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Wing Fold Controller, U.S. Patent App. No. 20140014768 A1 (Lassen et al.) The Boeing Company

Wing Fold Controller, U.S. Patent App. No. 20140014768 A1 (Lassen et al.) The Boeing Company

     As we write this, the entire world fears the worst for Malaysia Airlines Flight #MH370, which went missing on Saturday, March 8, 2014. As with everyone worldwide, our thoughts and prayers are with the passengers, crew and their families.

     Many media outlets have noted that the missing plane is from Boeing Company’s 777, or “Triple 7” line, specifically the 777-200. Boeing spent many decades (since the late 1980’s) developing its Triple 7 line. Kamov.net (article here) in its prior write-up on the Triple 7, discusses a few interesting aspects of its development.  Most interesting is that Boeing went directly to its customers to have them help in the development process.  According to Kamov.net, larger players such as All Nippon Airways, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Airlines, Japan Airlines and a few others participated in Boeing’s  “Customer as Partner” program and came up with a big wishlist for the manufacturer. In early 1990, with the help of those customers, Boeing had finalized a basic concept for the airliner, which included a twin-jet configuration and capacity for at least 325 passengers.

    Another interesting aspect of the Triple 7 is that it was the first commercial airliner to be designed entirely by computer. Kamov.net notes that this allowed Boeing to make specific refinements to the airliner’s wing design, which allowed the Triple 7 to fly higher and faster than other existing airliner models.

     Between 2006 and 2010, Boeing made some changes in the way that its Triple 7 airliners were being produced at its Everett, Washington manufacturing facility. These changes included a moving assembly line with enormous wheeled rigs (built by Nova-Tech Engineering), which are able to rotate the plane sections 360 degrees. Kamov.net reports that the Triple 7 incorporates 3 million parts from 500 different suppliers and that the new production line allowed Boeing to reduce production time to just forty-nine days (although Boeing reports that the actual “assembly” time is less- 17 days). For an interesting glimpse of Boeing’s “777 Moving Line”, see Boeing video here.

    It was also reported that, at the time,  Boeing performed one of the most comprehensive flight test programs on the Triple 7, running over 7,000 flight-hours on nine of the airliners in a little under two years of testing.  Boeing was also stated to have given a lot of consideration to the specific causes of in-flight shutdowns (apparently, only 30% are caused by engine problems) and it built the Triple 7 with a high level of redundancy in its fuel, oil and control systems.

     Ben Sandilands, an aviation reporter and writer on the Plane Talking blog (article here) addressed recent reports that Flight MH370 flew for four hours after losing contact with ground authorities. As noted in the U.S. media, U.S. and Malaysian authorities do not agree on the accuracy of this report (see March 13 Wall Street Journal article, here). Ben explains that resolving this question is tricky and would require the expertise of avionics/automated reporting systems experts.  That said, Ben explains that, while unlikely, both U.S. and Malaysian authorities could be correct. For example, as Ben explains it, in theory at least, the airliner could have been visible although the ACARS system (“Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System”) on the airliner may have been turned off.  Ben likens this to the way a cell phone is ‘visible’ to data networks although the phone is turned off (an admittedly stretched analogy). Ben further explains that this scenario is a tricky one. Unless someone was closely monitoring Flight MH370, it would be difficult, or even futile, to find the airliner after the fact.

 Earlier this year, Boeing’s ‘4768 patent application for ” Wing Fold Controller” was published (US Patent App. No. 20140014768 A1). The ‘4768 patent application is directed to the way the wing tips on the plane are extended and retracted. If you fly, you’re most likely aware that the wing tips retract/extend when the plane is near the gate and at take off.  To oversimplify quite a bit, the new system disclosed in the application would remove involving the pilots in much of that process (i.e. it would be much more automated that it is now).  Ben Sandilands and others report that Boeing intends to include the new technology on its “X” series of the Triple 7 in the later part of this decade (see AirNations article re here and Ben’s February 9 article re here).

     Boeing filed the ‘4768 patent application in September 2013 and the application was recently published (January 16, 2014). There is no indication that Boeing included the new system on any of the existing Triple 7’s that are currently in service.