When Boeing first announced plans for the 787 passenger jet, their goal was to replace the 767 and 747-400 lines that were on their way toward retirement. The company envisioned a state-of-the-art aircraft with greater capacity, faster speeds, and comparable fuel efficiency. What they came up with was a plane that revolutionized an industry. Its most recent iteration, the 787-10, was recently cleared by the FAA for commercial service.
Boeing owes the success of the 787-10, in large part, to composite materials. It’s not hard to make the case that composites have made the 787-10 what it is today. And that is no accident. The original design for the first generation 787 called for a single-piece composite fuselage along with composite wings and some airframe components made of composites.
What Boeing was proposing to do with the 787 was completely unheard of in its day. There were too many risks involved, according to critics. Yet Boeing went ahead with their plans and the rest, as they say, is history. The 787-10 continues to be the defining aircraft in commercial aviation.
A Year-Long Process
Flight testing of the new 787-10 began almost a year ago. Testing involved three separate airplanes that have flown a combined 900 test hours since last March. Pilots pushed the plane to measure everything from overall performance to handling and response. The plane had to meet certain certification standards and internal requirements to pass.
It is expected that the FAA approval will lead to similar approvals by other agencies required to give their consent before Boeing can begin manufacturing the airplane for customers. The company already has 170 orders for the 787-10, including an order that will make Singapore Airlines the first to receive one.
The 787-10 is not the first Boeing aircraft to utilize composites. The company’s 737 Classic was given a composite horizontal tail back in the mid-1980s, and a number of Boeing-Sikorsky helicopters of the day were built with structures consisting of upwards of 60% composites. But critics worried that creating an entire fuselage from composite materials was not doable.
The main concern was that composite materials do not easily show cracks and fatigue. Where a cursory visual inspection would easily reveal damage to a steel or aluminum fuselage, a much more rigorous inspection would be necessary to identify the same damage in a composite fuselage. Critics were also concerned that a composite fuselage would more easily break apart in a crash. Any resulting fire would produce highly toxic chemicals as well.
Boeing says that they have addressed all the concerns to create an aircraft that is just as safe as any of its predecessors. The FAA apparently agrees. They are unconcerned that the modern 787-10 is built with more than 35 metric tons of CFRP, representing more than half of its total weight.
Boeing Helping Other Industries
FAA clearance of the 787-10 is obviously big news for both Boeing and its customers. But it is good for a lot of other industries to. Consider all the effort Boeing had to go through to figure out how to produce a composite fuselage and wings. What they have learned has paid off in other areas, according to Utah-based Rock West Composites.
Everything from woven carbon fiber fabric to lay up-ready prepregs are better for being influenced by Boeing research and development. So as the 787-10 takes to the sky later this year, Boeing can take pride in their leadership in both commercial aviation and composites research and development. After all, composites make the 787-10 what it is.