Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Flight of the Plastic Airplane

I just finished watching the video from the Boeing 787 first flight. The takeoff of an airliner is a mundane sight, yet it's such a beautiful moment for everybody (including friends of mine from college) who poured themselves into the program. The elegant airplane with its caverous engine nacelles and dihedraled wings soared from the runway on a short jaunt to test the major systems, hopefully ushering in a new era of air travel.

I often joked that the 787 would never fly, since this test flight had been delayed for over two years. Today I eat my words. While the 787 doesn't break any bold new ground in terms of what airliners are supposed to look like (especially when compared to the radically-sleek 787 concept art that was released in 2004 when the program launched,) it's a drastic departure from a materials standpoint. No commercial airliner has ever flown with such a high percentage of its airframe made from composite materials. For this reason, it's been affectionately dubbed "the plastic airplane." (It's just a nickname, and not a false comparison between composites and plastics.) The extra two years were necessary to ensure this moment would be a success for such a revolutionary bird. When a disgruntled Boeing engineer went public in September 2007 claiming the plane's composite fuselage would shatter during a belly landing, it made me stop to think of the ingenuity that was required to solve the problem. (I dismissed the engineer's claims, since the FAA would never certify the plane if they were true.)

Here's to hoping for a bold new future of composite airframe structures and lower fuel consumption per seat-mile. Thank you, Boeing 787 team, for getting us closer to that dream.