Advancing aviation- how the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is made

A Moment of Science

It’s hard to believe the advancements in aviation since first flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903. Over the years, technological advances made planes bigger, faster, and more available for anyone with a ticket. 

The Wright Brother’s first flight in Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903. The plane was made of a lightweight wood.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

While aircraft design, engines, and control systems advanced by leaps and bounds, one aspect generally stayed the same- what the plane was made of. While wood was used early on, lightweight but strong aluminum quickly replaced it and has been the primary material used in constructing aircraft since the 1930s. 

“At the time it was the only thing that was available. To use composite for something like an airplane wasn’t even thought of 20 years ago.” 

Richard Austin, boeing south carolina

Enter the 787, the Dreamliner, proudly made here at Boeing South Carolina. The first of its kind, instead of aluminum,  “The Dreamliner is about 50 percent composite. Richard Austin, who oversees construction of the back portion of the 787 at Boeing South Carolina continues, “The outside, or fuselage, is composite. Our wings are composite and the tail section is about 85 percent composite.”

This unique composition composition makes the airplane significantly lighter & more fuel efficient, using 25 percent less fuel compared to the aircraft it replaces. In addition, the lifespan of a composite airplane is longer than its aluminum counterparts as composite doesn’t contract & compress as much, nor does it corrode as metal does over time. 

So what exactly is this composite?

Austin gives a simple answer, “The closest comparison would be a very, very sturdy plastic.”

The process is much more complicated- involving 23 tons of carbon fiber tape, wrapping and layering it around molds using specialized machines. The carbon fiber shell is then placed in a huge oven which hardens and stiffens the composite into barrels which will eventually make up the body of the 787.

Aft sections of the 787 under construction at Boeing South Carolina.

While composites make up the majority of the aircraft’s shell, aluminum is still needed inside the barrels to maintain its structure and shape. Once these aft, or back sections are completed under Austin’s supervision, they leave this facility and go across the street to final assembly.

“And there is where we’ll join this aft section to a mid section and a forward section. Eventually we’ll put on the wings and the landing gear. It then flies away to our customers.”

Who will enjoy a smoother, quieter ride thanks to its unique composite composition alongside other cutting edge technology and engineering upgrades not possible with aluminum aircraft. 

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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