Boeing Frontiers
July 2002 
Volume 01, Issue 03 
Top Stories Inside Quick Takes Site Tools
Commercial Airplanes


Boeing's Sonic Cruiser team focuses on the future


Behind the doors of the Bomarc building in Everett, Wash., Boeing employees are shaping the future of commercial aviation. They do so in the shadow of an industry in turmoil. It's a task no one takes lightly.

Next to the model of the futuristic Sonic Cruiser are huge photos of the beginning of Boeing — women stitching fabric wings, the red barn where it all started, and the large World War II production facility in Renton, Wash., that put Boeing into the aviation game to stay. This contrast of history and future helps keep the team focused on the need to "get it right."

"When you go first, you have to be right," said Walt Gillette, vice president and general manager of the Sonic Cruiser program, speaking recently to a group of employees at an all-hands meeting. "If you're wrong, you're just pointing a big arrow at where the competition needs to go. But if you're right, you've opened the door to tremendous opportunity for yourself."

Shaping the future of flight

Gillette has compared the design of Boeing's proposed Sonic Cruiser high-speed commercial jet airplane to a symphony.

"It all has to work together," he said. "It works in a much more integrated fashion than a conventional configuration.

"The Sonic Cruiser is a brand-new class of flying machine," Gillette said. "Every other commercial jet airplane has been a further refinement of the 707. We have more than 50 years' experience with that class of flying machine; we have just over a year of experience with the Sonic Cruiser class of flying machine."

Sonic CruiserYet in that year's time, the team has made tremendous strides in understanding how the parts of the airplane work together.

For example, advanced computational fluid dynamics technologies are helping to refine the configuration of the Sonic Cruiser for optimum efficiency.

"On a conventional design, you can change the shape of the wings or the length of the fuselage without having to worry much about the rest of the design," Gillette explained. "On an airplane that travels just under the speed of sound, the design doesn't work that way. A small change to the shape of the wing, to the angle of the canard [the control surfaces near the front of the airplane] or the fins [at the back of the airplane] means you have to make changes to the other parts of the airplane as well."

Gillette said the team now has a good understanding of how all the parts work together and what changes to one part necessitate change for the rest of the airplane.

"We could not have worked on this design even five years ago," he said. "The computational tools are just now robust and sophisticated enough to allow us to do this work."

Airline industry in turmoil

While the design tools are robust, the airline industry certainly doesn't appear to be. A scan of the financial reports of the airlines for the last year paints a bleak picture. Most airlines are literally losing money on every flight. Those making money are not making good margins.

This is leading some to question how Boeing could be considering introducing a new airplane, much less a new class of airplane, into a financially weak market.

"One thing that Boeing has always been able to do is see through the current crisis," said Dan Mooney, vice president of Product Development for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "We saw through the era of the late 1960s, when airlines were not ordering airplanes, and we invested in the 747, which continues to be an outstanding airplane. We saw through the even deeper hole of the early 1970s and prepared to launch the 757 and 767 together by the end of that decade. We saw through downturns in the 1980s and 1990s and developed airplanes that are still considered the best in the world."

Mooney said that a great deal of emphasis is always put on getting Boeing through industry downturns. By placing equal emphasis on being positioned for the inevitable industry upturn that follows, Boeing has thrived.

"We believe that when the next upturn begins, the airlines will be ready for the Sonic Cruiser," Mooney said. "If we wait until then to start working on it, we will be too late. It has to be ready to go when they want it."

Building on a legacy

In addition to missing the market if it waits, Boeing may very well lose its ability to create a new airplane.

Industry experience indicates that if the company doesn't create a new airplane about every 12 to 15 years, the needed skills and experience will be gone. Too many of the people who created the last new airplane will have retired or moved on to other companies, and their skills and experience will not have been passed on to the next generation of Boeing employees.

"The time is right for us to do a new airplane for so many reasons," Gillette said. "The technology is right, the market will be right, and our people need to use those skills to keep us competitive."

Gillette keeps his team focused on the role the program will play in Boeing's history.

"Boeing has changed the way the world flies before," he said. "It's time to do it again."


Gillette tackles critiques of Cruiser program

Since Boeing announced it was working on the Sonic Cruiser concept airplane, the project has been a lightning rod for industry criticism. Walt Gillette, vice president and general manager of the Sonic Cruiser program, responded to those concerns.

Criticism: The Sonic Cruiser isn't fast enough.
Response: What would you do if you had an extra hour in a day? What about an extra two hours? I don't think you would say, "No thanks. I don't need that. It's not enough." Most people would love to have that hour or two, and we think that airlines that choose to go with the Sonic Cruiser will have a distinct advantage by being able to offer that time savings to their passengers. Would it be better to go faster and save people even more time? Of course. But the technology won't let us do that efficiently today. So instead of waiting forever to build the perfect airplane, we offer a near-term improvement and will keep making more improvements as the technology allows.

Criticism: The Sonic Cruiser isn't real; it's just a public relations stunt.
Response: The Sonic Cruiser is very real. The people on the Product Development team are engineers and scientists, operations professionals, suppliers—all the skills you need to make a program a success.

Criticism: You're taking too long to make any progress on the Sonic Cruiser.
Response: We're progressing at about the same rate as we did on the Boeing 777. It may feel slower to people because this part of the process was done behind closed doors for the 777, very quietly and without the attention of the world focused on us.

Criticism: Airlines aren't interested in the Sonic Cruiser.
Response: Don't believe everything you read in the newspaper. We are talking with very senior people at the airlines, and there is a lot of interest. We don't know yet if it is enough to launch the program, but we are working to determine that.

Criticism: You are behind schedule on the Sonic Cruiser.
Response: When Alan Mulally (Commercial Airplanes president and CEO) unveiled the Sonic Cruiser concept on March 29, 2001, he said it would enter service between 2006 and 2008, depending on the technology needs of the airlines. The airlines have indicated a need that puts us at the 2008 timeframe. That is still what we are working toward, and it's right on schedule.

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