Just a dream ...

Boeing’s new 787s having tough time

I’ve been following with considerable interest the problems Boeing’s been having with its 787 “Dreamliner. On the drawing board, the new airplane is an engineering marvel — a long-range, mid-size wide-body, twin-engine airliner that can carry from 210 to 290 passengers while using only about 80 percent of the fuel that a 787 would burn to do the same job.

Like most modern jets, it uses fly-by-wire technology, which means that the pilots’ controls send inputs to a computer, which in turn moves the aircraft’s flight controls.

But, unlike Boeing’s chief competitor, Airbus, the U.S. company has kept manual backups, which makes pilots happy.

The new plane’s fuel efficiency comes as a result of an extensive use of composite materials — much more than any other comparable aircraft.

That makes it light and strong, and also helps keep the noise down for passengers.

Airlines around the world, squeezed by ticket price wars and high fuel costs, have been salivating over the prospect of buying 787s, and by the time the first one rolled out in early 2007, there were 677 orders on hand.

Boeing, beset by labor problems, also farmed out much of the fabrication to other firms, some overseas. This is closer to the Airbus model ... the Europeans have been spreading their production across the continent for years.

But all of this means little if deadlines can’t be met, and that’s been a terrible problem for Boeing. Rollout dates were changed, then changed again as subcontractors proved unable to handle difficult fabrication problems.

Then, after the airplane began to fly passengers in late 2011, new problems cropped up ... most notably battery and other electrical defects. In fact, they were so bad that 787s were grounded.

That’s the situation now ... these multi-million dollar aircraft, on the leading edge of technology, are sitting in hangers while engineers try frantically to figure out how to fix them.

It’s a mess, but it’s not a new one for aviation. Over the years, good aircraft have been sidelined for unforeseen problems, only to become workhorses once the bugs were worked out.

The Boeing B-29 “Superfortress,” for example, was prone to very serious engine fires — fires that killed dozens of crewmen during World War II before Boeing and Curtiss-Wright figured out how to get its massive 18-cylinder, 3,000 horsepower engines to run smoothly.

The Lockheed Electra turbo-prop airliner had a tendency to vibrate and shed its wings — which was only discovered after several had crashed with full loads of passengers. Once that defect was found and fixed, however, the Electra became the basis for the Navy’s highly successful P-3 “Orion” subhunters, which are still flying today, 56 years after the Electra first rolled out on the ramp.

Boeing is frustrated, and so are the airlines, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the “Dreamliner” fulfills its promise.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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