Boeing 787: A Pilots Perspective

I was fortunate enough to be invited by Boeing and Qantas – along with a very small number of other television, radio and print journalists – to be part of Media Team 787, a media only flight from Sydney to Brisbane and return on board N787BX (ZA003). Configured with 135 seats, less than 30 guests were permitted to be carried by authorities by virtue of the aircraft’s ‘experimental’ status. The aircraft was in Sydney on the first stop of its final leg of the global Dreamtour.

The flight was essentially a chartered service (on an ‘experimental’ aircraft) with none of the entanglements encountered during regular scheduled services. You can read about the ‘enhanced’ passenger experience here.

The flight offered unprecedented access to the cockpit in flight, cabin, crew and staff. What follows is my very general early impressions and understanding of the Boeing 787 from a slightly more technical point of view. No doubt we’ll be able to offer more in-depth information in the future.

The Cockpit

Any 777 pilot visiting the Boeing 787 for the first time will immediately feel at home in their new office. Despite the differences, the familiarity is overwhelming. The overhead panel, displays, operational philosophy, ergonomics and system integration up the front, while different, is almost identical to that of the 777 with regard to presentation.

Boeing 777 Pilots Will Feel At Home Center Console Overhead Panel
Boeing 777 Pilots will feel at Home

The similarities are such that the Australian regulator will issue a Boeing 787 ‘type rating’ on the basis of a 777 endorsement. In the USA, a 5-day conversion course is mandated for converting pilots, and it’s expected that a similar program will be implemented in Australia should the program ever be necessary. Not unlike the Airbus approach to rationality in types, the 787 effectively provides for cross-type currency. While flying two types, only a recurrent simulator assessment in one should be necessary to include required currency on the other similar type. The freedom and cost savings gained from this are no different to an operator that routinely schedules pilots between various 737 types.

The cockpit is clean and uncluttered thanks to the absence of the large circuit breaker panels that we’re used to in traditional types. Almost all circuit breakers are ‘virtual’ and are accessed via the forward Multi-Functional Display (MFD). In keeping with Boeing philosophy, breakers should only be reset when called by a checklist or in the interest of safety. The very few old style ‘thermal’ breakers shouldn’t normally be touched. The cumbersome engineering panel on the starboard side of the cockpit (near observer seat 2) in the 777 is gone and it’s now integrated into the forward displays (although flight crew use is inhibited airborne below 10,000 feet).

The CDU’s, or Control Display Units (the pilot interface to the Flight Management Systems/Computers) are virtual – essentially meaning that the clunky push-key interface is almost a thing of the past. Virtual CDUThe digital presentation offers numerous advantages with the most notable being that the actual pilot interface can be modified with a Block Point update to add increased functionality and ‘buttons’ (not unlike the software that updates on your smart phone). A Boeing engineering executive told me that they couldn’t re-invent the pilot interface overnight and deprive the crew of all familiarity, so we can expect incremental improvements over time to drag the FMC out of the 1970′s. The current look and feel would be familiar to any Boeing pilot.

The forward screens are large and exceptional. The PFD (Primary Flight Display) is large and familiar. The ND (or Navigation Display) is now essentially more of an MFD that incorporates the functionally formerly offered by the Upper Display. Uncluttered CockpitThe MFD can be split into two halves with the ability to display virtually any information from any other panel. When showing traditional ND information it occupies full screen with projected track and radar information to 1280 miles (as opposed to the 640 miles in the 777).

Moving the airport diagram from the EFB (Electronic Flight Box) onto the MFD will be a treat on unfamiliar taxiways. The integrated EFB itself is very similar in size and functionality to a tablet device… and all the pinching and swiping gestures apply. Sadly, the integrated airport information on the MFD via the EFB is only available when a full Flight Bag kit is installed (the Boeing technical guru was unsure of how much information was derived from the FMS – he’s getting back to me).

The PFD itself is split on the left side to display information in digital form. Gone are the digitally-controlled analogue timers from the 777; they’re now replaced by electronic displays. The same panel also displays information such as callsign (for short-haul folk, you’ll no longer have to wind it into the altitude alert on your control yoke), active radio frequencies, transponder codes, SELCAL and UTC time/date and registration.

Facts from a B787 Pilot in Training:

  • Loss of the Attitude and Heading Reference units (AHRU’s) and reversion to standby instruments – displayed on the normal PFD’s.

  • Loss of the inertial reference units defaults to GPS positioning. The IRS’s can be aligned airborne from the GPS (if available).
  • The APU shuts down automatically in the event of an APU fire – airborne or on the ground. Cargo Fire also results in automatic fire extinguisher discharge.
  • Like the 777 – a nitrogen gas generation system pressurises the fuel tanks to displace fumes and provide full time flammable protection.
  • CPDLC is installed in overdrive. Uplinked speed, heading, altitude display on a second line on the MCP and can be transferred into the actual speed, heading and altitude control. Even conditional clearances can be uplinked, accepted and action by the pilot and FMC.
  • There’s an auto drag feature that operates when the aircraft is high on approach and landing flaps have been selected. Ailerons and the two most outboard spoilers are extended, while maintaining airspeed, to assist in glide path capture from above (not unlike the Direct Lift Control (DLC) on the Lockheed L-100 TriStar).
  • Flaps, Ailerons, Flaperons and Spoilers are symmetrically moved in cruise based on airspeed, weight and altitude to optimise cruise performance to alter camber to reduce drag.
  • Fuel Jettison is installed but an automatic Fuel Balancing system is also installed. No more opening crossfeed valves – or forgetting to close them.
  • The aircraft is approved for ILS using GPS and a ground based augmentation system (GBAS) with conventional Cat 1 minima. HUD approaches will allow lower minimums augmenting vision at approved airports with runway centerline guidance from either ILS or GPS.

Cockpit noise was comparable with the 777 although the cabin was very quiet and comfortable.

Electrical System Architecture

Many systems that traditionally had a reliance on the pneumatic system have been transitioned to the electrical architecture. They include engine start, API start, wing ice protection, hydraulic pumps and cabin pressurisation. The only remaining bleed system on the 787 is the anti-ice system for the engine inlets. In fact, Boeing claims that the move to electrical systems has reduced the load on engines (from pneumatic hungry systems) by up to 35 percent (not unlike today’s electrically power flight simulators that use 20% of the electricity consumed by the older hydraulically actuated flight sims).

Apart from the cost savings gained by an electrical aircraft, the weight savings themselves by eliminating redundant system components are also quite significant. Over 60-miles of copper wiring was eliminated by modern design.

Ken describes the 787 as “17 computer servers packaged in a Kevlar frame”. The central brain of the aircraft is the Common Core System (CCS). Two Common Computing Resources (CCRs) coordinate the communications of all the computer systems, isolating faults and covering failed systems with working systems. When battery power is first applied to the airplane in the morning, it takes about 50 seconds for the left CCR to boot up. After the CCR’s work their magic, the APU can be started.

The 787 has four times the potential electric generation of the 777 – 1.45 megawatts. The generators (four at 250 kVA, two per engine, and two at 225 kVA on on API) produce 235 VAC for the large users on the bus – otherwise the traditional 115 VAC and 28 VDC are operational. Seventeen Remote Power Distribution Units (RPDU) power about 900 loads through the aircraft. The power distribution system is in the aft belly along with the Power Electronics Cooling System (PECS). It’s liquid cooling for the large motors, along with an Integrated Cooling System (ICS) for use by the galley carts, cabin air and IFE.

The APU itself does a good job of illustrating the enhanced electrical architecture. A more traditional function of the APU is to drive a large pneumatic load compressor. Replacing the pneumatic load compressor with starter generators results in significantly improved start reliability and power availability. The 787 APU is projected to offer a 400% increase in reliability over aircraft with a pneumatic load compressor.

The 787 has done away with constant speed generator drives (Integrated Generator Drives, or the IDG) and has replaced them with use of a variable frequency electronic power; with the engine generator and started functions integrated into a single unit. Not unlike the 737NG, starting the APU without pneumatics increases the average time between failures to 30,000 hours – making it three times more reliable than, say, a 767 with a traditional pneumatic starter.

If 3 of the 4 engine drive generators fail in flight, the APU will start automatically. Two APU generators can be operated to the certified ceiling of 43,000 feet. If all four generator fail in flight, the Ram Air Turbine will deploy (RAT) will deploy and power only essential buses and, if necessary, hydraulic power to the flight controls (should the RAT itself fail, standby power will ensure continued use of the autopilot, captain’s flight director and instruments, FMC, 2 IRSs and VHF radios in addition to some other essential instruments).

The use of electric brakes on the Boeing 787 (moving away from a hydraulically actuated system) again illustrates the innovative architecture. Apart from reducing the mechanical complexity and elimination of hydraulic related failures (leaking brake hydraulic fluid, leaking valves etc), it provides its own fault detection, analysis and health monitoring system. The system will apply pressure as necessary (even when parked) to ensure that only enough pressure is applied as the system cools.

Electrical Brakes

The braking system includes four independent brake actuators per wheel and it will be permissible to dispatch the aircraft with one inoperative with far fewer braking penalties applied when compared to its archaic hydraulic stable mates. Because the brakes are electric, the 28 volt anti-skid and braking system will be available on standby power (after a loss or primary electrical systems).

Flight Controls

Flight Controls are hydraulic with only a few exceptions. Engine drive and Electric pumps operate at 5,000 PSI (3000 PSI standard) to allow for weight-saving smaller tubing and actuators. With the loss of all three systems, two spoiler panels on each wing (and the stabilizer trim) are electrically powered (flaps are unavailable). The loss of Hydraulics and Electrics result in power from the advanced Permanent Magnetic Generators (PMG’s) which produce power even if the engine is wind milling. If the PMG’s fail, flight controls are powered by the 28-volt standby bus.

The 787 features a revolutionary computer-controlled turbulence dampening system that symmetrically deflects the flaperons, ailerons and elevators to smooth the ride in turbulence. Control surfaces will respond to lateral and longitudinal movements in flight to ‘dampen the ride’. A lateral component is enacted through the rudder on approach in response to gusts and turbulence. Boeing predicts an eightfold reduction in the number of passengers who will experience motion sickness.

Air Conditioning (and Pressurization)

The two air-conditioning packs control two electric cabin air compressors (CAC). The four CAC’s share two inlets under the aircraft. If a Pack controller fails, the remaining pack controller takes over all four CACs.

Boeing has managed to reduce the cabin altitude to 6,000 (with a pressure differential of 9.4 PSI) while cruising at 43,000 feet. The lower cabin altitude means that the body will absorb 8% more blood resulting in fewer headaches, eye irritations, caught, colds, dizziness, fatigue and – in extreme circumstances – Deep Vein Thrombosis.

As well as the lower cabin (and humidification), the air inside the cabin is filtered via two means. The outside air passes through an ozone removal abater (similar to a catalytic converter) before mixing with cabin air that has passed through a hospital grade HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Arresting) filter and gaseous filter. The resulting concoction then conditions the cabin.

In the Cabin

Mechanical ‘sliding’ window shades are replaced with electro-chromatic dimmable windows that can be dimmed ‘electrically’ from transparent to black in five shades. They can be controlled by each passenger individually or managed from the cabin console (to integrate with the mood lighting) so the entire cabin can be dimmed or brightened progressively with the touch of a button. The shades have a projected life of over 20 years or 70,000 cycles.

Not unlike the 777, the 787 features mood lighting to progressively and artificially introduce the mind and body of travellers to longitudinal travel. The new LED lighting lasts up to twenty times longer than traditional incandescent lights and will not emit heat, and uses less power.

1R Door 3x3x3 High Density Seating Bins Integrate Into The Design Of The Aircraft
Business Ife Business Seating Cabin Controls
Economy Seating Forward Galley 2 Forward Galley
Four Standard Suitcases Rear Galley Spacious Partitioning
More Cabin Pics Available on our Facebook Page

Life-Cycle Cost Design Philosophy

The life-cycle approach looks at how technology, maintenance, training and all design options impact upon an aircrafts’ cost over an entire lifetime. Traditionally, the cost considerations included drag, weight, noise, development and build costs and scheduled reliability. Boeing have added maintenance cost and airplane availability to the matrix which translates to an aircraft that is simply more productive, efficient, safer and requires less time in maintenance.

The aircraft simply represents the future of air travel.

Boeing have been in contact with us and have provided some interesting opportunities in the future. Make sure you subscribe to our mailing list and ‘like’ us on Facebook so we can keep you up-to-date.

Thanks to Boeing, Qantas and Jetstar for the invitation to attend the event.

Related posts:
  1. Boeing 787 Review: The Passenger Experience
  2. Boeing 787 Confirmed for Jetstar in August 2013 (Full Press Audio from 26th May 2012)
  3. Boeing revised QRH & Engine Failure Assessment
  4. Non-Normal Failures That Impact Multiple Systems (You Can’t Always Get What You Want)
  5. The Boeing 787 – Evolutionary and Revolutionary
  6. QF32. Aircraft System Failures…
  7. Qantas QF74 Uncontained Engine Failure – Video & Pics

About Marty

Marty is an International airline pilot, commercial helicopter pilot and experienced flight instructor. He is also the Director of a media company based in Sydney, Australia. Connect with Marty on Twitter, Flight Podcast or Google+.


  1. Eric Taada says:

    1.4 Mega watts is about 2,000 HP, enough to run the lights. Nuclear plants are are about 1 Gigawatt


  1. [...] and Revolutionary February 13, 2013 By Ken Leave a Comment The Boeing 787 is certainly a revolutionary step from anything Boeing has done recently – and from anything else Boeing seems to have [...]

  2. [...] The Boeing 787 is certainly a revolutionary step from anything Boeing has done recently – and from anything else Boeing seems to have [...]

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