EVERETT, Wash. — We’re cruising over Puget Sound at 30,000 feet in Boeing’s new 787 when we hit choppy air. The airplane suddenly drops about 6 feet, taking my white knuckles and stomach with it. The rest of the "flight" is a series of big dips and jolts leaving me a bit queasy upon landing.
I unstrap my seatbelt and am ready to bolt when Boeing’s 787 Systems Director Mike Sinnett says we’re going to do it again. This time, he promises the “flight” will be smoother. We take off and quickly head into the same strong vertical gusts. It’s still bumpy but this time, the trip feels more like driving over a cobblestone street as opposed to an E-ticket ride at Disneyland. The previous 6-foot drop is reduced to 2 feet and my nerves — and stomach — remain calm.
The three-minute before-and-after flights — which took place in a full-motion simulator at Boeing’s systems laboratories in Seattle, Wa. — were a demonstration of the company’s newest technology on its 787 Dreamliner commercial jet.
By activating the so-called “vertical gust suppression” system on the second flight, turbulence was dramatically reduced. Boeing officials are tight-lipped about their technology but it basically works like this: sensors on the airplane feed data to flight control software which automatically activates the plane’s movable surfaces to compensate for the sometimes violent up-and-down movement caused by turbulence. The technology relieves the symptoms of 88 percent of passengers who are subject to motion sickness, according to Boeing.
The system — Boeing’s most closely guarded 787 intellectual property — is just one of the many new features on the Dreamliner designed to save airlines money while giving passengers more comfort and pilots more convenience.
When it comes to designing and building airplanes, passenger comfort traditionally has ranked low on Boeing’s priority list. But for the 787, the company took a “holistic approach’’ and included features that would appeal to the flying public. “We wiped the slate clean and started from the beginning to see how we could make this airplane more efficient,’’ Sinnett told reporters recently during a tour of Boeing’s labs in Seattle.
That’s a welcomed, long overdue relief for passengers who are often stressed out by tougher security measures, longer lines and delays even before boarding the plane. Not to mention the crammed flights and lost luggage that usually follows.
“The Dreamliner is a revolutionary aircraft and will go a long way in addressing some passenger comfort issues,’’ says Nancy McKinley, director of consumer affairs for the International Airline Passengers Association.
From the outside, the twin-engine 787 doesn’t look much different than other Boeing jets, except for a sleeker nose. But step inside and you see arched ceilings that allow you to store your luggage without bumping your head. There are larger luggage bins and more spacious lavatories. Responding to studies that have shown passengers feel more comfortable with a clear view of the horizon, Boeing designed the 787 with bigger windows and replaced the shades with dimming switches that can darken the windows.
The bigger luggage bins are designed to hold four standard-size wheeled carry-on bags, freeing up the space under the seats.
“Now you’ll have space for your legs instead of your luggage,’’ says Klaus Brauer, Boeing’s director of passenger satisfaction and revenue.
And for passengers who dislike being awakened by harsh, bright lights after a trans-Atlantic flight, the 787 has “mood lighting” features that can simulate sunrises and vivid blue sky scenes. The lighting can even make the airline food look more appealing.
The cabin air will feel less dry because of higher humidity settings and it will be cleaner to breathe thanks to a sophisticated air purification system, a first for Boeing. In addition, the cabin will feel more comfortable because it will be pressurized at an altitude of 6,000 feet rather than the standard 8,000 feet.
By increasing the humidity and adding new filtration technologies, Boeing says the number of passengers experiencing symptoms associated with dryness will be reduced by 50 percent.
“These are all welcome changes,’’ says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an airline passenger advocacy group. But he says the most significant improvement for passengers will be the ability to fly longer distances on non-stop flights. “It’s a bet Boeing made and the airlines have voted with their pocketbooks,’’ Stempler says of Boeing’s decision to focus on a mid-size airplane with more route flexibility than a super jumbo to compete with the Airbus A380.
Boeing’s Blake Emery says the company started with a clean slate and designed the 787 with a welcoming feeling of “openness and calm” in an effort to re-connect with the often-disgruntled flying public.
“We wanted to bring back the magic of flying,’’ says Emery, Boeing’s director of differentiation strategy. “We literally wanted people to walk in and say “wow.’”
The new 787 features are possible because of the all-composite airframe which does not corrode or expand the way the traditional aluminum does. The 787, which has already made aviation history by becoming the hottest-selling commercial jet ever, is the first all-new passenger airplane to have a plastic airframe.
For pilots, the airplane’s new cockpit features newly designed, high-tech seats, four laptop-sized screens, heads-up display panels suspended at eye-level and bigger windows, giving them better vantages.
The 787 systems, including the turbulence taming software, are all being tested at Boeing’s labs in Seattle in preparation for the jet’s first real flight in September.
Engineers are using a 75-ton “airplane” that never leaves the ground to find and resolve problems early so they won’t crop up on the factory floor or in flight test. Boeing engineers have already identified some 750 problems in the Integration Test Vehicle lab, nicknamed the "Iron Bird,” according to flight controls senior manager Peter van Leynseele. As of late May, all but 70 of the problem areas had been resolved.
Len Inderhees, program lead for the Iron Bird team, says his crew will continue its detective work 24 hours a day, seven days a week until all of the glitches have been eliminated.
“It’s crunch time,’’ he says.
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