Podcast: Inside Boeing 777X Flight Test Program

Aviation Week’s Guy Norris just visited Boeing Field, where he talked with 777X program leaders. Listen in for an update on the program’s status – and the certification and market challenges that lie ahead.

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Below is a rush transcript of Aviation Week’s December 10, 2020, Check 6 podcast.

Joe Anselmo:

Welcome to this week's Check 6 Podcast. I'm Joe Anselmo, editor in chief of Aviation Week and editorial director of the Aviation Week Network. With the Boeing 737 MAX cleared to return to service in the U.S., more attention is now focusing on the company's next major airplane, the 777X. Aviation Week senior editor Guy Norris is in Seattle and just visited Boeing, where he got an inside look at the program and talked with the chief test pilot. Also joining us from Frankfurt is executive editor Jens Flottau, who is here to tell us about the market outlook for the 777X, especially since the COVID crisis has decimated aviation. Guy let's start with you. You visited Boeing Field. You saw three of the four test aircraft, spoke with the chief test pilot. What did you see and what's up with the program?

 

Guy Norris:

Hi Joe, hi Jens. It was excellent. Actually a really good day to be seeing airplanes in real life and meeting test pilots. and crew. It was just wonderful to actually see this and get back into the swing of it, as it were, a little bit. And I've got to say the atmosphere was kind of very intriguing that day. There was a MAX that was doing touch and goes at Boeing Field. There were also a lot of activities. So there was, the sort of, a kind of good feeling there which, and of course the news about the COVID vaccinations, it was just out. The MAX had just been re-certified, or at least the deliveries are about to begin.

 

 

So it was against that background that my visit happened and I have to say there was this sort of... you could just sort of feel a little bit of a new pulse of life beneath the surface there. So it was a good atmosphere. But anyway, they were kind enough to let me inside one of the test aircraft, the third one, Whiskey Hotel 003, and I got to sit in the cockpit with Van Chaney, the chief test pilot. And prior to that, I chatted to Brad Zaback as well, who is the vice-president of the program. So I got a great update on where things are. They've completed just over 275 flights and 750 flight test hours today which, if you remember, the aircraft made its first flight at the end of January this year. And of course it's been difficult for them because obviously not only have they been dealing with the MAX, the issue of having to really drill back down at the certification of the aircraft, but also, how do you test in the age of COVID?

 

 

So a big part of... They were shut down for almost a month as part of that reaction to COVID breaking out earlier in the year. And of course then they've just had to reinvent how they go about test flight. It's a challenging thing at the best of times but now they have to really plan every single detail of every single sortie. So that's been a delay too.

 

 

But anyway, perhaps we can talk a little bit about the flight test program itself which is going really well. That's the bottom line. They're saying the aircraft is extremely rugged and reliable. For an experimental aircraft, Van Chaney told me that it's basically operating almost the same as if it was a regular 777-300 or something of that line and he said, essentially everything they're doing is to try and ring out problems, which is what you do with the initial task program. And they said the features, for example, the folding wingtip, which everybody wants to know about. He said, it's kind of bulletproof. They've tried throwing things at it. So far it seems to be working very well. The only issue they've found is with the switch in the flight deck itself, which they found can break easily and is difficult to see at night. So they've changed the lighting and changed the design of the switch.

 

Joe Anselmo:

So, the folding wing tip you're talking about, the wings are longer than the [current] 777 so they can't fit between the jet ways, so they actually have to fold up the very ends of it. It's very cool, don't you think?

 

Guy Norris:

It is, yeah. Sorry, I should have said that. I mean, you're talking about folding up the 12 feet of each wingtip, 24 feet of that enormous span. So, it's a highly unusual feature and it's obviously a big focus of this program. And sorry, just one other thing I should say that the engine of course is brand new, the GE9X. It was issues with that engine which delayed the flight test program beginning last year. It basically put a few months added, I guess almost 5-6 months delay to the program. But again, Van Chaney says this engine has not given them a single issue. The only thing they did have early on was, if you remember, there was an issue with rotor, which you remember from the days of Pratt & Whitney's early experience with the gear turbofan, that was an issue where they had differential heating on either side of the engine and it would mean that in the morning, you'd have to give it longer to start up because you have a bow in the row of the rotor of the engine.

 

 

So GE developed a turning mechanism. It's like a spit roast idea really. It's gradually turns the core of the engine once every 60 seconds to equalize the heating and cooling. And they said that that sort of flagged up a few nuisance alerts, but they've solved that too. And performance wise, they've explored almost the complete envelope. They're just about to finish that with the stability and control at the high end of the envelope in the next few days. So begs the question, when does the big milestone of TIA begin? So that's what they're looking at next.

 

Jens Flottau:

So Guy, it's not only a wide aircraft it's also a very long aircraft. So did they talk about ground maneuvering and they must be really, really precise. They have to remain on the center line of the taxiways and then make the turns really accurately. Is that an issue?

 

Guy Norris:

Yeah, absolutely Jens, that's a good point. Van Chaney was very specific about that. He said that is the one area where they really, really are paying a lot of attention. Well, they're noticing that you really have to be on your game because as you'll rightly say, it is a much longer aircraft. And they sort of say that the already the 300ER of course is already a long airplane. But the additional length of the airframe means that particularly when they're maneuvering in tight ramp areas, they're noticing that it definitely is something they have to be aware of.

 

Joe Anselmo:

So Guy remember, you, Jens and I were all sitting next to each other at the 2013 Dubai Airshow when the 777X was launched. And at one point things were going so well Boeing was hoping to make the first delivery to Emirates in December of 2019. Now you're writing that first delivery isn't going to happen until 2022. How much of that is the development problems with the engines and other things and how much of it is because of the COVID crisis and is Boeing slow rolling things at all just because the market is so bad right now for new aircraft?

 

Guy Norris:

That's a good question, Joe. It looks to me from here that it's a bit of a combination of everything. Remember this aircraft is used as an all new composite wing, a fourth generation design, but it's the first that Boeing has built internally. Of course, they put a lot of investment into that Composite Wing Center at Everett. But the process involves some teething troubles. So that did contribute initially to slowing of the program. The final assembly came together reasonably well. And then of course you had the engine issue that we had mentioned earlier. So, those kind of snowballed a little bit. But really the big issues at that stage and they could see that obviously they weren't going to make deliveries by, I think by 2020, by the time of the first flight, obviously by January 25th of this year. It was a big ask by any program to get those deliveries in by the end of this year.

 

 

But obviously the impacts of MAX on the certification, the whole re-scoping of certification and then of course the pandemic on top of that has just been too much. Recently Boeing was still hoping to deliver to Emirates in '21, but even more recently, they have just sort of thrown up their hands and said, "Yeah, we're not going to put a timeline on this. It's going to be sometime in '22." And that's really where we are today. And to answer your question about slow rolling, I asked them this as well. I said, “:Well, it's kind of chicken and egg. You've got a long development certification issue going on here or program, but how much of it is the fact that the airlines can't take it anyway? They wouldn't want to." And they said, "There is no orchestrated connection, but, yes, it just happens to be a sort of serendipity really, if you like."

 

Joe Anselmo:

Jens, I think it's important to note that even before COVID demand for widebody aircraft was cooling off significantly. Some analysts think that 777X is simply too big for the market right now, is that fair?

 

Jens Flottau:

I think absolutely it is fair. And as you say, the widebody market has been weak for like four or five years. We haven't seen any big orders. And the 777X in particular is in trouble from a market point of view because it is a very, very big aircraft. We've seen the demise of the A380. We've seen the demise of the 747-8 and now it seems that the same cause is becoming a problem for the 777X. Why is that? Airbus and Boeing have developed the A350 and the 787, which are much smaller, but have the same or some would argue, better unit costs than the larger aircraft. So there is no economic incentive for an airline to operate a large aircraft just to drive down unit costs. You can take a much smaller aircraft, thus reduce your risk in the investment, your risk in having to fill this aircraft on every flight by just going smaller.

 

 

There's not only a cost issue, there's also a yield issue there. If you have to sell an additional 50-100 seats on every flight, that will have a negative impact on your yields. And it's that aspect that has become the major issue for the A380. It's not even so much the unit costing, it's the unit revenues that have been a problem. So in that sense, the 787 is the 777X's worst enemy, along with the A350. I've just talked to the chief commercial officer of Air France, Angus Clarke, at a CAPA Live event this week and he said, ‘350, 787-10 will be our largest aircraft.’ And that's an airline that has a big, big fleet of 777 -300s and -200s. So they're saying it's too big now, and I think it's very much representative of what we see elsewhere.

 

Joe Anselmo:

And a huge amount of the orders for the 777X have come from Middle Eastern carriers whose fortunes have also gone down a little bit in the last few years -- at least for some of them.

 

Jens Flottau:

Yes. So, about two thirds of the orders are from three airlines. So there's 350 firm orders, roughly 240 or so are the three big carriers and 156, if I'm correct, are Emirates alone. So, the bigger picture, and this is not really related to 777X itself, is that the fast growth that these three carriers have experienced in the past has stopped.

 

 

Etihad is no longer the airline it used to be, it's changed course completely. It's now kind of a boutique airline for Abu Dhabi, but it's a shadow of its former self. There's Qatar. Yes, they're continuing no matter what it seems. But even Emirates, which was by far the biggest of the three, has changed course. They ordered 787s, they've ordered A350s. And as the industry recovers from COVID, what are you going to do as an airline? You're going to try to operate the smallest possible aircraft. And in an Emirates case, that's 787s, 350s, once they have them, they don't have them yet. So I think they will prioritize those over the 777X. I'm not saying that they won't take any 777X, I'm not going that far, but I think the market's just now become smaller.

 

 

Now on the positive side, this is admittedly kind of a European-U.S.-centric view to an extent. And I would say that in Asia, the outlook is better. We've got this huge traffic flows, long distances, they need the range, plus don't forget you need the cargo capacity. Even the classic 777 is a great aircraft. Even now we're seeing some airlines operate the 777s rather than A330s, just because they can make so much money out of the cargo shipping.

 

Guy Norris:

I'd just like to say that Jens absolutely is got a good point there. I think Boeing's looking sort of perhaps significantly stretching out the sales sort of window for the 777X family. It's already pushed back development of the sister version, the -8,  to an unknown time. But, they are still saying they're committed to that. So, there is the possibility of this follow on smaller version, still going ahead, I think it will. But longer term, Jens is right, the sort of market has been changing because of COVID. A big part of the 777X philosophy is the lower operating costs that they're going to get out of these new generation airframes and engines. So they do realize that yield is going to be more difficult to get in some cases. And I think they're sort of maybe trimming their expectations or at least stretching it out because they know this is their only large product family that is going to be out there once the 747 sunsets of course, next year.

 

Joe Anselmo:

Guy, I wanted to wrap up with a question for you about certification. You've written that Boeing believes that 777X will be the most rigorously scrutinized certification effort for an aircraft in the company's history, 104 year history. How come and what do you mean by that?

 

Guy Norris:

You'll ask a very good question. Obviously the MAX just turned everything upside down, not only within Boeing but outside too... Boeing has set up its permanent aerospace safety committee, and it's also stood up this sort of parallel product and services safety organization. Basically, they're looking at including whistleblowers inside the company, anything that's something safety related that's anomalous is being brought up to the surface. There's total transparency, that's what they're really pushing for. And the other part of course is this... all of the engineering within Boeing across the entire enterprise is now reporting up to Greg Hyslop, so the company's chief engineer and the senior VP of engineering and testing technology. So, you have this new reporting chain and it's all geared to raising the bar on safety again and driving, just basically returning to its original sort of safety culture and practices, which the company is quite candid about sort of feeling that maybe they significantly lost their way and have work to do there.

 

 

So if you can imagine that in the middle of all that, "Hey, you're developing this new airliner,”  albeit an amended type certificate, it's really just become the poster child as I've said in the story really for this new approach. So, that's really the background to what's going on. The other side of course is from the FAA. They've put together this team of experts, the technical advisory board, and that's been providing feedback to Boeing on a day-to-day basis looking at the certification plan. And there's a lot of new things to look at in the 777X. You've got this folding wing, for example, that we talked about earlier. So it's not so much the mechanics, I mean, Joe, you and I went out years ago and saw the thing on its test rig being tested.

 

 

It's not so much the nuts and bolts of the system that they're worried about, it's more the human factors. How the crews will react, whether it's something they'd forget about or lose sight of. It's those sort of things. So if you put all of those inputs together, you've suddenly got a certification plan which almost doesn't really bear any resemblance to what would have been crafted say two or three years ago. It's really looking at fault tree analysis. Every aspect of the entire design has been rigorously looked at whether it's software, hardware, systems, design, operational procedures. It's a complete go through of the entire program. And inevitably that stretched things out. For example, it's 787, even given all of the issues that you had with that program, by 500 hours of flight testing, they had been awarded the TIA, this milestone we mentioned earlier. Here we are now, the 777X, 750-plus flight hours and they're still not exactly sure when it's going to come along. So, anyway, maybe that gives you a feel for how things have changed here.

 

Joe Anselmo:

And 275 test flights at least so far.

 

Guy Norris:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, definitely.

 

Joe Anselmo:

Guy Norris, Jens Flottau, thanks for a wonderful conversation and Guy for giving us that peek behind the 777X curtain. Certainly learned a lot. Guy’s in-depth story is now available to subscribers of Aviation Week Magazine and the Aviation Week Intelligence Network on aviationweek.com and will appear in the December 21st print edition of Aviation Week magazine. That's a wrap for this week's Check 6 Podcast. Special thanks to our producer in Washington, D.C., Donna Thomas. Join us again next week for another edition of Check 6, which is available for download on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play and Spotify. And if you like what you've heard, please give us a positive review. We appreciate your feedback. Thanks for your time, have a great day and stay safe.

 

 

Joe Anselmo

Joe Anselmo has been Editorial Director of the Aviation Week Network and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology since 2013. Based in Washington, D.C., he directs a team of more than two dozen aerospace journalists across the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Jens Flottau

Based in Frankfurt, Germany, Jens leads Aviation Week’s global commercial coverage. He covers program updates and developments at Airbus, and as a frequent long-haul traveler, he often writes in-depth airline profiles worldwide.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, based in Los Angeles. Before joining Aviation Week in 2007, Guy was with Flight International, first as technical editor based in the U.K. and most recently as U.S. West Coast editor. Before joining Flight, he was London correspondent for Interavia, part of Jane's Information Group.