This was no ordinary plane ride.
No longer grounded for battery problems, United's Dreamliner 787 Flight 1 gained takeoff speed down a Houston runway Monday, en route to Chicago O'Hare.
After months of concern about the 787's future, the excitement and tension was palpable aboard the first domestic commercial flight since January 16.
In Seats 32 J, K, and L, Charles Marine, his wife Amira and 6-year-old son Dominic were going home after visiting the Lone Star State. Dominic, wearing a red T-shirt and headphones, chewed gum with a serious look on his face as the plane raced toward the end of the runway. Amira had a pillow on her lap, her hands folded as she faced forward. At one point, her husband placed his hand on hers.
The plane, carrying 219 passengers including many reporters and executives from Boeing and United, began to lift into the air. Outside the Dreamliner's oversized windows, it was clear the plane's wings were bending upward.
Watching the wings of an airliner bend during takeoff might be a little bit disturbing for most passengers.
But the wings of this plane are made mostly of carbon reinforced plastic. They're supposed to bend.
Then, Dreamliner's wheels magically left the Earth. That triggered passenger applause that rang throughout the aircraft.
The 787 was back in domestic service after being grounded because of fears of onboard lithium-ion battery fires. Two incidents on Japanese 787s in January prompted the FAA to ground all six U.S. Dreamliners, which are all operated by United. Engineers designed a fix of the system which involved insulating the batteries and putting them in a ventilated armor-plated box to protect the rest of the plane.
'It's a relaunch!'
Dreamliner "was a fairly expensive piece of sculpture to have on the ground," joked United CEO Jeff Smisek during a pre-flight ceremony. The average list price for a 787 is currently about $207 million.
His counterpart at manufacturer Boeing apologized. "We're very sorry about the delay caused by the technology workaround," said Boeing CEO Jim McNerney. "Safety means everything to us." Both men were passengers on Flight 1.
In Seat 21J, Michael Reynolds, 64, was headed home after his oldest granddaughter's high school graduation ceremony. He had no idea he was booked on arguably the most-watched airliner in America, touted by Boeing as the "airplane of the future."
"It was a surprise to see the media circus," he said.
Charles Marine also was in the dark about the flight until he arrived at the gate. Was he concerned about the battery problems? "I guess there's a little bit of something in the back of my mind," he said. But to have all these CEOs on the plane," he said he felt safe.
Aviation enthusiasts call it Dreamliner 2.0.
Others call it Reboot: 787.
"It's a relaunch!" said a United flight attendant wearing the name tag, Alejandro. "That's what they told us to call it!"
Whatever it's labeled, the fastest airliner in the world is back. Up in the cockpit, Capt. Niels Olufsen clocked it at about 647 mph. The plane beat about 10 minutes off other airliners by the time it hit Chicago traffic.
The slick new cockpit display allows pilots to more easily see maps, speed and altitude data. "It's easier to fly because we have better displays," said Capt. Bill Blocker, another pilot on Flight 1. "It lands nice, it flies nice, it's real responsive, it's actually one of the easier planes I've ever flown."
It also soars higher than other airliners. Flight 1 maxed out at 41,000 feet -- which actually is 2,000 feet below its limit. A typical airliner altitude is around 30,000 feet up.
But Dreamliner's most important trick is to save on fuel expense. Surprisingly, it takes less fuel to fly high. "That's just how jet engines work," said Capt. Michael Barksdale, another United pilot who attended the pre-flight ceremony.
All airlines love to save fuel. That's good for business -- and the environment. And it's why Dreamliner is seen as the "airliner of the future."
Thrill of flight
For this aviation enthusiast, the thrill of flying this airplane for the first time involved the bendy, plastic wings as they lifted the plane into the air on take off. At first, it doesn't compute -- it looks so strange -- but then you realize this ain't your daddy's aluminum aircraft.