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Feature Story

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A Nex-Generation 737-800, painted in the new United Airlines livery, sports a package of airframe and engine improvements that aim to reduce fuel burn by 2%.

An improved Boeing 737 begins flight testing

As he stepped onboard the Next-Generation 737 that is fitted with numerous aerodynamic improvements to reduce fuel burn, Boeing engineer David Mathews remembered all the work that went into just one of the design changes.

737

Boeing/Bernard Choi

Boeing engineer David Mathews and his colleagues spent years studying different designs for a new anti-collision light. The challenge was to find a more aerodynamic shape to further improve the Next-Generation 737's performance.

"There were times we didn't think it was going to happen," he said.

Mathews and his colleagues spent years working with a supplier to come up with a new, more aerodynamic anti-collision light. The light, mounted on the top and bottom of the fuselage, had to meet strict federal regulations for light intensity.

"It's more than just two wires and a light bulb," said Mathews. "We tested numerous iterations. If the aerodynamic improvements weren't there, we would start all over again."

There was also the added challenge of coming up with a new design without changing the forces on the proven 737 fuselage or drastically altering the established production process at the Boeing factory in Renton, Wash.

"All those kinds of things have to be considered," Mathews said.

While Mathews worked on the anti-collision light, other teams of Boeing engineers went through the same painstaking process to further improve other portions of the Next-Generation 737 airframe.

A 2 percent fuel burn reduction means saving an average of $120,000 per airplane, per year, based on current fuel prices.

The result is a package of performance improvements that includes:

737

Boeing/Jim Anderson

The Next-Generation 737-800, painted in the new United Airlines livery, will undergo an extensive flight and ground test program to certify the package of performance improvements.

These modifications - which reduce resistance as air flows around the airplane - are projected to add up to a 1 percent reduction in fuel burn.

At the same time, CFM is introducing the new CFM56-7BE, an enhanced version of its already fuel-efficient engine. Boeing predicts all of the changes combined will translate into a 2 percent fuel burn reduction. That would mean saving an average of $120,000 per airplane, per year, based on current fuel prices. Airlines will not have to pay extra for the improvements, which will also reduce the airplane's carbon footprint.

"A small change here, a small change there, it all adds up," said Mathews. He and his team finally decided on a tear-shaped design that is smaller and more streamlined, while still projecting the same light intensity.

"When you come up with a fine piece of equipment and it goes on the airplane, it's very rewarding." David Mathews, 737 design engineer

Now, the Boeing Test & Evaluation team takes over to put all of the changes to the test.

737

Boeing/Jim Anderson

Airframe modifications, combined with an optimized CFM-56 engine, are projected to cut the Next-Generation 737's fuel burn by 2%. The airplane's carbon footprint will also be reduced.

"We have to validate to the customers that we are going to get the performance improvements that we predicted through all the design analysis," said Erin Henderson, a ground operations engineer. "The other thing we have to do is certify all of these improvements to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to prove they're safe for flight and they're safe to sell for our customers."

Recently, the team conducted its first test flight on the Next-Generation 737, which is painted in the new United Airlines livery. There will be many more tests in the months to come before the modifications are phased into the Next-Generation 737 production line in mid-2011.

For David Mathews, who got the chance to fly onboard the first flight, all the hard work has been well worth it.

"When you come up with a fine piece of equipment and it goes on the airplane, it's very rewarding."