Flying High With the Boeing 787 Dream Tour
About a dozen aviation executives, investors and analysts are onboard this Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight from Boston to Newark. All are grown men, in their 30s to 70s, smartly dressed in suits and ties, and all of them are wandering around the plane with a child’s excitement to get a better view of the massive Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines, and to test out the lie-flat business class seats, and to play with the electronic window shades, and to hang out in the cockpit.
“How does the heads-up display work?” one of the men asks Boeing’s Chief Pilot for the 787 program and Captain of today’s flight, Randy Neville. “It projects down from here onto the glass,” Neville says, directing his finger from a small circle in the ceiling above his head to the lavender-tinted pane hanging between his face and the windshield. “Cool!”
Now the businessmen are posing for a group photo. They don’t all know one other, and may never see each other again, but the camaraderie is palpable. “If you want a copy of this, give me your business cards,” says the white-haired man holding the camera. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for aviation fans of all ages, and they’re having a blast.
So goes the Boeing 787 Dreamliner Dream Tour, during which the Chicago-based airframer is flying one their 787-8 test aircraft (N787BX) around the world to show off the highest-tech airliner they’ve ever built — and generally thrilling everyone who sees it along the way. Airline customers, parts manufacturers, airport personnel and reporters all get a chance to tour the aircraft before it enters widespread use. With only five 787s in airline service so far, this is a rare opportunity.
The trip is not all play. During visits to customers, “fit checks” are performed to let ground crews practice lining up their equipment — such as container loaders — to the new plane. While the 787 doesn’t require any special airport accommodations or ground handling equipment (like, say, the oversized Airbus A380), there are always a few details for rampers to be aware of when dealing with any new aircraft type.
Back inside the cabin, unlike the sparsely furnished cabins of a typical test plane, the interior of this particular 787 is outfitted with an interior worthy of paying passengers…sort of.
Starting at the front, a Business Class section is filled with three rows with plush, red leather, lie-flat seats. Each seat features a large personal video screen. Seats here are installed in a 2-2-2 layout.
Behind the main entryway and its grand arched entrance, there are eight rows of Economy Class seats, attractively upholstered in gray and blue, laid out in a typical 3-3-3 configuration with 32 inches of pitch. These, too, offer personal video screens, but neither these, nor the ones up front, are hooked up for use.
Aft of this section is a large, empty space, which would probably fit about a dozen more rows of economy seats. This area is used for setting up meet-and-greets during visits, and to give demo flight passengers room walk around and mingle freely.
And in the very back of the aircraft are six rows 3-3-3 economy seats with larger pitch for the Boeing Dream Tour entourage. Flying with the plane for weeks at a time are about 30 maintenance techs, engineers, photographers, web staffers, flight attendants, extra pilots and other folks responsible for making the tour go smoothly.
(Check out these great photos of the 787 Dreamliner interior from our tour a day earlier.)
Also onboard this flight is a small group of Japan Airlines executives enjoying their first 787 flight. Beginning in April, JAL will become the first carrier to operate the 787 to the United States, with nonstop flights between Tokyo and Boston. The execs, who include the airline’s Senior Vice President of The Americas, Hiroyuki Hioka, are amazed at how quiet the takeoff thrust is. A Boeing rep accompanying them on the trip equates the takeoff noise level to that of many other planes at cruise, and we would have to agree. Conversation was still easy even at peak thrust.
The takeoff out of Boston is fast and powerful, yet subdued. The engines don’t produce the rumble and shake of other planes. Purists might dislike it, but frequent fliers will appreciate the relative calm. With those big engines and little fuel and cargo onboard, we climb out over the Atlantic after using only a fraction of the runway, and then turn sharply back to the west.
Maybe even more striking than the hushed whine of the engines is the massive amount of light in the cabin thanks to the plane’s huge windows. These things are big, and even sitting in the middle section (the seats on the sides of this plane are not certified for takeoff and landing) we can see the the plane’s surroundings without straining. Without any cabin lighting, it looks like you’re sitting in a sun-drenched living room.
During cruise phase, you actually have to go out of your way to hear the engines. Conversations actually drown out the little engine noise, rather than vice-versa. If not for the swirling paint pattern on the engines’ intake cones, some might think they weren’t turning at all.
The Dream Tour began last November and is now on its fourth segment, having visited seven countries on four continents so far, with stops back at Boeing’s home base in Seattle in between. Despite its role as a flying demonstrator, N787BX remains a member of the 787 test fleet and is still tasked with carrying out data collection on some of its flights. After this segment of the tour wraps up in Salt Lake City, engineers will be running some undisclosed tests during the flight home to Seattle.
As I sit in one of flight deck’s two jump seats, cruising at 16,000 feet above Connecticut, a voice on the radio asks our pilots about their destination. “We’re heading from Boston to Newark,” replies the Captain. “And where are you headed after that?” the voice asks. “Mexico City.”
After landing in Newark, dozens of airport vehicles and personnel line the taxiways as we roll toward a huge hangar belonging to what will be the first US airline to operate the 787, United. (Though, most of the hangar’s signage still says “Continental.”) When we finally come to a stop, hundreds of personnel surround the aircraft. Fellow passengers speculate that other flights must be delayed because every fueler, baggage agent and security guard must be standing here taking pictures. According to Neville, it’s like this everywhere the plane goes, and it never gets old.
Attempting to maintain my balance while standing in the no-seat area during climb-out. (Photo by Matt Molnar)