Though it is against my nature to be anything other than cynical and jaded, I decided to write my last column for 2009 about something uplifting. Think “up”, and “lift”, and airplanes come to mind. More honestly, as a private pilot for over twenty years, it takes even less than that to get me to think about airplanes, but still, there is an uplifting story readily available. In a way, it’s a story that gave me a sense of hope for the New Year.
For anyone interested in aviation, or big-business, Boeing is an icon. They’ve been around forever, built many of the venerable bombers that were so instrumental in our winning World War II, and of course, have designed and manufactured some of the most reliable, safe and efficient aircraft for the commercial transportation industry. Consider the staple 737, the only aircraft that Southwest operates, and any other of the 700 Series planes that crowd the global airspace on any given day. Remember the unveiling of the 747? It was, and still is, and incredible machine.
Boeing has been home to many of the sharpest minds in the aviation world, from designers, engineers, fabricators and of course, test pilots. The company history reads like a fine novel, particularly through the post-war years of prosperity and industrial growth. It seems every decade or so, they roll out something ground-breaking, and their latest addition to the skies is no exception.
The 787 Dreamliner has been in the works for years and was late coming out of the hangar, but a few weeks ago at their home field in Washington state, the Dreamliner did indeed roll down that famed runway for her inaugural flight. Now will begin the gauntlet of rigorous flight testing and Federal Aviation Administration regulatory milestones to be met, or more likely, exceeded. It is another chapter in the spangled history of a great American company. A history not void of the occasional scandal, by the way, but nonetheless, a company at the top of the heap in terms of developing and utilizing American ingenuity.
The new plane is made nearly exclusively of composites as opposed to aluminum. “Composite” has become a second word, now considered trade-name for the ingenious material, also bourn of American ingenuity, that layers different materials, mostly plastics, fibers and resin, into a material that is lighter than, and much stronger than, any metal. It’s truly amazing when you think about the environmental stresses that complex, high-altitude airplanes are exposed to. Temperature variations of 100 degrees or better are commonplace, from the temperature on the ground at the airport, to the temperature at 35,000 feet. Wind, turbulence, the weight of payload, centrifugal and gravitational forces that are part of any flight, the stresses of landing and departures. On and on, and this amazing material surpasses everything else in endurance and longevity.
They already have orders for some 840 planes, and they don’t even have final FAA certification yet. Above and beyond any of this though, what the Dreamliner also does is allow the rest of us to dream again. Dream of the days when American know-how was the best in the world. Our technology and business prowess was the envy of the world. An idea travels from thought, to paper, to design, construction and then marketing. Jobs are created. Not “created” the way we’re used to thinking now, like a wand drawn from a wizard’s sleeve, but “created” the pure and correct way, a solid business built on a product for which there is demand and need.
I guess it’s my nostalgic side, but I get a little mushy everytime I see a new plane roll down that field in Washington. They’ve been doing it a long time. There have been dreams that turned into nightmares, and others that exceeded expectation. Great and courageous men and women have died pressing the dynamic envelope of new airplanes, but did so doing what they love most and understanding the value of their contribution, though it is lost on most of us. All of these things make it ever more the miracle that they are still building airplanes at Boeing, and still out there on the cutting edge of new technology.
Like Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull”, they’ve been bruised and battered and up against the ropes more than once at Boeing, but also like Jake, they can legitimately make the claim that they “never went down”. Here’s wishing Boeing, Inc., another hundred years.