So I’ve always wondered what it would be like to ride in a Boeing 787, but I never seemed to get the chance. I’m usually flying in my little airplane, and anytime I take an airliner I always seem to wind up in a Canadair Regional Jet or an Airbus A320. An A330 if I’m lucky for a long flight. But the 787… The wide body, huge windows, quiet ride, and low cabin altitude all seemed appealing, but would those design features really make any difference at all in the feeling of riding as a passenger? Well, I finally got my chance to find out.
I was booking a ticket from South Carolina to Oregon to pick up my little airplane, where it was getting some upgrades. I did what I assume basically everyone does which is just get the ticket based on brevity of flight time and minimum number of stops. After purchasing the ticket, I glanced at the equipment code for the long leg from Washington to San Francisco: 780. 780. what kind of plane IS that? With a bit of excitement starting to build, I quickly googled the aircraft equipment code and my biggest hope was confirmed: This is the Boeing 787. I was so excited I could barely wait for my trip. This is an airplane that is reported as being beyond any other airplane in comfort… But were those reports true?
Day of the trip, and it was out of that loud, tiny, uncomfortable, claustrophobic little Canadair regional jet that makes me feel like the seat is constantly trying to crush me for the entire trip, and into the airport terminal. Running to my gate, I was disappointed to see there were no windows at all, so I could NOT see the 787 waiting for us. With seat 1-A, though, I wouldn’t have to wait too long to walk down the boarding ramp and get a look through the little boarding ramp windows. Walking down the ramp the body of the airplane seemed to be much lower and off farther to the RIGHT than I thought… like it was almost parked on the RIGHT side of the jetway! Oh wait: that wasn’t the body: That was just the ENGINE NACELLE!
You can’t blame me: The ENGINE NACELLE of the Boeing 787 is equal in radius to the FUSELAGE of the Boeing 737!
The Boeing 787 engine nacelle width and Boeing 737 fuselage width are both the same: 3.75 meters.
A 787 ALONE at the end of the jetway looked like a 787 on the left, and a 737 on the right.
Just walking up to this airplane is like walking up to an airliner with a 737 fuselage strapped under each wing. I’m not even kidding. And this was the incredible new GenX engine: With JUST EIGHTEEN HUGE COMPRESSOR BLADES, each one jet-black carbon fiber with a dull silver titanium leading edge. Each blade was a gigantic curved carbon fiber and titanium piece of modern art, a huge blade with continuous curvature along the leading edge clearly perfectly optimized to carry the exact right Mach number on each bit of the fan blade. With so few of them in the nacelle, each one was monstrous in chord as well as radius.
Somehow, I don’t know how, they got the fan and the core spools on this engine spinning in opposite directions. That means that the swirl energy from the fan is recovered by the core and what comes out in the back has no wasted energy in swirl. Fuel injectors, however, love swirling air! So GE actually set up a vortex of air to dump the fuel into, giving a more even fuel mixing and combustion. This reduces nitrous oxide by like 40%. AND the GenX consumes 20% less fuel than the previous generation of jet engine per pound of thrust. 20%! Hyper-modern components like these massive compressor blades save 400 pounds of weight per engine compared to the usual materials, and the titanium on that leading edge of each blade is known for toughness. IF you can figure out how to work it into the right shape it will really last. That’s why they use it for the leading edge of the blades: It’s not easy to get titanium into the shape of the leading edge of a turbine, but once it’s done it will last forever.
Walking past the other airliner I mean engine nacelle I boarded the plane and was whisked to the front. Looking back at the wing, it seemed the outer half or so of the wing was kind of missing or something. Hopefully they would catch that in the preflight. Then I realized the optical illusion: The wings in this airplane are so flexible that, when parked, they actually droop DOWN in the outer half of their span, and wind up hiding behind the inner half of the wing when your viewpoint is the aircraft cabin! Without question that would change in the middle of the takeoff roll, and raising of the nose, as the wings suddenly became filled with lift and lifted up, changing the dihedral radically in flight.
The pilots were willing to see me and sure enough the cockpit was filled with displays… But each display was strangely the same size, from the PFD right down to the FMS. In hindsight it was not surprising to learn that any display in the cockpit could display any screen that the flight crew wanted, making it basically impossible for any feasible combination of failures to remove access to a PFD… somewhere.
Time to go and back to my seat, we were pushed back and the engine start was of course for all intents and purposes completely silent.
The engine being as gigantic as it is, there is no way it would turn fast. As the starter engaged, you could see the engine slowly spool up, and at idle you could just about see the little nose cone of the turbine spinning: it was hardly even a blur the engine was turning so slow. We taxied out in silence and even with a full load of passengers, cargo, and enough fuel to cross the entire country into a headwind, with reserves, therefore requiring full or nearly full power, the engines were for all intents and purposes completely silent. There was just a little bit of a whoosh and we were pushed back in our seats from the acceleration. Coming through rotation speed, the outer portions of the wings suddenly blossomed with lift and flexed up to their flight position of increasing dihedral the farther out you went on the wing. The wing now described a continuous curve from body to tips. The ridiculous thing was, I could still basically see the little swirly pattern on the nose of the front fan: the RPM was so low the fan was almost visible. In no time we were above the clouds and headed west. Even in cruise, the engine just never seemed to speed up, somehow. You could sit there looking at that little spinning nose, barely even blurry, at Mach 0.85.
Once established at cruise altitude, I whipped out Xavion on my iPhone, which shows among other things the cabin altitude. Sure enough the cabin altitude was precisely 6500 feet… 2000 feet lower than you typically find on an airliner. The windows were indeed much larger than normal, so you could sit in almost complete silence, looking out a huge window, with air closer to sea level than in any other airliner. This reduces headaches in fatigue after those long flights. A weird thing is that looking out the window into that giant engine, that damn 18 blade compressor was turning so slow that I could still almost see the little pinwheel drawn on the nose! I could almost see that compressor turning, it was turning so slow! At cruise speed! HOW!?!
We had lunch which was fine and then the 787 presented it’s next trick: Even though at 40,000 feet in the middle of the day above all the clouds in the burning bright white-hot sun over the desert, totally exposed to the bright solar light with no protection at all, the entire aircraft cabin slowly dimmed to a soft deep grayish blue. The flight attendants had clearly just pushed a button, and every window in the cabin, all of which are electronically dimmable and have no mechanical blinds, suddenly faded to a deep dark grayish blue. It was as if somebody had suddenly pulled gigantic blue wedding tent over the entire airplane! It was as if the sun, in the middle of the day, suddenly fell to about 45 minutes past sunset, below the horizon, leaving us in that evening time where the sky and the light are all blue, but you could still just barely drive without your headlights. A dim, soothing blue light enveloped the entire cabin. It might as well have been early evening. Each window seat passenger had a button under the window to adjust the dimness control, so I pushed mine up to maximum brightness and sure enough, the burning sun and bright white clouds were right there, overwhelming my eyes. Then I pushed a little dimmer button down, and the virtual sunset happened over about the next 10 or 15 seconds: A Sunset that bypassed the usual reds in oranges, and went straight from mid day white to evening blue. It was really surreal. In a food coma after lunch, and with the sun seeming to have just set, and no perceptible noise from the slow, silent engines, everyone but me dozed off into a state of complete relaxation. I kept working on X-Plane 12 on my MacBook of course.
I took a quick walk up and down the aisle, not getting over the surreal feeling of it being a deep blue evening in the middle of the day, or of the airplane somehow being parked under a gigantic blue wedding tent while in flight. Also the 737 flying in perfect formation right under each wing, out there in the early-evening blue sky at high noon was a bit odd. (Of course evry time I would looked out somebodys’ window to see what was out there, the person sitting at the window would always be shocked and look at me like “WHAT?”)
After what seemed to me like about ONE hour, our flight from Washington DC ended with a touchdown in San Francisco. On touchdown the speed brakes all popped up same as always, but this time with a twist: The ailerons popped up as well! Yes, this is a fly by wire airplane, so any flight control can do any thing at any time to serve any purpose. On touchdown, that purpose is to spoil lift and settle the airplane down onto the ground: Reflexing both ailerons straight up does that. So that’s what they did. We even stopped in silence with only the slightest whisper of muted wind outside, and were silently taxiing to the gate in within moments. It is always so crazy that we fly it close to the speed of sound for hours, but the touchdown seems so slow, and the stop so quick. I hit up the cockpit after shut down, and was told that we were doing Mach 0.86. That ain’t bad for almost being able to see the turbines spin every inch of the way.