Boeing flaunts longer new 787-9 Dreamliner at Farnborough

At the Farnborough airshow, the Seattle aircraft maker shows off the first energy-efficient 787-9 built. Also: how the longer 280-passenger endured tests of performance, temperature, and a virtual barrel roll.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

The Boeing 787-9 on display at the Farnborough International Airshow.
The Boeing 787-9 on display at the Farnborough International Airshow. Stephen Shankland/CNET

FARNBOROUGH, England -- Every day over the next week, it'll be Capt. Randy Neville's job to transform Boeing's newest plane, the 787-9 Dreamliner, from a staid passenger jet into a dramatic demonstration of the company's engineering skills.

"It's more aggressive than you'd expect," Neville said of the showy flight that he'll put on at the Farnborough International Airshow.

But it's not as aggressive as some of Neville's test flights, where he pushed the 787-9 beyond its performance envelope to make sure it could withstand speeds that were too high or too low, turns that were too tight, and altitudes that were too high. He even performed a barrel roll -- in the 787-9 computer simulator, which he says is a very accurate of real-world performance.

The flight is an important moment for Boeing, which is introducing the energy-efficient 280-passenger jet to prospective buyers from around the world and to thousands of spectators. Boeing has customer orders for 409 of the 787-9 jets, but only delivered its first on Friday to Air New Zealand.

Up close with the first Boeing 787-9 (pictures)

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Neville, the 787's chief pilot and lead pilot of the aircraft maker's test and evaluation operation, has been working with the 787 program since 2006. The company is producing 10 787s models per month now but plans to increase that to 12 per month in 2016 and 14 per month in 2018, said Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing's commercial airplane division.

Crucial player in Boeing's business

The plane is a crucial player in Boeing's competition with its French rival, Airbus Group. The two companies have been one-upping each other in recent years in the competitive "twin-aisle" segment for larger craft. Airbus began selling its gigantic double-decker A380 as Boeing was introducing its energy-efficient but much smaller Dreamliner, and now Airbus is countering with an energy-efficient craft of its own, the A350 XWB (Extra-Wide Body).

Capt. Randy Neville, Boeing's 787 chief pilot, stands in front of the 787-9.
Capt. Randy Neville, Boeing's 787 chief pilot, stands in front of the 787-9. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The companies get better efficiency through new engines, lighter materials such as composites, less copper wiring, and new aerodynamic designs for wings and fuselages.

"The 787-10 will be about 30 percent more fuel efficient per passenger than today's A330," Tinseth boasted at a press conference here. "No matter what our competition does with that in the future, we will have the most efficient, most capable aircraft in the marketplace."

Lower fuel consumption per passenger is important given global-warming concerns, the cost of fuel, and airlines' financial woes in recent years. Combined with other improvements, the 787 family is 15 percent cheaper to operate than the models it replaces.

The 787 program was beset by delays and, in January 2013, by fire-inducing overheating lithium-ion battery used to power parts of the plane's electrical system while it's on the ground and its engines aren't operating. The company dealt with the battery problem with better manufacturing, new materials, better separation between cells so one overheated cell won't have as much effect on its neighbors, improved charging technology, and a containment system that worked with a third overheating incident in January 2014.

The 787-8 can carry 242 passengers on a range of 9,028 miles (14,530km). The 787-9 carries 280 passengers thanks to a 20-foot longer body and gets a range boost up to 9,552 miles (15,372km). The 787-10, due to ship to its first customer in 2018, carries 323 passengers and has a range of about 8,078 miles (13,000km). In addition to the 409 orders for 787-9s, Boeing has 490 orders for the 787-8 and 132 for the 787-10, Tinseth said.

Extreme testing

Since Boeing's 787-9 testing began in September 2013, the plane has endured extreme conditions to show it's deserved the certification it received in June. That included very hot and very cold weather, extreme crosswinds, and extreme braking on the runway after the craft reached takeoff speed.

The Boeing 787-9's cockpit on display at Farnborough, UK.
The Boeing 787-9's cockpit on display at Farnborough, UK. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The braking test is performed with brakes already worn down within 1 percent of needing to be replaced, and the pilot must sit in the craft for 5 minutes before firetrucks are allowed to cool anything down. The tires get so hot during this operation that the air heats up within them, blowing out "fuse plugs" so the tires don't explode. When the test is done, the air cools and the plane is left on flat tires.

Boeing is showing the first 787-9 it manufactured. Eventually it'll be refitted and sold, but for now it's still in its test and certification configuration. That means there's seating only for two pilots, several engineers, and a few passengers.

The interior of the jet is filled with racks of electronics and a collection of large black tanks that can carry 7,000 pounds of water. The water is pumped fore and aft to change the plane's weight distribution, an important part of testing. For full load testing, the cargo hold is filled with heavy ballast blocks and the cabin is loaded down with bags of shot.

Boeing's extra-long 787-9 loops over Farnborough (pictures)

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Goal: more comfort

Boeing wants its 787 series to be more pleasant for passengers than today's craft. Ceilings are higher, and roll-aboard bags can be placed in bins in a vertical configuration for more capacity, said Kaaren Cramer, senior manager of product marketing.

The air is kept at higher pressure -- the equivalent of 6,000 feet elevation instead of the usual 8,000. It's also less arid, and in addition to the usual particulate filters, it's got gaseous filtration that removes odors like hairspray, perfume, and alcohol.

Bigger windows than conventional craft give a better view -- especially for those who don't have a window seat. They're controlled by electronic tinting that means they can be transparent, opaque, or somewhere in between.

For people who live near airports, the 787 series is quieter, too. Its engines are hushed by cowlings with a scalloped chevron pattern that mixes cold and hot air, and that means the jet doesn't have to carry as much weight in soundproofing, too.