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Originally published May 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 23, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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New 787 even tames turbulence

Boeing showed off Tuesday some new airplane systems that will make the new 787 Dreamliner more efficient for airlines, more convenient for...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Boeing showed off Tuesday some new airplane systems that will make the new 787 Dreamliner more efficient for airlines, more convenient for pilots and more comfortable for passengers.

The airlines get reduced weight and maintenance. The pilots get a state-of-the-art cockpit.

And the passengers get bigger, dimmable windows; more breathable cabin air; and the benefit of a proprietary, new Boeing technology that suppresses upward wind gusts, turning a roller-coaster ride in choppy air into one no more bothersome than a drive along a cobblestone street.

A day after opening up the Everett airplane factory to reveal the first 787 Dreamliner taking shape, Boeing led journalists on a tour of its systems laboratories on East Marginal Way South in Seattle.

Mike Sinnett, director of 787 systems, said that from the beginning of its design process, Boeing sought "to create a revolutionary step" in efficiency on the new plane.

Boeing has some 1,500 systems engineers in Seattle. Many are inside these labs, testing and integrating the myriad systems that are the guts of the Dreamliner.

Make that the brain of the airplane: the computers and avionics boxes that control everything. And the nerves of the airplane: the wiring that carries all the electrical signals. And the lungs of the airplane: the air-flow system that regulates pressure inside the passenger cabin.

Include, too, the flight-control systems that activate the movable surfaces to change direction or altitude; the flight-deck display that allows the pilots to see everything they need to fly safely; the generators that provide electrical power; the seatback screens to entertain passengers; and on and on.

The systems are built by many suppliers, with major partners including Honeywell, Hamilton Sundstrand, Rockwell Collins and General Electric. In many cases, what they deliver are electronics boxes.

They include more than 6.5 million lines of software code written for the Dreamliner, and that's not counting the entertainment systems.

In the Seattle labs, Boeing makes sure all the hardware and software systems talk to one another and interact properly without interference.

As one engineer explained it, when you bring home a new printer, it often doesn't work with your computer right out of the box. It has to be integrated into your system.

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Inside a Dreamliner, the pilot has a nifty printer beside his seat, for printing out data he needs.

But imagine a thousand other gadgets attached to a hundred new computers inside the jet. Some of the gadgets keep the airliner in the sky.

The integration task is huge. And the testing has to be so rigorous that when the first 787 takes its maiden flight this summer, everything crucial works safely first time.

One of the most vital systems is laid out in the so-called "Iron Bird" — real flight-control hardware from the airplane, attached to a simulated control system.

Two "pilots" sitting in the lab above can make a simulated flight and move the parts below exactly as they would on an actual 787.

Len Inderhees, team leader at this lab, described a typical issue with the pilot's steering column. The column is designed to become stiffer and harder to move as the plane gains speed, so that small movements don't produce an excessive response.

On a recent test, it worked fine in one direction, but not the other. Boeing sent the control system back to the supplier for redesign.

"Here it's a hiccup," said Inderhees. "If it happened on the airplane a month before flying, it would be a major problem. There's no way you'd get the fix done in time."

Sinnett showed off a motion simulator to demonstrate a cool new technology on the 787: The flight-control software can take sensor data about the position of the airplane and react almost instantly to compensate for a big, stomach-churning dip during flight in turbulent air.

The flight-control surfaces react to increase lift and reduce a 6-foot freefall to 2 feet, he said.

Journalists sat through two three-minute rides with exactly the same simulated wind gusts, one with the 787 gust suppression and one without.

The dampening effect on the ride was dramatic. The cabin still moved but seemed to shake rather than fall.

Sinnett said he couldn't reveal details of how Boeing does it, as the technology is "our most closely protected intellectual property."

Elsewhere in the labs, team leader Mike Konicke showed off a beautifully styled cockpit complete with laptop-size screens and heads-up displays.

Program leaders said all the systems labs are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, toward a first flight in late August.

"We're entering that last phase, where we've got to take it and put it on the airplane. We've got to fly it, certify it and make sure it all works OK," said Sinnett.

"We're looking forward to getting our hands dirty with Skydrol [aviation hydraulic fluid], and smelling jet fuel, and spending all night getting ready to fly in the morning."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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