21st Century Jet: The Building of the 777
December 18, 2009 10:49 AM   Subscribe

21st Century Jet: The Building of the 777 (part 1 of 5) In the early 90's, Boeing decided to build a new airplane, the 777. They also decided to allow KCTS Television and Channel Four London to film the design, construction, and testing of the new airliner. This 5-hour documentary, first aired in 1996, is no longer shown on TV, and out of print on VHS, but you can now watch it on Google Videos.

The 777 is still the largest twin-engined airliner ever built. Its engines are the largest aircraft engines ever made. It was the first fly-by-wire airliner from Boeing, their first to be designed entirely on computers. The documentary covers all of this with plenty of airplane stuff, plenty of manufacturing stuff, and also a surprising amount of "people" stuff.

Boeing tried a new "Working Together" philosophy to improve teamwork internally, with sub-contractors, with regulatory authorities, and even with customers. As a result, the 777 was the first twin-engined plane certified to fly up to 180 minutes from the nearest airport at entry into service (rather than the usual 60 minutes), and was the first Boeing plane where the first one delivered was accepted by the customer the first time around.

Part 1 covers the decision to build a new airplane, how they got United Airlines to be the launch customer, the computerized design process, the new "design-build teams" concept, and some footage of cold weather door tests. It also covers the design of the cupholders and toilet seats (yes, really).

Part 2 shows a lot of the initial assembly of wings and fusealge, an internal discussion about whether or not to use aluminum-lithium alloy for some 777 parts, and a visit to a Japanese sub-contractor's new factory. Some of the logistics of getting parts to the assembly line are also included, such as bullet-proof rail cars to prevent skin panels from arriving with bullet holes in them. Don't miss the 130-foot tractor-trailer with a driver at each end.

In Part 3, the 777 rolls on its own wheels for the first time. Extensive coverage is given to the design and testing of the new engines, including water, ice, and bird ingestion, and a "blade out" test where a fan blade is intentionally detached from a running engine to make sure the fragments will be contained. Also included in part 3, pressure testing of a completed fuselage, and the large airplane ground operations simulator (LAGOS)--a cockpit on a very long stick to test how best to manuever such a large plane around airports. Concludes with a high-speed taxi test where the 777 "almost" takes to the air.

Part 4 begins with the first flight of the 777 and then focuses on the flight testing process and Boeing test pilot John Cashman. In this part, we see such things as intentionally dragging the tail of the aircraft along the runway, a "spray test" involving driving through deep puddles at high speeds, and various brake tests including "the big one" that destroys $750,000 worth of wheels and tires.

Part 5 starts with a wing structure being tested to failure, United Airlines making an advertisement featuring the 777, the steps taken to certify the 777 for 180-minute ETOPS at entry into service, and an emergency escape systems test where 419 volunteers get out in less than 90 seconds. Final test flights are flown by United Airlines to prove they are competent to operate the 777 on commercial flights. We see the purchase and delivery of the first plane to United (including a very complicated conference call to conduct the transaction). The documentary ends with the inaugural commercial flight (which one passenger had mis-heard as "an all girl flight").
posted by FishBike (18 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks FishBike! I always like the way the tails of the 777 stick out when you look down a long line of planes at the gate.

The very tail of the fuselage of a 777 is shaped like a blade, with the exhaust of the auxiliary power unit venting out on one side. Most other planes just have a round tube at the end.
posted by generichuman at 10:56 AM on December 18, 2009

Oh yeah, I meant to include that part 2 includes a lot of time spent with the company in Australia (ASTA) that made the rudder (a pretty important part of the tail). Boeing kept redesigning the thing after they'd started making it. At one point a Boeing guy flies out to tell them in person it's been resigned again, but he wants to call the office and see if they've changed it again while he was in flight. And they have.
posted by FishBike at 11:00 AM on December 18, 2009

Wow, can't wait to watch this. Sounds awesome and super-nerdy.

If you like stuff like this... obligatory: 'Watch Battle of the X-Planes'.
posted by wrok at 11:13 AM on December 18, 2009

You mean like this one, Burhanistan?

(After working on the material for this post for the last few weeks, I was afraid I was going to see someone post "hey check out this cool 777 documentary" over in that thread.)
posted by FishBike at 11:13 AM on December 18, 2009

I remember watching this on PBS in high school. Being a big dork, I found it exciting at the time and was even more excited when I got to fly on one IAD -> DEN in early 1996. It was the first time I had seen in-seat LCDs, and even though I think everyone had to watch the same content, it was still pretty futuristic. This being just over six months into its service life, the pilot gave us a spiel about the shiny new plane. I still remember the arrogant enthusiasm in his voice when he explained "Everything is done by computer! We even have a couple Pentiums up here!"
posted by 7segment at 11:43 AM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great post. Thanks.
posted by erikgrande at 11:51 AM on December 18, 2009

This is really fantastic. Thank you for posting.
posted by There's No I In Meme at 12:49 PM on December 18, 2009

Also, and a bit of historical background, an excellent Seattle Times series article from 1983, "Making It Fly" about the building of the 757. The author, Peter Rinearson, won a Pulitzer Prize for the article.
posted by bz at 12:53 PM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

By the way, I'm sending you an invoice for causing my entire work afternoon to be sucked up learning about the 777.
posted by generichuman at 12:54 PM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I remember in 1989 when 180-minute ETOPS was introduced as the 777 was being designed it was known as "Engine Turns Or Passenger Swims."
posted by JackFlash at 1:56 PM on December 18, 2009

Boeing got a bit sneaky with ETOPS. While Airbus was working on the 340 with the intent of providing a nose-to-tail ETOPS certified plane - for which they believed they needed 4 engines,
Boeing got in tight with the regulators and worked on their heavy two engined prototypes coming out ahead with a cost advantage.
I love the 777 but all things being equal I would still like knowing there are four fans going.
posted by fingerbang at 2:02 PM on December 18, 2009

Well, since the "T" in ETOPS stands for "twin-engine", it doesn't really apply at all to 4-engine planes. But I know what you're getting at, which is that because the ETOPS regulations required a certain amount of operating experience, Airbus figured a 3 or 4-engined plane was the only way to go that far from an airport with a brand new plane.

A funny thing about twin-engine planes (which isn't in the video, but I think it's mentioned in the book of the same name) is that Boeing calculated they're actually safer than planes with more engines.

If I'm remembering the details right, they looked at all the previous accidents with jet-powered airliners, and then specifically at two categories: ones where 2 engines failed for unrelated reasons (in which case having 3 or 4 would help you), and ones where one engine failed and the plane crashed anyway (even though it had one or more other engines still working). And they found a lot more of the latter, so more engines means higher probability something would go wrong with one of them and cause a crash. This was specifically a function of the reliability of modern engines, where the chances of two unrelated failures is now extremely remote.

So far there's never been a case where two engines failed on a twin-engined jet airliner (other than stuff like running out of fuel where they all fail regardless of how many they have). There have been cases of three engines failing on a three-engined jet airliner, because a mechanic worked on all three engines before a flight and made the same mistake on all of them. One of the things about the ETOPS regulations is that you never do that before a long flight--you only work on one engine at a time and you make sure it's OK before you work on the other, much later.

The other thing that made a new, large twin look like a positive step for safety was the market reality. Planes with more engines cost more to buy and operate, and with most people buying their tickets based on minimum ticket prices, the flight on the twin will be cheaper. So either you make a big twin that can fly long routes non-stop, or you don't and people fly on smaller twins that have to land to refuel on long routs. And since the most dangerous parts of the flight are the takeoff and landing, a large twin minimizes the requirement for those, and thus improves overall safety compared to having a bunch of smaller planes getting all the business.
posted by FishBike at 2:37 PM on December 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

So far there's never been a case where two engines failed on a twin-engined jet airliner

USAir 1549 into the Hudson? Conceivably a third or fourth engine wouldn't have been struck?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:58 PM on December 18, 2009

Boeing commissioned a painting of a 777 in United Airlines livery, which they presented to their launch customer. It's N777UA, the flagship 777, although the painting shows the older red, blue and orange livery. I gather it's a tradition at Boeing to commission a painting of each flagship airliner and present it to the launch customer, which is quaint and lovely.

Hubby worked for UAL for many years and when he left, they wanted to give him a gift to remember them by. He asked if he could have the painting of N777UA, and now it's hanging in my spare room.
posted by Quietgal at 3:02 PM on December 18, 2009 [7 favorites]

USAir 1549 into the Hudson? Conceivably a third or fourth engine wouldn't have been struck?

You're right, I forgot about that one and the "0 occurrences" stat is older than that crash. I'm not sure how a 3 or 4-engine plane would have fared instead in that case. Losing multiple engines on takeoff and initial climb is pretty hairy in anything less than a B-52.
posted by FishBike at 3:05 PM on December 18, 2009

I flew JFK-HKG recently on a 777, which is definitely a flight using most of that 180 ETOPS. You fly straight North, really close to the North Pole. (On the way back, we fly further South along the Northern Pacific, presumably because of the jet stream.)
posted by smackfu at 3:49 PM on December 18, 2009

I haven't watched this yet but have favorited this to watch it later. I think an edited-down version of this aired on PBS at some point.

But I have definitely seen the test-to-failure event before and it is really incredible. That's at the beginning of segment 5; it starts 2 minutes in and runs for 4 minutes. Go watch that.

I remember my first 777 flight and look forward to my first 787 flight!
posted by intermod at 8:42 PM on December 18, 2009

In the piston twin-engine aircraft world, it is said that, once one engine fails about the only thing that second engine does is fly you directly to your crash site.
posted by bz at 12:17 PM on January 12, 2010

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