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Friday, November 11, 2011

Flying on Boeing's 787 Dreamliner


FlightGlobal: So, what is it like to fly the 787?

To The Ear
While I did have at least a general idea of what to listen for, the 787's "more-electric" systems architecture have noticeably changed the sound of flying. In the cabin you immediately get a sense there are fewer moving parts surrounding you. The sound is less low mechanical rumble and more high-pitch buzz, which ultimately defines the low noise level in the cabin. If there is an appropriate automotive equivalent, it was reminiscent of the sound a hybrid-electric vehicle makes compared to a traditional internal combustion engine. It's not until the twin Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines are spooled up that you realize just how different 787 is from the passenger's perspective.

After two flights on JA801A to Hong Kong from Narita and back, I became used to the sights, sounds and smells (or lack thereof) around me. Following the flight, passengers asked each other if they could feel the different features of the cabin; the higher pressure (lower altitude), higher humidity and lower noise. It wasn't until I boarded my flight back to New York on an All Nippon Airways 777-300ER, that the contrast became stark.

At first, I chalked the different feeling in the air to the "new airplane smell", but when contrasting JA801A to the 16-month old JA787A, the air was noticeably different and significantly dryer. By comparison, the feeling aboard 787 felt as though the cabin door was never really closed.

787, like that of the much larger A380, known for its quiet cabin, has a near-silent taxi. There is very little audible difference between sitting at idle engine speed and rolling along the taxiway.

I've posted two audio files comparing the 787 and 777-300ER takeoff rolls. Each was recorded with an iPhone 4 inside the aircraft's cabin, positioned just aft of the engines, under the 44 Section to control the variability in recordings as much as possible.

Admittedly, this is an unfair comparison as our 787 was lightly loaded with 240 passengers, no extra cargo, and sported two 64,000lb engines. This is compared to a heavily loaded 777-300ER, fueled for a trans-pacific crossing with just one of its General Electric GE90-115B engines able to produce nearly as much thrust as the two de-rated Trent 1000s combined, but it should give you a sense of the different sounds of each aircraft.

On climb-out the gear retraction and flap motors were extremely quiet as well. Once at cruising altitude, one aerospace journalist remarked that the ride on 787 through still air felt akin riding on an airship, citing the Hindenburg by name. Minus the obvious historical divergences, the 787's cruise appeared to be smoother than the 777, though this may be more a factor of the reduced cabin noise than the aircraft's aerodynamics and flight controls.

While the 787's cabin is absolutely quieter than both the aircraft it replaces (the 767) and its larger sibling (the 777), one area of the cabin is notable for how loud, not how quiet, it is. The 787's signature LED lit door two archway has a significantly different noise profile than the cabins that are both forward and aft of the entryway. The explanation for this is fairly straightforward: With no bins, no seats, fewer sidewalls and two doors, there simply isn't as much to absorb the wind and engine noise.

To The Eye
Being a passenger on 787, aside from the lighting, the largest difference are the windows. When you're in Boeing's static mock-up of the cabin, there's a feeling of detachment to the outside environment, but it's not until you sit down and there's a world outside your window, are you fully able to appreciate the wider view.

Worth noting, my aisle seat at 12C afforded me an easy opportunity to shoot video out the window. First, I had a very understanding seatmate, and second, the windows were big enough that I was able to rest my DSLR on the headrest of the window seat with no problem.

While it remains hyperbole to say that every seat is a window seat aboard 787, the 18in high windows change the the overall feeling of the cabin in a very real way.

The display of rainbow lighting on our taxi out from Narita was definitely unique, but it wasn't until flight attendants took control of the windows during the flight, darkening them to full opacity, when it remained a sunny day on the other side of the fuselage that we could see the full effect. The LED lighting does get washed out a bit by the added light from the larger windows (not a bad thing), but its full capability will be seen during long overnight flying in a dark cabin.

Admittedly, the dimming window shade takes a really long time to return to full transparency. Say, if you're trying to take a photograph, for example, it leaves a darkish cloud in the middle of the pane for a while after the edges have returned to clarity. Though I'd imagine that the slow rate of change will dissuade some on board from treating the dimmer as a cabin strobe light. (Dimming phases 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

User-Friendly Lavatories
Boeing has added a very useful feature to the outside of the 787s lavatories: A traffic light. This is a feature that has been on the A380 since its inception, in the form of forward cabin indications that show when the lav is occupied. The 787 puts a green or red light (depending on occupancy) above each door that can be seen from most seats, and for those out of sight, a small drop-down monitor at the forward part of each cabin also illustrates if the lav is available. Upon entry, the default lighting is a deep purple glow that gives way to softer and more even lighting. As you've seen before, the lavatory is entirely hands-free.

One issue that may crop up in the near future is the lavatory door itself, which makes a jarring slamming sound when being closed. And no, I did not test drive the washlet (bidet).


A Tip of the Hat
There's a subtle on-board homage to the origins of the 787, found in a most unlikely location. The Panasonic IFE moving map display features an aircraft icon - hardly unusual - that denotes the current progress of the flight. That icon, you'd expect, would be a 787. It's not. In fact, it's the original 7E7. The miniature airplane icon clearly shows the bottle nose and swept wings, shark fin and bottle nose that stood as Boeing's artist conception of its new mid-size jetliner. It is a fitting, if subtle, nod to the origins of the aircraft's design.

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