Today, 7-8-07, Boeing rolled out the 787, their first all-new airliner since the 1994 introduction of the 777. Boasting a 20% increase in fuel economy, a 65% increase in passenger window size, and a 400% increase in internal humidity (no, really), the 787 represents a remarkable technical achievement. However, far and away the most extraordinary thing about the airplane’s coming out party was the fact that someone at Boeing was drunk enough to consider me, not to mention my boss, Brett, "Very Important". So Very Important, in fact, that we had badges reading "VIP", and found ourselves in the 10th row for the ceremony.
Yesterday, a group of us from the Flight Simulator team attended a "rollout eve" celebration at the Museum of Flight at Seattle’s Boeing Field airport. The event called for a dress code of "business casual", which people with real jobs define very differently than those of us at Microsoft. To us "business casual" means "shoes on". To the rest of the world, it means "jacket and tie". Men’s Wearhouse stores around the Puget Sound region saw a nice uptick in sales as we scrambled to prepare.
We attended both as invitees, and as staff, demoing Flight Sim to airline executives and others from around the world. Right up until the time that the good stuff started, that is, at which point all of our monitors mysteriously powered down, and we went outside to see something that had never happened before: one of each of Boeing’s "7-series", posed together for photos.
First to arrive, naturally, was a 707, flying past at 7:07PM. While there was a great deal of speculation that the 707 involved would be the one owned and flown by former Sweathog John Travolta, that was not the case. This particular aircraft is owned and operated by Omega Air Refueling, the only civilian organization authorized to engage in mid-air refueling. Technically, the airplane would then be the world’s only KC-707, but not a KC-135, since it is equipped only for drogue refueling, and has no "boom". It was loud and the engines were smoking like guests on the Dean Martin Show as it flew overhead just like a big ole jet airline-o is supposed to.
After that, another airplane arrived every ten minutes – a 717 (which counts, honest), followed by a 727, 737, 747, 757, 767, and 777. The large digital clock setup for the attendees even read 7:67 and 7:77 instead of 8:07 and 8:17, a gesture straight from the "nice touch" department. It’s also worth noting that the 747 that took part was the Rolls Royce testbed for the 787’s new Trent engine, and carried one in the #2 position, letting us see at least part of a 787 airborne.
Each of the jets did a flyby (actually, since the airspace hadn’t been waivered for display flight, and since low approaches aren’t permitted at that particular airport, each jet legally did a "go around") and then landed. Upon landing, each airplane taxied past us in review, then parked, each successor nosing up to the tail of the airplane in front of it, like dogs getting acquainted.
The next afternoon, I met up with one of our contacts from Boeing’s marketing department at the Westin hotel in downtown Seattle, and joined a group of other (read: real) VIP’s on a bus to the Boeing factory in Everett. Like just about every other event we’ve attended together, this one really didn’t begin until I found myself in a golf cart racing to meet Brett who was trapped at a gate by rightfully unsympathetic security officers. But that’s likely another story.
It is a strange thing to be led along a red carpet through the largest building in the world, especially as we were ushered past thousands of people who had actually built the airplane we came to see. Our seats were in the 10th row of a venue that seated something like 15,000 people. The show featured live music (including an ensemble of musicians that blew something from every continent – the Australian actually shook the place – again, the largest building in the world – with his didgeridoo), some live and prerecorded video cutaways, and a few surprisingly concise speeches by Boeing executives. The master of ceremonies was none other than master of gravitas Tom Brokaw, whose resonant baritone filled the space, nearly outdoing the chap with the didgeridoo.
If you’ve never attended or seen a new aircraft rollout, it is a dramatic event, full of both pomp and circumstance, though, admittedly, I’ve never been to any event without circumstance. It is equal parts revival meeting, sales pitch, and old-world coming out party. When the moment finally came, the back of the stage (actually, oversized factory doors) split in two, and the daylight streamed in abruptly, unwelcome at first, like an uncle you can’t stand until you’ve had at least one glass of merlot. Then, the belle of this particular ball was brought gracefully into view to sustained applause.
Once the doors were open, we were free to walk past the stage and out into the azure afternoon, and take a good close look. It really is a pretty airplane, though at first glance, it doesn’t seem to be much of a departure from the tube-with-two engines paradigm that has served so well for so long. Then, once you’ve taken in the basic shape, you eyes start to find a few details – the slender and graceful slope of the nose, the scalloping of the trailing edges of the engine nacelles, and, most of all, the way that form playfully chases function all along the impossible compound curves of what is certainly Boeing’s most elegant wing.
Generally speaking, I prefer airplanes with a lot more history behind them – anything with an electrical system is usually both too new and too fangled for my tastes. But, as modern jetliners go, the 787 is well positioned to become my favorite, likely eclipsing the prettiest so far, the 757, and, if one may be forgiven for blasphemy, the Airbus A340. It’s worth pointing out that I was conspicuously not invited to the rollout of either of those aircraft, so it is certainly possible that I may be a tad biased.
Irregardless, to use the vernacular of the peasantry, it was a great day for Boeing, and certainly a great day to be someone that Boeing mistakenly thought was important. We will all certainly be watching for the first flight with great interest.