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First Flight

Started: 2020-01-25 21:24:41

Submitted: 2020-01-26 00:00:45

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator watches the first landing of the brand-new Boeing 777X

The opportunity to watch the first flight of a brand-new widebody jet comes maybe once a decade. As Boeing's 777X program, revamping its successful widebody jetliner, struggled through delays and technical problems, finally approached its first-flight date, it crossed my mind that Paine Field in Everett is close enough that I could try to see the first flight in person, but given the uncertainty surrounding the test flight (and my lack of interest in standing outside in January for long periods of time waiting for a flight that itself is waiting on the weather conditions to improve) I figured I'd watch the live-stream instead.

I watched some of the 777X first-flight live-stream on Friday morning, 24th January; this flight was canceled after my lunch because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction (and the flight plan called for taking off to the north, over the water, to minimize the risk on the ground in the event of a catastrophic failure after takeoff). Boeing announced they would try again on Saturday morning.

When I woke up Saturday morning, the 25th of January, I turned on the live-stream during breakfast. The plane sat on the tarmac at the Boeing factory, shown in sweeping helicopter tracking shots, taking in all of the recently-completed widebody aircraft bearing the liveries of airlines around the globe. Presently the brand-new aircraft began moving, taxiing past the PR people narrating the live-stream, and drive to the southern end of the main runway. I waited through an additional round of pre-flight checks -- and then the brand-new, never-before-flown plane taxied onto the runway, throttled up the engines, began its takeoff roll, accelerated down the runway, rotated, and lifted off into the gray January morning, quickly disappearing into the low clouds with its landing gear still extended.

(I remember watching the 777 documentary -- originally filmed with the plane's development in the 1990s, I saw it on VHS from a local library in the 2000s -- and I recall hearing that the test flight plan called for the landing gear to remain down until the aircraft completed various items on the checklist; only then would they attempt to raise the gear.)

Early in the afternoon I tracked the 777X test flight on Flight Aware and noticed that it was scheduled to land at Boeing Field, south of Seattle, around 14:00. It occurred to me that I had enough time that I could drive to Boeing Field and try to see the plane land in person (and that, if I were to do such a thing, I would presumably have to spend less time waiting outside for the plane to do something because it was already in the air, and there was less that could delay its arrival than could delay its departure). I mulled over the idea for several whole minutes before I grabbed my camera and drove to Boeing Field.

I parked at the Museum of Flight, on the south side of the airfield, and found a small crowd of fellow plane nerds next to the Super Constellation at the museum's front door, where the topography provided a slight hill with a modest view of the main runway. Many people had brought massive SLR lenses and step-ladders to give them a better view of the airfield; others had Boeing jackets and GE9X jackets. It was gray and wet, and the clouds hung low over the airfield, but it was not raining at that moment.

Super Constellation at the Museum of Flight
Super Constellation at the Museum of Flight

While I waited for the 777X, several private jets departed from the airfield. When one took off a toddler called out "Plane, Daddy!" and his father agreed that it was, in fact, a plane -- but not the plane they'd come to see.

I tracked the inbound flight on Flight Aware on my phone, watching it take a lap around Mount Rainier on its way into Seattle, then fly over SeaTac to take a lazy U-turn to line up with the south-east runway. I watched the sky to the north for any experimental aircraft while regular passenger traffic into SeaTac landed to the south.

Then someone behind me in the crowd exclaimed "There it is!" and I searched the sky to the north to try to find the plane on its final approach. What I found was the plane's landing lights, shining brightly through the low clouds. Soon I could see the plane's wings, a darker gray line against the gray sky.

777X first flight N779XW approaches Boeing Field through the clouds
777X first flight N779XW approaches Boeing Field through the clouds

The plane touched down, gliding to a graceful landing on the wet runway. It was still a couple thousand feet away from me; from that far away, in the middle of the runway, it was hard to get a sense of the scale of the aircraft. The crowd broke out into a smattering of applause as the plane touched down, celebrating the completion of the first test flight, and I joined them, though I wasn't willing to put down my camera yet.

Chase plane flies above 777X first flight N779XW at Boeing Field
Chase plane flies above 777X first flight N779XW at Boeing Field

The chase plane flew close overhead while the 777X rolled to a stop on the runway.

N109X chase plane at the 777X first flight
N109X chase plane at the 777X first flight

By the time I looked back at the 777X the wingtips had already folded up. I began to get a sense of the scale of the plane, comparing the size of the windows to the diameter of the fuselage.

777X first flight N779XW on the runway at Boeing Field
777X first flight N779XW on the runway at Boeing Field

I scampered down to the chain-link fence separating the parking lot from the airfield and found a spot where I could photograph the plane directly through the links in the fence. The 777X turned onto the taxiway, giving me the full side view and reminding me, again, how much longer this was than the workhorse 777-200 that has carried me on so many of my intercontinental flights.

777X first flight N779XW on taxiway B7 at Boeing Field
777X first flight N779XW on taxiway B7 at Boeing Field

And then the 777X turned onto the taxiway and headed to the north, towards the Boeing hangars and the press and invited guests waiting there. I could see the spoilers were still up after landing, but it looked like the flaps had been retracted.

777X first flight N779XW on taxiway B at Boeing Field
777X first flight N779XW on taxiway B at Boeing Field

I left the museum's lawn and entered the museum itself, to compare the brand-new 777X I just saw land to the older Boeing prototype and test airliners parked in the pavilion across the street. (I bought a museum membership last fall because my kids are amused by the museum, but this was my chance to visit the static displays at my own speed.) I walked through the 747 prototype City of Everett and the 787 test aircraft on display, comparing the design and construction of the two aircraft, built nearly fifty years apart. (And then I wondered where the 777 prototype Working Together is, and whether we might see it -- or maybe N779XW, the prototype I saw in flight, once it completes its test flight program -- on display at a museum in the future.)

I expect that, someday, I will have the opportunity to fly on a 777X -- and when I do, I will remember seeing the prototype land for the very first time.

I have a few more photos of the 777X first flight -- and of the Museum of Flight -- at Photos on 2020-01-25.

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