Building a bigger airplane means overcoming one of the fundamental challenges of flight. Bigger generally means heavier, and heavier means you have to generate more lift. The only way to do that without adding bigger and heavier engines is to make bigger wings. But making wings bigger comes with its own problems, as Boeing discovered with its 777 series of passenger airliners.
The Boeing 777 is one of the largest passenger aircraft in the skies. Boeing makes extensive use of composite materials to construct the plane, including more than 400 miles of carbon fiber tape for each set of wings. Making the wings and fuselage out of composite materials allows Boeing to maximize payload by reducing the weight of the aircraft itself.
As for the wings, the 777X wing is the widest and longest wing in the Boeing fleet. It is so big that the aircraft cannot land at some airports because there just isn’t enough room. So Boeing set out to address that problem with a folding wingtip design. Just a couple of weeks ago, the FAA approved the design. Boeing can now start building and testing the new wings.
Safety Is Always First
Designing the new wing with folding wingtips was a matter of competition for Boeing. They want to be able to get the 777 into as many airports as possible. For the FAA though, safety is always first. They put forth a lengthy list of conditions that they expected Boeing to meet before the folding wingtip design would be approved.
Among the conditions is a requirement for Boeing to implement warning systems that will guarantee pilots never attempt to take off if with the wingtips in the upright position. The FAA also insisted on a design that would guarantee the wingtips could never fold up during flight. Whatever locking mechanism is chosen must be able to withstand winds of up to 75 mph on the ground. In the air, there must be no risk of lock mechanism failure.
Boeing has not said how they managed to meet FAA requirements, but they have done so nonetheless. They are now on their way to producing a 235-foot wing that will reduce to 212 feet when the wingtips are in the upright position.
Boeing Has Composites to Thank
It is incredible to consider what the aerospace industry has accomplished since the early 1970s. The 1950s ‘golden age’ of air travel may have been glamorous, but the planes of old do not hold a candle to modern aircraft. And companies like Boeing have the composites industry to thank.
The 777 series would not be possible if Boeing were still constructing planes the way they did back in the 1950s. A plane that large, made primarily of steel and aluminum, would never get off the ground. In order to fly, the 777 would have to have much larger wings and bigger engines.
Rock West Composites, a Utah company that supplies carbon fiber tubing, prepregs, and other products, says the secret of the aerospace industry’s success is carbon fiber. It is one of the most utilized composite materials in aircraft design. Carbon fiber is used to build fuselage panels, wings, engine housings, and many interior components.
If it weren’t for carbon fiber, the Boeing 777’s 235-foot wingspan would not be possible. Without composites there would be no folding wingtips either. But both are possible, and that’s what matters to Boeing. Once their folding wingtips are standard on future 777s, Boeing will begin working on the next grand design that will improve the aircraft of the future.