New 747-8 Freighter soon to take off

All eyes are on Boeing's 787 Dreamliner as first flight nears, but flying under the radar so to speak are two new 747 models. The maiden flight for the 747-8 could be on the same day as the 787's before the end of the year. by John Dodge

While the aviation world focuses on the much delayed Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a new version of the world's most venerable and recognizable passenger jetliner is about to debut.

Like the 787, the 747-8 Freighter is expected to take its inaugural flight before year's end and may even fly on the same day. Given all the delays, I'm sure Boeing wants to get first flights behind it.

[Oct. 7 update -- Boeing announced yesterday it would take a $1 billion pre-tax charge against Q3 earnings due to increased 747-8 production costs.]

And like the 787, the 747-8 also has been beset by delays. The Freighter was supposed to be delivered by the end of this year, but that has been pushed into the third quarter of 2010 while the passenger model called the Intercontinental with a range of 8,000 miles won't touch down with customers until 2011.

The 747-8 is 18 feet, 4 inches longer than its 747-400 immediate predecessor, boasting a total length of 250 feet, 2 inches or just 50 feet shy of filling the space between end zones. The 747-8 also sports new fuel efficient GEnx-2B engines boasting a promised 17 per cent reduction in carbon emissions and a 30 per cent drop in noise. The original engines when the 747-100 first flew in 1969 put out 43,500 pounds of thrust. The new ones are rated at 66,500. The 747-8 also will be lifted by newly-designed wings.

GEnx-2B engine

The principal goals at Boeing with both the 747 and 787 is to the lower operating costs. As such, Boeing claims the 747-8 Freighter will be the lowest cost plane of its type in the air.

That this is the 15th version of the 40-year-old plane makes one wonder why Boeing didn't simply upgrade its 757 or 767 instead of designing a completely new plane like the 787 Dreamliner and its chosen method of manufacturing (four of the airlines that took first deliveries of a new 747 model no longer exist).  The troubled plane has had one problem after another.

I have two answers: composite materials which make half of the 787 and reduced manufacturing costs.

First 747-8 under assembly in Everett, Wash.

Boeing wanted to get heavily into composites to lower customer maintenance costs and enjoy side benefits such as improving the cabin atmosphere which it could not have done economically with the aluminum skin it traditionally used. And it wanted to push out 70 per cent of component manufacturing to subcontractors instead of keeping most of it in house which is believed to be more expensive.

Boeing has paid for such pioneering in prestige with two years of delays and counting, but that will soon be in the past when the 787 flies. Of course, I was saying the same thing last year.

My first flight on a 747 was from Chicago to Boston in 1972 on American Airlines. The plane had a piano bar in the upper deck when staying buckled up wasn't such a concern.  It seemed massive at the time because it was and passengers marveled at how something so big and ungainly ever got off the ground (check out the short runway take-off video below). While I understand the basic principals of flight, I still wonder how it so reliably defies gravity.

Since the beginning, 1,419 747s have been built with 800 still in service, according to a Reuters story last week. All told, 747s have logged 42 billion nautical miles and carried 3.5 billion passengers. That's certainly something the 787 new kid on the block  can't claim even though it gets the lion's share of attention.

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