Boeing 787: The long certification journey comes to an end

By Joe Wlad

Joe WladToday, Boeing delivered its first 787 aircraft to All Nippon Airways (ANA) marking a huge technical, moral and financial achievement. Lorraine Bolsinger, president and CEO, GE Aviation Systems, commented in today’s news release: “This is an opportunity for 787 partners to celebrate their role in bringing the 787 Dreamliner to ANA and the world.” We at Wind River are immensely proud to be part of the supplier team on the Boeing 787 program and our VxWorks 653 operating system environment has enabled Boeing to reduce size, weight and power of the avionics platform thereby reducing aircraft operating costs for its customers.

Certification of the Boeing 787 has been a long road. While some people have focused on the challenges surrounding production and certification delays of the Boeing 787, it’s important to understand how revolutionary this airplane really is. The 787 is the most fuel efficient, technically advanced aircraft ever certified. Given how much new technology is built into the 787, it’s understandable that the certification process took longer than some had hoped. Key attributes of the 787 include a mostly composite aircraft structure (replacing many aluminum parts), elimination of pneumatics to power aircraft systems, a highly efficient wing design and Integrated Modular Avionics which reduce weight and enable reusability of software, among others.

Boeing has raised the bar in commercial aviation technology and challenged its competitors to keep up. In fact, if you take an historical look Boeing’s designs, they’ve always lead the way in aircraft design. From the 707 to the 747, Boeing took great risks in investing in new airplane technology. There were many on the board of directors at Boeing who staunchly opposed investing in the Boeing 747 in 1968. Boeing had to build an entirely new factory to support production and called on engine suppliers to design an engine that could support the performance objectives and do all of this without going bankrupt. Essentially, Boeing bet the entire company on the success of the 747. The early results did not look promising, instead they looked downright disastrous.

When the first 747s rolled off the production line, no engines were available, so they sat with concrete weights hanging from the pylons to prevent them from falling over. Once the plane was certified and put into operation by Pan Am, things started to look up until the oil embargo of 1973 took place. Then most 747 operators had to park their aircraft in the desert and others either delayed or cancelled 747 orders with Boeing. Boeing was on its knees and some predicted the end of commercial aviation. In 1974, the market value of Boeing was less than the value of the Boeing 747s it had in inventory. If an optimistic investor had gambled $1000 on Boeing stock back then and held it until 1989, they were rewarded with an investment worth $50,000. Indeed, aviation did not die; instead it grew well beyond anyone’s expectations.

I think the same philosophy holds true today. While there have been many challenges with the latest Boeing aircraft, I believe the future is bright for the Boeing 787 and commercial aviation. Beyond the 787, the VxWorks 653 operating system provided by Wind River has been embraced by 120 avionics suppliers and is now installed on over 45 aircraft worldwide. We look forward to continued successes on the Boeing 787 as well as other new aircraft programs that raise the bar on efficiency, reliability and technology.