EVERETT — There was a high layer of gray and barely a breeze Saturday when an Everett-built Boeing 777X flew for the first time, taking off from Paine Field for a milestone flight of nearly 4 hours.
The 777X took off toward the north at 10:09 a.m. from runway 34L, climbing out over Port Gardner for a mission that ended at Boeing Field in Seattle. Just two test pilots were aboard, and the plane was shadowed by a T-33 chase plane.
After entering the clouds, the plane turned southeast, flying over Everett. Near Snoqualmie Pass, the 777X turned due east.
“All flight controls are good, very solid,” one of the pilots reported over a Boeing flight-test radio frequency.
After conducting various tests over sparsely populated Eastern Washington, the plane did a lap around Mount Rainier and headed for Boeing Field, where it landed at 2 p.m. The test flight lasted 3 hours and 51 minutes.
Unsuitable weather and gusty wind cancelled initial plans to fly the two previous days. On Friday, the plane taxied for takeoff but waited in vain for more than three hours for optimal wind before returning to the company flight line, where thousands of employees watched.
Missing Saturday were those crowds of Boeing employees. Only a hundred or so gathered at a viewpoint on the east side of the Paine Field main runway to see the takeoff. But several hundred people gathered on a berm outside the Future of Flight on the west side, and on the roof were about 150 other folks. Thousands of people were watching a live-streamed video feed of the event.
The takeoff happened so quickly that spectators among the Boeing group seemed awed and didn’t have time to cheer. The cheers and hugs and high fives came in the moments after the plane climbed into the cloud layer.
“Wasn’t that worth the wait! Wasn’t that worth the wait!” Boeing employees repeated excitedly.
‘A new beginning for Boeing’
The Shaw family spent a second day atop the Future of Flight observation deck, hoping to witness the takeoff. “My papa worked on it,” said 7-year-old Emogene Shaw.
“He helped build the folding wings,” she said of the 777X’s 11-foot folding wingtips. “It was pretty cool when it took off.”
“We were here yesterday,” said Jon Shaw, a Boeing aerospace engineer from Snohomish. “I wanted my daughter to see this. One day she’s going to be working on developing planes.”
“That airplane is a miracle of collective energy, the passion of so many people,” Jon Shaw said.
Said Shaw’s wife, Sabrina: “There was a rainbow today and yesterday. For me that’s a sign of a new beginning for Boeing.”
Stephen Fore of Edmonds, a Boeing employee, agreed. “It is nice to celebrate the big win,” he said. He and his wife, Allison, and 2-year-old daughter, Vera, watched from the berm near the Future of Flight.
“There is definitely a sense of Boeing pride,” Fore said.
The 777X first flight is indeed a bright spot for a company reeling from the 10-month grounding of another new model, the 737 Max, which awaits federal recertification after two crashes that killed 346 people. The Max assembly line in Renton is idle. Before the flight, Wendy Sowers, marketing director for the airplane, told reporters that Boeing is heeding the lessons learned from the Max as it seeks regulatory approval for the 777X. Certification is expected sometime in 2021.
Manuel Karunakar from Sydney, Australia, unexpectedly caught the takeoff as part of the Boeing Factory Tour, which departs from the Future of Flight.
“It was an unexpected bonus,” Karunakar said. “I liked that Boeing kept it low key — they didn’t drum it up. It set the right tone given the circumstances,” he said, referring to the 737 Max crisis.
After the flight, Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Stan Deal said: “We’re doing everything we can to make sure we regain confidence in Boeing.”
“Today was a demonstration to the world that we know what we’re doing,” Deal said.
Bigger than a classic 777
When the 777X begins hauling passengers, it will lose the X designation and be known by one of two variants — the 777-9, which can carry 426 passengers in two classes, and the smaller 777-8, which can carry 384. The plane that flew Saturday is a 777-9 with the registration N779XW.
Boeing has 340 orders and “commitments” for the 777X, Sowers said. Initial customers are All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines.
At nearly 252 feet, the 777X is almost 10 feet longer than the biggest classic 777, the -300ER. The most distinctive new design features are carbon-composite wings and the folding wingtips, which enable it to fit at existing airport gates. The wing is designed to increase lift and reduce fuel consumption.
Unfurled, the 777X has the largest wingspan of any Boeing commercial jet built — 235 feet, which is nearly 11 feet wider than the wing of the 747-8. With the wingtips folded, the 777X wings measure about 212 feet. Sowers described a 777X wing as the “largest piece of composite material in the world.”
When paired with the plane’s two powerful GE9X jet engines, the composite wings enable the plane to fly at higher altitudes than previous versions of the 777. An airplane typically burns less fuel if it operates at higher, cooler altitudes in less-dense air.
Boeing is banking on fuel efficiency and the plane’s ability to carry more passengers and more cargo than its other twin-engine jetliners.
The 777X was supposed to have its first test flight last summer, but ongoing issues with the GE9X engine, designed specifically for the 777X, kept the plane out of the sky while engine-maker GE Aviation made changes. The engine’s 134-inch fan of 16 carbon-fiber blades makes the GE9X the world’s largest jet engine, GE says.
Last June, GE Aviation CEO David Joyce said that a component in the front of the engine’s compressor was wearing prematurely. That component — stator blades in the compressor section of the engine — helps air flow more smoothly through the turbine.
GE redesigned the blades, but the change had to go through another round of tests and certification.
Saturday’s first flight of the 777X came 50 years and three days after the iconic 747 entered service.
Janice Podsada; email@example.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter:JanicePods