximately on schedule.
It already features engine upgrades introduced since the original Dreamliner launch to reduce fuel burn.
Also, the structural changes to fix the flawed wing-to-body join discovered in 2009 during the 787-8 wing-bending ground tests have been incorporated from the get-go into the 787-9 design.
Likewise, Boeing’s solution to the battery-overheating problems that grounded the world’s 787s for three-and-a-half months this year is already built into the very first 787-9.
If all goes well in the flight tests and certification process, which should last about nine months, the jet will be delivered to launch customer Air New Zealand next June.
Besides the 20-foot stretch to the fuselage, the 787-9 features incremental structural enhancements to make it more efficient than the initial 787-8 model.
As a result, it will carry around 40 additional passengers and have 23 percent more capacity in the cargo hold, and yet fly about 350 miles farther.
Nevertheless, the pilots reported the jet handles just like its younger sibling.
“To fly it, the airplane is just the same as the -8,” said Neville.
The 787-9 is listed at a catalog price of $244 million, $37 million more than the 787-8 model.
Based on market-pricing data from aircraft-valuation firm Avitas, airlines will pay about $132 million after standard discounts for this latest Dreamliner.
The model has already proved popular with airlines, with 388 firm orders. That’s more than 40 percent of total Dreamliner sales, which stand at 936 firm orders.
Many analysts believe this bigger model will be the biggest seller in the Dreamliner family, and that many early 787-8 orders will eventually be upgraded to the -9.
While the wing size and overall systems design are unchanged from the first model, the 787-9 includes some subtle technological improvements that are almost invisible.
Structural and configuration changes have reduced weight and improved performance and fuel efficiency.
And the 787-9 tail has a proprietary aerodynamic enhancement that hasn’t been used in commercial aircraft before. Both the horizontal and vertical leading edges of the tail are dotted with pinprick holes that provide what’s called Hybrid Laminar Flow Control.
As the tail moves forward in flight, the tiny holes suck air into the interior of the tail structure, which then exits through a vent. This smooths the flow of air over the tail surfaces, greatly reducing turbulence and drag.
Boeing won’t give any details of the secretive manufacturing methods behind this technology. But in 1988, then-McDonnell Douglas engineer Kenneth Perun filed a patent for a process that enabled laminar flow by using lasers to make the tiny, precise perforations in the titanium edges of wings and tail.
Boeing inherited that patent from McDonnell Douglas in 1997.
Perun, now living in France, has been unsuccessfully petitioning Boeing for some recognition of his work.
All these small improvements in the 787-9 will now face intense real-world scrutiny as engineers monitor performance during a vigorous flight-test program, when pilots will push the airplane to extremes.
The second and third 787-9s are already in final assembly in Everett and will soon join the first in flight tests.
In 2010, the original 787-8 flight-test program was abruptly halted for weeks when a serious fire broke out in flight due to a fault in an electrical panel.
Airlines will follow the 787-9 flight tests closely, hoping that this time Boeing can avoid such mishaps and anxious to see if the jet’s performance lives up to the promises.
At the post-flight news conference, Bryan said that after a day of checking out the airplane following this first flight, he and the 787-9 will “go flying again the day after tomorrow.”
Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or email@example.com