Gear Up: I’m Just Dreaming

What better way to cross the Atlantic than in the
luxury of Boeing’s new dream machine?

On some days, the stars just line up perfectly. So perfectly that I become reluctant to touch or perturb anything. This day I was on a roll. "Just keep quiet and try not to attract attention" was my mantra at London's Heathrow Airport.

It all started with Virgin Atlantic's winter sale. Upper class was going for close to coach fares from New York to London and return. I don't have a lot of transoceanic travel experience by most measures, but I have some. And I still think it is a thrill. I haven't crossed the Atlantic on Singapore Airlines or Emirates (often said to be excellent), but I have experienced Virgin's upper class and found it to be fabulous.

The "problem," if you could call it that, was that my wife, Cathy, and I wanted to go from London to Boston, not New York, that day in January. We had tickets to New York for one reason: They were cheap. Heading home, after crossing the Atlantic, we planned to fly on Delta from JFK to Boston and then drive 2½ hours to New Hampshire. Even if everything went according to schedule, it would be a 22-hour day. The celestial alignment I was hoping for included Virgin Atlantic having seats available to Boston and the airline giving them to us for no additional charge. This would cut four hours off the travel time, save a connection in New York, obviate the need to survive another TSA evaluation at Kennedy and allow us to enjoy more time in the Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow.

I stood in front of the kind agent as he scowled at his computer screen perched before him. A frown. Another few keystrokes. A smile. "Here you go. Two upper class seats next to each other to Boston. And, on my favorite airplane. I am also a flight attendant, so I know about this. It is our first 787 Dreamliner. You will love it. More humidity, lower cabin altitude. Enjoy."

I resisted pointing skyward like the tight ends do when they score a touchdown.

I had read about the 787. I knew it was said to be more efficient, more comfortable, more composite, even more humid. I knew that many components of the airplane were made in many places around the world and assembled in Washington and South Carolina. I knew that Atlas Air operated four "Dreamlifters" that flew parts from Asia and Europe to the assembly points. However, I had ­never been in one.

It was called the 7E7 by Boeing while in development, when world events (9/11, fuel prices) shifted commercial airline interest from speed (as in supersonic or near supersonic) to efficiency (as in miserly fuel consumption). These considerations drove designers of this first production airliner to use one-piece composite material barrel sections instead of aluminum sheets, saving weight and about 50,000 fasteners, among other benefits.

Fuel efficiency is claimed to be 20 percent improved compared with the 767's, which the 787 replaces, but it isn't clear to me as to exactly what accounts for the salutary effect. Is it weight reduction or increased engine magic? Well, apparently it is lots of things. The airplane is made of lighter material, certainly, and the engines, made by GE or Rolls-Royce, have several interesting features. They have lower noise levels due to air inlet sound-absorbing material and an aggressive-­looking chevron design of the engine housing. About 40 percent of the improved efficiency is said to be due to the engines.

Both the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 and the General Electric GEnx produce about 71,000 pounds of thrust — a good thing, considering the max takeoff weight of 557,000 pounds. The airframe is designed to allow for engine change-out, so that an operator might choose to switch engine manufacturers. Both are "bleedless." That means the engines are not robbed of power to heat the wings or pressurize and heat or cool the cabin. With the exception of engine anti-ice, these engines just move the airplane forward and do not bother themselves with other energy dissipation tasks.

The traditional bleed air systems that are replaced by electrical power include engine start, pressurization, horizontal stab trim and wheel brakes. Electrothermal heating mats in the wing slats provide wing ice protection. Electricity has been a problem for the airplane, as almost any layman knows. Lithium battery fires caused the FAA to issue an emergency airworthiness directive in January 2013, ordering all U.S. airlines to ground the airplane. Four months later, with a revised battery design, the airplanes took to the air, and they have been there ever since.

This catalog of facts was vaguely rattling around in my head as we trucked by foot for what seemed like miles to the gate. Though it was dark by now (the sun goes down pretty early way up north in January), the raked wings were clearly visible in the gloom.

Our lengthy stay at the Virgin Clubhouse had allowed us to savor the delicatessen glories and for Cathy to get a free "head massage," whatever that is. She seemed no worse for wear for this treatment. We had both had a champagne breakfast.

We entered midcabin, slid past the bar and made a left to two amazing seats. Virgin doesn't just have lie-flat seats; they have real beds, complete with mattress, duvet and pillow. On the eastbound trips, you get a set of pajamas to wear to bed. They are easy to don in the 787 lavatories because they are about twice as large as most airplane lavs. Cleaner, better smelling and mood-lit to boot.

I rushed up front to say hello to the lads. There were three of them. A check airman was perched on a jumpseat. Friendly, understated and unabashedly British, the pilots were at ease as they set about running a before-­start checklist and doing the takeoff briefing. The check airman told me the 787 has the same type rating as the 777. That might be useful to some airlines, but Virgin Atlantic has no 777s, so everybody transitioning to the Dreamliner (most are coming off of the Airbus A340, though our pilots were 747 drivers) had to go to school.

With a fresh type rating in hand, Virgin Atlantic pilots had no place to get initial operating experience (IOE), so they struck a deal with other airlines already operating the 787. I remember that one pilot mentioned Norwegian Air as a willing partner.

The pilots said the airplane was quieter up front than the 747; noise levels were comparable to the Airbus'. "Cabin crews love it," said one. "The cabin is pressurized to 6,000 feet instead of 8,000, and the humidity is significantly higher. You'll notice you aren't as tired when you get to Boston." The seven-hour trip is nothing for these guys. They said it could stay up for 16 or more and go over 8,000 nautical miles — it can hold 36,000 gallons of jet-A. "This baby will go right to Flight Level 380. Our service ceiling is 430," said the check airman as I was ushered to my seat and handed another glass of champagne.

The mood lighting switched to a calming pink/orange as we taxied out for takeoff. By the time I had figured out the onboard entertainment system, the beginnings of dinner were being passed out. After some "crisps" and some nuts, a fine salad and a chicken dish, I settled on the flight map. This included a "cockpit view," depicting an artificial horizon and altitude and airspeed tapes. It took me a minute or two to sort out that the airspeed tape was actually depicting groundspeed, not airspeed. At one point it sagged below 400 knots. Boohoo.

After a pretty juvenile but amusing movie (The Other Woman), we repaired to the bar, where a lively discussion about London restaurants was taking place. One flight attendant revealed that she was taking flying lessons despite the price and hoped one day to fly for Virgin Atlantic. Too soon, we were in the descent. Even with pretty strong headwinds we made the trip in just over seven hours. I regretted hearing the gear come out. Soon I'd be back to real life.

Did I feel better than I would have felt making the crossing in a more traditional airliner, or was I just a sap easily convinced of the wonders of the new Boeing? I do admit to a chauvinistic interest in the Boeing when it comes to competition with Airbus. As for the difference, I really don't know. I find every ocean crossing to be magnificent in terms of distance traveled, always tiring and yet exhilarating.

I can tell you that I have thought about this flight over and over. Years ago airplane manufacturers would advertise in print media in the hope of directing travelers to seek out airlines that featured their products. These days, price and schedule trump everything else when it comes to making a reservation. That said, I've had a lot of time to dream about the Dreamliner. I'd like to ride in one again soon to be sure it is all I remember.

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Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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