Jumpseat: Flying the Boeing 787 Dreamliner Sim

Stepping into Airline Pilot Disney World.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Boeing 787 Dreamliner

A row of Boeing 787 Dreamliners

Before I walked through the doors of the museum at Boeing Field in Seattle, I scanned the sharp lines of the B-47 perched just outside. The 1947 vintage bomber had really been the catalyst that heralded the beginning of the U.S. commercial jet age. The concept of swept wings was in its infancy, an engineering design obtained from post-World War II Germany. I recalled the previous night’s dinner conversation regarding the B-47.

“At 456 knots, aileron roll reversal would begin,” Dick Taylor stated matter-of-factly with a grin.

Dick Taylor was the 90-year-old father of my host, Steve Taylor. Steve is Boeing’s BBJ president. Among many treats for the day, I had the honor and privilege to dine with one of the men who helped define the vocation of test pilot. In this particular discussion, Dick explained the tendency of a swept wing to flex just enough at certain speeds that it would cause the airfoil to do exactly the opposite from what was commanded. The solution? Use spoilers automatically as part of lateral control to counteract the tendency.

Steve sat back in his chair and smiled. His expression indicated that he had heard his father’s stories more than once. His dad was — and still is — a Boeing legend. The fact that the man still flies his own Aerostar speaks volumes about his acuity.

The dinner was the icing on the cake that topped off my visit with Boeing. The primary purpose of my visit was to fly the 787 Dreamliner simulator. By the time the sun had set against a postcard view of the Seattle skyline, I realized that I hadn't just been introduced to Boeing. I had actually been to Airline Pilot Disney World.

The tour of Boeing’s plant in Everett, near Seattle, left me awestruck. The array of airliners parked on the ramp was an affirmation that the company had a monumental effect on a global industry. I could have spent hours wandering the tarmac gawking at 747-8s, 787s, 777-3s and 777-2s.

Considering that each bay door of the factory hangar was equivalent to the length of a football field, the sheer size of the structure was impressive enough. Even more impressive was the organization of the assembly process. The fact that four colossal airplane types could be built with surgical precision under one roof boggled the mind. It was the epitome of American ingenuity and innovation.

The quiet enthusiasm of the thousands of employees that bustled about was palpable. I am certain that they felt their contribution to a very special manufacturing process was making a difference. As a matter of fact, through employee suggestions, the process was streamlined to involve much less wasted parts and materials.

My morning simulator session in the 787 had been first on the day’s agenda. I started at the end of this story, because the end is actually the beginning. If it weren’t for Boeing’s pursuit in creating an enviable product, and if it weren’t for courageous people blazing new frontiers like Dick Taylor, I would never have been given the opportunity to test-drive one of the world’s most technologically advanced airliners.

Steve picked me up from the hotel and drove to the training facility located within minutes of SeaTac airport. The outside of Boeing’s sprawling training center would not have made the cover of Architectural Digest, but the inside of the 1996 facility was spacious, clean and crisp. Airplane photos on the walls were museum-quality tributes to its chief test pilots and Boeing’s dynamic history.

Despite the often-sterile and austere atmosphere of a simulator bay, a comfortable warmth prevailed. The inside of the 787 simulator defined the airplane’s futuristic demeanor. Aside from the cockpit itself, the presence of the instructor’s seat behind and in-between the pilot positions added to the character. The seat is aptly called the “Captain Kirk chair.” Rather than the typical side control panel, instructors access simulator functions directly from the chair. Fortunately, “Beam me aboard, Scotty” was never uttered. The Star Trek lines had probably all been said.

I slid into the left seat and surveyed the entire cockpit. Except for the HD-quality flat screens and the virtual FMC (flight management computer), the basic configuration was the same as the 777’s. I studied the instrument panel in an attempt not so much to acquaint myself with the array of information available but to figure out how to operate all the stuff.

As opposed to the 777, the screens are larger, giving them the capability of being split. In addition to standard map and PFD information, the screens can display checklists and system synoptics. The FMCs are simply virtual picture displays of the old models. Because they are virtual, most of their direct tactile key functions are absent. The same mouse pad found on the 777 directs a cursor for function selection on the FMC. A twist-knob and push-button combination similar to a Garmin GNS 530 can also move the cursor. What’s also really cool is the ability to “float” the cursor from the instrument panel screens down to the lower screens of the center console.

Another really neat feature is the flight profile on the lower portion of the pilot’s map screen. The profile adds an additional level of terrain situational awareness. The half-compass rose underneath the main PFD is more of a mini map and now has the ability to display either terrain or weather. On the 777, either can be displayed, but not both at the same time on the same pilot side.

Nothing new for my fellow GA pilots, but the 787 can display the airport diagram with a moving map. As a matter of fact, the detail allows me the ability to locate my arrival gate.

The 777 Kleenex box compartment installed on each pilot’s side console that my airline could have ordered as an EFB is actually … well … an EFB. It is standard issue on the Dreamliner. The EFB is touch screen, and, among other things, allows for the computation of performance data, operating manual access and approach plate displays from both pilot positions.

Another standard issue on the 787 is the HUD on both sides of the cockpit. For me, this was a new device. I struggled with the information, dividing my attention between the HUD and the instrument panel PFD. When it was diplomatically suggested that I keep the vector circles aligned, HUD flying became a whole lot easier.

My quick taxi to Boeing Field’s Runway 13R gave me the opportunity to sample both the moving map and the simulator’s virtual reality. The virtual reality was detailed enough to include perimeter road traffic. That being said, I was told that the boats from nearby Lake Union created wakes but no movement. I hope the programmers don’t lie awake at night attempting to find a solution for that discrepancy.

My coach, Randy Neville, the 787 chief test pilot, and Ted Grady, a 787 instructor, joined us before departure. With the visibility set at 300 feet RVR, I used the HUD for takeoff. I kept the blue side up without breaking anything. I felt almost immediately comfortable.

We selected an FMC course to Moses Lake, a joint-use military airport in the Washington state desert area. The airport was a typical Boeing test flight destination.
I sampled an ILS approach first. Randy helped with the electronic checklists while I moved the flaps and the gear. A great feature of the checklist is that an EICAS message will be displayed if an item is not completed.

Without knowing speeds or power settings, I accomplished the arrival with a limited amount of issues. As a matter of fact, my touchdowns for the session received accolades. Apparently this particular simulator had a reputation for “stiff legs.” Beginner’s luck?

A glutton for punishment, I requested an engine failure for the next takeoff. Out of courtesy, Ted asked me if I wanted to know which engine would be unfortunate.

“Surprise me,” I responded.

If I had allowed the airplane to perform by itself through the very responsive TAC (Thrust Asymmetry Compensator), the engine failure would have gone almost unnoticed. Instead, I assisted and then succeeded in making the process more difficult. The 777 has a TAC and associated switch on the overhead panel. The 787 has no switch; the system is always available.

We conducted a VNAV approach, which was as simple as selecting it from the database. No more gyrations of recalling procedures and setting altitudes on the mode control panel. Just press the “approach” button. The end.

Our return to Boeing Field involved a relatively new procedure called a GLS approach. A ground-based station uses GPS signals to compute precise data to create a virtual ILS for not just one airport but for many airports in the surrounding area. No signal interference from an airplane or vehicle can occur, and the accuracy exceeds that of a traditional ILS. Execution of the approach was transparent to normal procedures.

Almost transparent was the actual flying of the 787. If the FAA-approved, five-day 777/787 differences training is adopted by the airlines, I don’t expect major issues.

My only complaint? I wished I hadn’t waited so long to experience Airline Pilot Disney World.