Almost 17 years after delivering the first 777, Boeing will today handover the 1,000th aircraft – a 777-300ER – to Dubai-based Emirates Airlines. The milestone makes the 777 the third Boeing widebody to hit four figures after the 747 and 767, and sets the seal on one of the most successful product development strategies in the air transport business.
It all seems a long way from the cloudy day in May 1995 when I attended the delivery ceremony of the first 777 to United Airlines. The event was held at Boeing Field outside what was the then relatively new Museum of Flight’s Great Gallery in May 1995.
After the speeches I was talking to Alan Mulally, who led the 777 development for Boeing, when the prototype aircraft WA001 made a low flyby in salute to the delivery ceremony. After the red, white and blue test aircraft was swallowed back into the Seattle overcast we returned to our discussion which covered the usual ground – what happens next?
One of Mulally’s favorite expressions is that “you always have to have a plan” and, even as the first aircraft was being readied for service, it was already evident this particular plan was second to none. There were hiccups and close calls along the way of course. For instance as United took the ‘keys’ of the 777 that day – just a week from planned entry-into-service - Boeing and the airline had yet to receive FAA approval for 180 minutes ETOPS, a pivotal element of the twinjet’s operating strategy. But the big picture, right from the get go, was always based on a sound product development roadmap dubbed the ‘Z-chart’, and Boeing has stayed on it – and extended it – ever since.
It was also at the time of the first delivery that the news leaked out of first studies of the super-long haul variant - a 250 seater that was aimed at the then unheard of ranges in excess of 8,000 naut mile. The only way it could be done with the engines then available was to shrink the airframe - the so-called 777-100X. As it turned out, this never happened, but the long range problem sparked new interest in higher-thrust engines which was to have a profound impact on the longevity of the 777.
The subsequent development of the -200LR, -300ER and freighter models in the 2000s, all leveraged off the extraordinary thrust of the General Electric GE90-115B, propelled the 777 family into a sustainable, long term production phase which shows no sign of slowing down with orders exceeding 1,360. With probable 777X derivatives looming in the future, it seems the 777 is set to become another Boeing project that will span four decades or more.
Here are a few archive items to illustrate some of the early milestones on the roadmap.
The baseline 'Z-chart' from Phil Condit's Farnborough briefing in 1990. Note the hand-scribbled new 777 identity of what, until then, had been the 767-X. (Guy Norris)
Plans start to come into focus a little more a few months later in 1991. (Boeing)
United places the launch order (Boeing)
..and in May 1995 gets its first 777-200 "A" market aircraft as WA001 (in background) performs a low flypast (Boeing)
..and the star of today's show. Emirates Airlines gets the 1,000th 777 (Guy Norris)