Boeing 777X

As the Olympic Mountains loom in the distance, a Boeing 777X takes off on its first flight from Paine Field in Everett on Saturday morning. The 777X features giant carbon-composite wings, the largest Boeing has ever designed. The wings are so long they have to fold upward to fit at standard airport gates.

Boeing’s big 777X took off Saturday at 10:09 a.m. and headed northward through low clouds on a first flight that lasted nearly four hours.

It was an understated event, with many fewer than the 8,000 Boeing employees and others who gathered Friday in lashing wind and rain as Boeing waited hours before postponing its initial attempt for the flight.

Saturday brought calmer weather and a smooth takeoff from Paine Field in Everett. The 777-9X, the larger of two planned models, landed at Seattle’s Boeing Field shortly after 2 p.m.

Flying the plane is 777X chief test pilot Van Chaney, with co-pilot Craig Bomben, Boeing’s VP Flight operations and chief test pilot.

The 777X features giant carbon-composite wings, the largest Boeing has ever designed. The wings are so long that to fit at standard airport gates, each has to fold upward on a hinge 11 feet from the tip. After the jet taxis out to the runway, as it lines up to take off, the pilot will lower the folded wingtips, extending the wingspan to just over 235 feet.

Its GE9X engines are the the largest jet engines ever built, encased in a carbon composite pod, or nacelle, with a diameter of 184 inches at the widest point.

With carbon wings joined to a conventional metal fuselage, the 777X was a new engineering challenge for Boeing. Securing the right to build it was the great industrial prize for which Washington state agreed in 2013 to shell out $8.7 billion in tax breaks to Boeing over 16 years.

It’s the plane for which Boeing’s Machinists — after a bitter struggle in the winter of 2013--were forced to pay the price of freezing their traditional pensions to secure Everett as the manufacturing site.

Six years later, delayed about nine months by a design problem with the GE9X engines that had to be fixed, the plane is finally ready to fly.

Everett Site Transformed for 777X

Since the 777X program was launched at the Dubai Air Show in 2013, Boeing has invested heavily to transform its Everett manufacturing site for the airplane, which will take over from the 747 jumbo jet as Boeing’s largest passenger jet.

The  company built a gigantic, $1 billion building on the Everett site and filled it with robotic machinery and high-pressure ovens just to fabricate the pieces of those carbon-composite wings.

Inside the main Everett assembly building, Boeing installed state-of-the-art, automated stations where the wings will be assembled, equipment designed by Mukilteo-based engineering company Electroimpact.

And it completely changed the way the 777 fuselage and wings come together to make the plane more flexible and efficient.

The sole failure in this dramatic factory makeover was the plan for a new robotic method developed over six years to assemble the metal 777X fuselages. Known as the “Fuselage Automated Upright Build” process, or FAUB, it only created a manufacturing mess.

After spending millions on the FAUB project, Boeing finally abandoned it in November and went back to relying more on its human machinists.

Recently, the 777X program has faced other setbacks that drained confidence.

A slump in demand for large aircraft has brought no new 777X orders since last March and some cancellations, cutting the order book to 309 aircraft. Emirates in November cut its 777X launch order by 24 aircraft and took 787 Dreamliners in place of those.

At the Paris Air Show in June, GE revealed that during tests of the plane’s new engine it found excessive wear on a set of titanium parts inside the engine’s compressor section. A fix was devised but took months to implement, test and retrofit to the engines already built.

A Boeing stress test on a completed 777X airframe in November fell short of perfection when the fuselage split open just shy of the target load.

Australian carrier Qantas in December chose the Airbus A350-1000 over the 777-8X for its prestige ultra-long-range project.

But those setbacks can be overlooked as the plane takes to the air. Passing that milestone would open the prospect that Boeing can deliver the jet to first customer Emirates in the middle of next year. If it proves successful in service, orders should follow.

With Airbus winding down production and taking no more orders for its superjumbo A380 jet, the 777-9X will be the largest passenger jet on offer.

The 777-9X carries 400-425 passengers and has a range of 8,383 miles, about 100 miles less than the 777-300ER. But with its new engines and larger wings, it will carry about 50 more passengers using less fuel and correspondingly producing lower carbon emissions.

The rival Airbus A350-1000 is smaller, with about the same seating capacity as the 777-300ER.

According to the latest market pricing data from airplane valuation firm Avitas, after standard discounts you can pick up a new 777-9X from Boeing for about $204 million.

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