Dreamliner Down Under

Rob Neil was lucky enough to attend the historic first visit to New Zealand of a Boeing 787. The first 787 to fly, ZA001 was just two weeks from permanent retirement when it touched down at Auckland.

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Just over a month and a half after the first production Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” was delivered to the aircraft’s launch customer—Japan’s ANA—Boeing, in association with Air New Zealand, brought one of its Dreamliner test aircraft to New Zealand as part of a brief tour that also included Australia. The visiting aircraft, ZA001 (N787BA), has flown the highest number of hours of any of Boeing’s 787 test fleet; in just over 500 flights, it has amassed around 1,300 hours of the fleet’s total of just over 5,400 hours.

ZA001’s arrival in Auckland on 12 November came less than two years after it became the first 787 to fly—a historic event that took place on December 15 2009. Its arrival in New Zealand, after a non-stop flight direct from Seattle, marked the 787’s first public appearance in the southern hemisphere, so it was not surprising that Aucklanders turned out in their thousands to witness the aircraft’s arrival.

Air New Zealand played a willing and helpful host to literally thousands of invited visitors keen to see the new aircraft first hand. Groups of 100 guests at a time took turns poring over the Dreamliner at Air New Zealand’s engineering facility during the two days the aircraft was made available to visitors.

Because ZA001 is still fully involved in the 787 test programme, its interior was filled with instruments, ballast tanks and test equipment rather than a standard airline configuration. While its interior might not have been a luxury showpiece, this did not deter guests from peering, prodding, poking, touching, looking and admiring every other aspect of this beautiful airliner.

Accompanying the Dreamliner to this part of the world was Boeing’s 787 programme’s vice president and chief project engineer, Michael Sinnet. Like a proud father introducing a newborn child, Mr Sinnet appeared to relish his host’s role as he introduced his carbon-fibre “child” to the throngs of visitors.

Also present to meet and greet visitors passing through the aircraft was Air New Zealand’s chief pilot, Captain David Morgan. Captain Morgan was aboard the Dreamliner during its journey from Seattle and flew it during the takeoff from Seattle and upon arrival at Auckland where he also landed the aircraft.

I asked Captain Morgan—who regularly flies Air New Zealand’s Boeing 777s—how the 787 compared to the triple-seven. From a “hands-on” flying perspective, he said the 787 was “absolutely identical” in terms of “feel” and control response to the 777. He was quick to point out that he considers this to be an excellent achievement on Boeing’s part, because of the fact that the 777 is such a beautiful aircraft to fly.

Despite some obvious visible differences in cockpit layouts between the 787 and its older brother 777, Captain Morgan was full of praise for the way everything had been integrated so seamlessly in the 787 that he had been able to slot naturally into the pilot’s seat (albeit alongside two Boeing test pilots) without having yet completed a 787 training programme. Strong commonality between types in a fleet is a significant asset to airlines, as it reduces the time required to undergo conversion training. As everyone in the industry knows, time really is money—lots of money—as far as airline training is concerned.

Captain Morgan’s enthusiasm for the new aircraft was not limited to his opinion as a pilot. As a senior manager within Air New Zealand, he appreciates fully that the 787’s fuel-efficiency and reduced maintenance requirements (expected to require around 30% less maintenance than current airliners) will have a big impact on Air New Zealand’s bottom line as soon as the aircraft can be brought into service.

When announcing the Dreamliner’s visit, Air New Zealand’s CEO, Rob Fyfe, also stressed the 787’s fuel efficiency—up to 20% better than existing types—and its ability to carry up to 50% more cargo than other airliners of comparative size. “We’re looking forward to seeing the 787 in our skies for the first time,” he said.

ZA001 is a 787-8. Air New Zealand has ordered the larger 787-9 variant, which will have a greater range capability and seating capacity than the 787-8.

As has been reported often throughout the 787’s development process, the Dreamliner is the world’s first (predominantly) composite airliner. Its carbon-fibre construction confers a number of significant advantages on the Dreamliner, including:

  • its carbon-fibre structure is stiffer and has a higher strength-to-weight ratio than aluminium and permits a greater cabin pressure differential. The 787 will operate with a cabin altitude of 6,000 feet—compared to 8,000 feet typically in current airliners. Two thousand feet might not seem like much, but during a typical long distance flight, the increased partial pressure of oxygen at 6,000 feet has a major beneficial effect on physical wellbeing.
  • Not only does the carbon-fibre permit a greater pressure differential and thus lower cabin altitude, but also, the fact that carbon-fibre does not corrode allows a more naturally humid cabin atmosphere to be maintained. This also benefits the aircraft’s occupants by preventing the unpleasant dehydration typically experienced in dry, air-conditioned cabins during long airline flights at altitude.
  • The strength of the structure allows for significantly larger windows that will confer a more “open” feel to the cabin and a greater sensation of flight for passengers; it will reduce the feeling of being “cooped up in a tube” during long flights.

It is not just the Dreamliner’s composite design (around 80% composite by volume and 50% by weight) that is revolutionary. Boeing took a number of brave steps by introducing several new technologies simultaneously in its design. One of the biggest “step changes” in the 787 is the proliferation of electrical systems to replace “conventional” hydraulic or pneumatic systems. For example, the 787 uses electrical power to: operate its brakes (otherwise, universally hydraulically powered in other types); operate its air conditioning systems (conventional airliners use engine bleed-air); and provide wing de-icing (conventionally done with engine bleed air).

Electrical generation is beefed up significantly to cope with the additional loads involved—made possible by lighter, higher powered electrical generators. In addition, new, more advanced batteries provide better storage than older systems; the 787 is even capable of braking from a V1 rejected takeoff using battery power alone.

Amongst the many technological “goodies” introduced with the 787 are head-up displays (HUD) for the pilots as standard equipment. Consideration is being given to the possibility of integrating forward looking infrared into the HUD in future, which would give pilots the ability to “see” through clouds.

There will be two engine options for Dreamliner operators; either the Rolls Royce Trent 1000 or the General Electric GEnx. Both are new technology engines that contribute significantly to the overall fuel-efficiency improvements expected of the 787, as well as producing around 20% fewer emissions than existing engines; Air New Zealand has ordered Rolls Royce engines for its 787s.

While non-enthusiasts might have difficulty telling many modern airliners apart, the Dreamliner will be instantly recognisable by its smoothly contoured nose and the distinctive “chevrons” at the rear of its giant engine cowlings (Boeing’s new 747-8 also features similar cowlings). This Boeing cowling design has proved effective in reducing engine noise.

The combination of its nose contour, aggressive looking engine cowlings and truly beautiful wings make the Dreamliner look like the new-technology aeroplane it is. The addition of its beautiful blue Boeing livery turned ZA001—certainly in this viewer’s eyes—into an aeronautical work of art; it was a joy to finally see the real aircraft in the flesh.

Having visited Boeing’s Asian suppliers, read scores of articles and books about the 787 and seen dozens of artist’s renditions of the aircraft in countless liveries and configurations, it was pretty special to be able to finally touch the real thing. Although admittedly not for the same reasons, I definitely share the desires of Rob Fyfe and Captain David Morgan for the 787 to enter Air New Zealand’s fleet; in my case, I simply can’t wait to see Dreamliners become common sights Downunder.

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