It all started in the cockpit of a spanking new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the first ever to fly from the islands to Holland. Worldkid finds himself sitting between two Dutch pilots facing a high tech control panel comparable to that of a NASA spaceship. The first officer dims the cockpit lights to reveal a crescent moon, a gaggle of dripping stars and the endless, dark North Atlantic below. Speeding along at 41,000 feet above The Pond, the three of us talk about this advanced jet liner, and later for an hour muse on sailing, global destinations and life.
This was a serendipitous start to the Grand Journey, international wandering covering five countries on two continents in a little over a month. Now back home under the comforting shade of a Bonaire palm tree, I contemplate this just completed sojourn. The next few entries of this blog will be postcards from the nomad. What immediately follows is my story about the Dreamliner for the Bonaire Reporter published in June….
As soon as the massive jet had landed at Flamingo International Airport, a fire truck began spraying the plane with water. This was not a dire emergency. Rather, it kicked off a runway celebration of Arke’s new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. While dignitaries and others gathered for cool drinks under party tents, I found myself enduring a one-hour delay waiting for my June 12th flight through Curacao to Amsterdam. Ah, the price one must pay to witness a maiden voyage.
Just eight days before, the Dreamliner had departed Paine Field, home to Boeing’s Everett factory in Washington State in the USA. The plane landed the next day at Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam with an escort of F-16 fighters in celebration of its arrival. “The 787 Dreamliner is an excellent fit for our Dutch operations and we are de-lighted to be the first carrier in the Nether-lands to offer this product as part of our unique holiday experiences,” said Elie Bruyninckx, CEO of TUI Netherlands, the company that owns Arke. “Passengers traveling on Arke’s 787 will appreciate the air-plane’s spacious interior, bigger windows and will arrive at their destination feeling refreshed, making it the perfect start to any holiday.”
Looking down at Kralendijk after takeoff, I agree with Mr. Bruyninckx’s opinion of the windows. The Dreamliner ports are large with dimensions of 10.7 x 18.4 inches (27 x 47 cm). That is 30% larger than other conventional commercial airplanes. Plus, they are set at a higher eye level vertically so passengers can better maintain a view of the horizon. I fumble to find a shade for the window in hopes of blocking the late afternoon sun, but soon learn that this has been eliminated. I then discover a dimmer switch that controls the tint of the window. How elegant. Once adjusted against the sunlight, I look out to the plane’s sleek aluminum wing on the plane’s port side. Its futuristic raked wing tips are designed to deliver less drag and better fuel efficiency. Plus the shape decreases air turbulence and delivers a smoother ride. According to Boeing, the engine nacelles (housings that separate the fuselage from the motor) and their chevron-shaped, serrated edges are responsible for a noise footprint that is 60% smaller than today’s similarly sized airplanes.
That certainly is beneficial to those residing nearby airports during takeoffs, but I find the plane pleasantly quiet at 41,000 feet as well. And it smells like a brand new car. The interior cabin is roomy, even from the perch of my humble, economy-class seat. Its 17.3-inch (43.9 cm) width is the same as if I had purchased an economy-plus seat. The main difference is the seat’s pitch, the measure of legroom between a point on my seat and the same point on the seat in front of me. That is 32 inches (81 cm) compared to the 35-inch (90 cm) pitch in economy-plus. No matter. I have plenty of legroom for my six-foot frame. I still find the seat width too small, especially when sharing an armrest. At least Boeing improved the armrests by making them softer by using a forgiving bead-like material under the leather covering.
Half way to Curacao, the crew dims all the windows and performs a light show on the ceiling. Hues of the rainbow ripple from the front of the cabin to the stern, delighting those aboard. And later at sunrise some-where over the North Atlantic, orange-red colors are subtly dialed in to emulate the emerging first light. The 787 also features LED lighting throughout the aircraft. However, unlike the air vents that can be adjusted overhead manually, the on-off for seat lights is controlled on the entertainment screen located on the back of each seat. I see more than one passenger futilely trying to turn off the seat lights above with their hands. Boeing designed the 787 as a long-range, mid-size, wide-body jet to hold between 210 to 335 passengers. In economy class, that means three sections, three seats wide. The maiden voyage carries 268 passengers, three pilots and a support crew of eight. The longest range 787s can fly 8,000-8,500 nautical miles (14,800-15,700 km), enough for the lucrative Los Angeles-Bangkok or New York City-Hong Kong routes. On this flight we will fly a mere 4240 nautical miles (7852 km) between Curacao and the Netherlands. That will take eight and a half hours. As luck would have it, I am invited into the cockpit about three hours after our takeoff from Curacao. It is fair compensation for the delay in Bonaire. I meet Captain Roger Leeflang, a 20-year veteran and First Officer William Soesbergen, who gave up his office job 15 years ago to follow a dream. Both went through a month-long training on the 787 at Boeing’s facility in London last February. They now command our Dreamliner above a field of white clouds illuminated by a full moon as we streak toward Holland. “The flight simulators we trained on in London are exactly the same as where we sit tonight. They recreate this reality exactly.”
The reality is a spaceship-style cockpit with multiple computer readouts for the multifunctions of this state-of-the-art aircraft. Leeflang pulls down a clear plastic disc in front of him, moves to one side of his seat, and asks me to look through it. An electric green data graphic is superimposed on the disc. The captain explains that they use this as a guide during takeoff and landing. Rather than look to a data readout on the instrument panel, the pilot views the data real time while still seeing the runway ahead. It is the same technology that is used in jet fighters.
“You get used to flying this plane very quickly,” adds Leeflang. “We have had 10 flights in the 787 before tonight. It is very user-friendly and all the new technologies are completely integrated into the systems. It takes 10 years to develop a plane like this. For me, this is a once in a lifetime experience.”
But what I find most impressive is this airplane’s environmental performance. The Dreamliner is Boeing’s most fuel-efficient airplane due to its lightweight carbon fiber construction and a smoother nose contour. The plane’s fuselage is assembled with one-piece composite barrel sections instead of the traditional multiple aluminum sheets and fasteners numbering in the tens of thou-sands. Titanium, aluminum and a bit of steel make up most of the rest of the aircraft. But 40% of the plane’s fuel efficiency is due to two General Electric GEnx engines. They are GE’s latest, state-of-the-art turbo-fan engines that boast lightweight fan cases and blades, reduced CO2 emissions by 15%, and reduced NOx gases (causes of smog and acid rain) as much as 56% below today’s regulatory limits. All tolled, these improvements make the Dreamliner 20% more fuel-efficient than the airplane that it replaces, the Boeing 767.
Arke will begin regular Dreamliner service between Amsterdam and the islands of Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire in July. This airplane is the first of three Boeing 787s to join Arke’s fleet. There is nothing better than being aboard this Dreamliner on its maiden voyage. Passengers even received souvenir luggage tags boasting, “Dreamliner: I did it!”
But Bonaire residents beware when trying to pay for the €5 fee per bag on line. Arke only accepts European bank or credit cards and that also holds true for buying tickets on Arke’s website. Without a Euro bank or credit card, you have no other alternative other than to pay a minimum of €15 per checked bag at the airport. Now where is that celebratory champagne?