Aerodynamic Revolution

Author:  Karuna Meda
Institution:  University of Pennsylvania
Date:  March 2010

On December 15th, 2009, Boeing 787 Dreamliner took flight from Paine Field, Everett for the first time amid hundreds of spectators and looming clouds. The historic three hour test flight marked a new era in aeronautical engineering; the airliner is touted to be Boeing's most fuel-efficient airliner and the first to use composite materials in its construction. After over two years since its original launch date, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has finally arrived as the next coveted commercial airliner.

The inception of the Dreamliner

The conceptualization of Boeing 787 began in the late 1990s; Boeing's sales of the 767 were losing out to the Airbus models and Boeing was desperately looking to produce a more competitive craft. Although Boeing initially developed other airframes like the Sonic Cruiser and Boeing 747, the economic climate after the September 11 terrorist attacks had drastically cut the spending power of major airline companies and consequently the demand for Boeing's airframes. Realizing the need for a super-efficient craft that would cut airline costs, Boeing began its aerodynamic revolution in 2003; the temporarily named model 7E7 emerged. Incidentally, the E' signified various notions such as "efficiency" and "environmentally friendly", but in 2005 Boeing decided on the number 8 and a tentative design for the craft. The title Dreamliner was determined by a public naming competition.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner- Providing solutions for passengers and airlines

The Boeing 787 has been marketed as the world's first super-efficient aircraft, boasting three variants. The 787-8 Dreamliner will carry 210 - 250 passengers on routes of 7,650 to 8,200 nautical miles (14,200 to 15,200 kilometers), while the 787-9 Dreamliner will carry 250 - 290 passengers on routes of 8,000 to 8,500 nautical miles (14,800 to 15,750 kilometers). A third 787 family member, the 787-3 will accommodate 290 - 330 passengers on routes of 2,500 to 3,050 nautical miles (4,600 to 5,650 kilometers).

The 787 will provide airlines with unmatched fuel efficiency; Boeing insists that it will use 20 percent less fuel than today's similarly sized airplane. Moreover, it will also travel at speeds similar to today's fastest wide bodies, Mach 0.85. Airlines will also enjoy more cargo capacity.

Boeing has marketed that passengers will also see improvements with the new airplane, from a comfortable interior environment with higher humidity, increased leg room, larger cabin windows, improved air circulation, among other conveniences.


The Boeing 787 is the first commercial jetliner with an airframe composed mainly of carbon fiber composite rather than aluminum; the craft is 80% composite by volume. Other materials used include titanium and steel. According to engineers at Boeing, this novel material composition lends itself to a lighter craft therefore improving the aerodynamics of the plane; this will in turn improve fuel efficiency by 20% according to Boeing. The carbon composites are less prone to wear and corrosion, thus reducing frequency and cost of maintenance procedures.

The composite structure also allows for a higher aspect ratio (the square of the wing span divided by the wing area) of the 787 wing. This is advantageous because drag or friction from the air is inversely dependent on the aspect ratio; therefore a higher aspect ratio indicates reduced drag. The craft also makes use of raked wing tips, which is another structural feature that reduces drag. Furthermore, the 787 fairings- another structure on the wings- are smaller to improved wing efficiency and allow for a smoother air flow.

Boeing's 787 state-of-the-art airframe has also made use of the latest propulsion technology from General Electric and Rolls Royce. For the first time in the history of commercial aviation, both engine types will have a standard interface with the aircraft; this will allow any 787 aircraft to be fitted with either a GE or Rolls-Royce engine at any point in time. Moreover, the 787 engines are interchangeable at the wing, thus providing airlines with the flexibility to change from one manufacturer to the other if the circumstances arise. Furthermore, it makes it easier to reconfigure or update the airplane when moving between fleets. These simplifications enable airlines to cut operating costs dramatically.

Assembly of the Dreamliner

The construction of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was a large-scale collaboration of numerous suppliers. Rather than building the complete aircraft from the ground up in the traditional fashion, final assembly of the craft integrates the work of several subassemblies that are spread across the world, from Australia and Canada to Japan and Italy. These subcontractors ship their parts to Boeing, who then conduct the final assembly. This method lends itself to a simpler assembly line and smaller inventory.

An Environmentally Friendly Aircraft

Boeing has touted the Dreamliner to be its most environment-friendly aircraft yet, with reduced fuel consumption and emissions. Boeing claims that the 787 is designed to reduce toxic nitrogenous fumes by 28%. In addition, there is likely to be lesser waste and volatile organic compounds generated in the production, by the use of composite materials. The aircraft has also been designed to allow for a quieter ride; the noise footprint of 787 is claimed to be 60% smaller than today's commercial aircrafts.

The Future of the Dreamliner

Boeing 787 is scheduled to enter passenger service later this year and has already accumulated 876 orders, making the Dreamliner the fastest selling aircraft in history. Boeing is also planning to introduce another variant- 787-10- which will be a stretched version of the 787-9 and have extra seat and cargo capacity. With these revolutionary changes, the Boeing 787 will transform the airline industry and the way we traverse the vast skies.