A day after high winds in Everett forced postponement of the first flight of Boeing’s big new 777X, the largest twin-engine passenger plane in the world completed that milestone successfully on Saturday.
The jet took off from Paine Field at 10:09 a.m. in much calmer weather, flew out over eastern Washington, then circled Mount Rainier where a chase plane took air-to-air photos. When it landed at Boeing Field just shy of four hours later, a crowd of enthusiastic Boeing employees cheered as test pilots Van Chaney and Craig Bomben emerged from the aircraft.
After more than a year of anguished news chronicling the crisis around the grounded 737 MAX, it was a rare moment of brightness when employees could finally look up again and admire the company’s engineering prowess.
Stan Deal, the new chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, greeted the pilots upon landing and in a short interview said the milestone flight “made all our employees proud of who we are and what we get to do, flying a brand-new airplane that’s going to change the world one more time.”
And in a congratulatory message to employees Saturday, Deal said that after the 777X flight test program is completed — probably well over a year from now — “passengers will put their trust in us every time they fly.” The way Boeing will “earn that continued trust is by working every day to put safety, quality and integrity first in everything we do,” he said.
Bomben, Boeing’s vice president of flight operations and chief test pilot, said after landing that “it’s hard not to be emotional.”
Chaney, 777 chief test pilot and the pilot in command for Saturday’s flight, said the plane’s performance was “very solid” and that they accomplished most of the planned testing and system checks.
He said the plane, which is designed for long-haul international routes, felt “amazingly similar” to the current 777-300ER model in its handling, and that when he walked back through the passenger cabin, he was struck by how the engines were “incredibly quiet.”
“We had so much fun,” Chaney said.
Large and unique
The 777X is massive. It’s a couple of feet longer than Boeing’s 747-8 jumbo jet and features giant carbon-composite wings, the largest Boeing has ever designed.
The wings are so long that to fit at standard airport gates, each has to fold upward on a hinge 11 feet from the tip. After the jet taxis out to the runway, as it lines up to take off, the pilot lowers the folded wingtips, extending the wingspan to just over 235 feet.
Its GE9X engines are the largest jet engines ever built, encased in a carbon composite pod, or nacelle, with a diameter of 184 inches at the widest point. That’s so big the entire passenger cabin of the 737 MAX could fit inside.
With carbon wings joined to a conventional metal fuselage, the 777X was a new engineering challenge for Boeing. Securing the right to build it was the great industrial prize for which Washington state agreed in 2013 to shell out $8.7 billion in tax breaks to Boeing over 16 years.
It’s the plane for which Boeing’s Machinists—after a bitter struggle in the winter of 2013—were forced to pay the price of freezing their traditional pensions to secure Everett as the manufacturing site.
Boeing subsequently invested heavily to transform its Everett plant for the airplane, which will take over from the 747 jumbo jet as Boeing’s largest passenger jet.
Six years after that contract with the Machinists was finalized, and after a delay of about nine months due to a design problem with the GE9X engines that had to be fixed, the workers who built it finally got to see it fly.
Careful scrutiny ahead
The first flight marks the beginning of a rigorous flight test program, which leads to the certification of the airplane as safe to fly by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Because of the criticism of the FAA following two deadly 737 MAX crashes over how that plane was certified, the 777X’s flight test program will be under intense scrutiny by the safety agency and is likely to extend longer than it might have otherwise.
In November, Tim Clark, CEO of 777X launch customer Emirates, told The Seattle Times that, given the problems with the GE9X engine and the safety issues that have grounded the MAX and the 787 before that, he wants a particularly thorough flight test program for the 777X.
“We have advised both the FAA and Boeing that we will not accept a compressed flight test programme, irrespective of the number of aircraft used. The programme should be a minimum of 16 months,” Clark wrote in an email. “Frankly, I’ll be surprised if delivery to Emirates is before the second half of 2021.”
Asked Saturday about the likely impact on the length of the flight test program, Bomben, who was previously chief pilot on the 737 MAX program, expressed confidence. He said Boeing will “follow the normal processes we always follow” and will work “hand-in-hand with the FAA.”
“I think we are going to march through flight test successfully and quickly and get certified by the FAA standards,” he said.
Everett site transformed for 777X
After the 777X program was launched at the Dubai Air Show in 2013, Boeing built a gigantic, $1 billion building on the Everett site and filled it with robotic machinery and high-pressure ovens just to fabricate the pieces of those carbon-composite wings.
Inside the main Everett assembly building, Boeing installed state-of-the-art, automated stations where the wings will be assembled, equipment designed by Mukilteo-based engineering company Electroimpact.
And it completely changed the way the 777 fuselage and wings come together to make the plane more flexible and efficient.
The sole failure in this dramatic factory makeover was the plan for a new robotic method developed over six years to assemble the metal 777X fuselages. Known as the “Fuselage Automated Upright Build” process, or FAUB, it only created a manufacturing mess.
After spending millions on the FAUB project, Boeing finally abandoned it in November and went back to relying more on its human machinists.
Recently, the 777X program has faced other setbacks that drained confidence.
A slump in demand for large aircraft has brought no new 777X orders since last March and some cancellations, cutting the order book to 309 aircraft. Emirates in November cut its 777X launch order by 24 aircraft and took 787 Dreamliners in place of those.
At the Paris Air Show in June, GE revealed that during tests of the plane’s new engine it found excessive wear on a set of titanium parts inside the engine’s compressor section. A fix was devised but took months to implement, test and retrofit to the engines already built.
A Boeing stress test on a completed 777X airframe in November fell short of perfection when the fuselage split open just shy of the target load.
Australian carrier Qantas in December chose the Airbus A350-1000 over the 777-8X for its prestige ultra-long-range project.
But those setbacks can be overlooked as the plane takes to the air. If it proves successful in service, orders should follow.
Airbus is winding down production and taking no more orders for its superjumbo A380 jet, and Boeing’s own 747 jumbo jet is now built only in its freighter version. That means the 777-9X will be the largest passenger jet on the market.
The 777-9X carries 400-425 passengers and has a range of 8,383 miles, about 100 miles less than the 777-300ER. But with its new engines and larger wings, it will carry about 50 to 60 more passengers using less fuel and correspondingly producing lower carbon emissions.
As a result, Boeing says the cost to an airline of carrying a passenger on a 777X will be 13% lower than on the 777-300ER.
The rival Airbus A350-1000 is smaller, with about the same seating capacity as the 777-300ER.
According to the latest market pricing data from airplane valuation firm Avitas, after standard discounts you can pick up a new 777-9X from Boeing for about $204 million.