The Short, Happy Life of the Prop-fan
Meet the engine that became embroiled in round one of Boeing v. Airbus, a fight fueled by the cost of oil.
- By Bill Sweetman
- Air & Space magazine, September 2005
The Boeing Company
(Page 3 of 6)
Veteran executives were more cautious. Mulally says today that “anyone who had worked with propellers really wanted to see the concept validated”—they wanted to be convinced that the new engine would be reliable. At Boeing, Mulally recalls, the 737 team proposed an improved, longer-range 737 that would cost far less to develop than a new airplane. But Boeing promoted the 7J7 and its UDF with an enthusiasm that rings in Mulally’s voice almost two decades later. “It was a tremendous improvement,” he says. “We could have delivered that airplane.”
Johnson and Condit sold the 7J7 concept hard. Conboy says he took part in 50 presentations in 1987. In that year, Boeing settled on a larger design that used a little more fuel but offered six-abreast, twin-aisle coach seating, banishing the hated middle seat. The airplane was too large for the Allison-P&W 578-DX engine, and Boeing settled on GE’s planned production UDF-based prop-fan, the GE36-C25.
The UDF made its first flight on August 20, 1986, aboard a Boeing 727 test bed. The tests encouraged Prop-Fan and UDF proponents, demonstrating that noise was a problem but not an insurmountable one. A February 1987 Washington Post headline read: “The aircraft engine of the future has propellers on it.”
But not everyone was convinced. At the 1985 show, Jim Johnson wanted to pitch the 7J7 to Lufthansa’s technical director, Reinhardt Abraham. His endorsement would be a huge blow to the A320; Johnson directed Rudy Hillinga, Boeing’s chief salesman in Germany, to get Abraham to the Boeing 7J7 mockup at Paris.
But when Johnson showed Abraham a chart depicting the economic advantages of the 7J7 over the A320, the Lufthansa executive turned to Hillinga and said: “Rudy, get a photographer. We’ll sign this, and I’ll buy 20 of these aircraft if you can guarantee the figures.”
Abraham knew perfectly well that Johnson was in no position to do that. What Abraham really wanted was a stretched 737, to turn up the competitive heat on Airbus.
Abraham wasn’t the only skeptic. Conboy recalls that the airlines’ reactions were “mixed from day one. We’d talk to the planning people and they’d say ‘When can we have it?’ But we never got an enthusiastic response from the operations people.”
Gordon McKinzie, United Airlines’ manager for new technology, recalls that Boeing couldn’t settle on a design for the 7J7: “One week it was a single-aisle 90-passenger airplane, the next a 180-seat twin-aisle design. We saw things as being very fluid.” The aircraft was neither as fast nor as flexible as the 757, which was, in McKinzie’s view, “a great airplane.” At best, McKinzie felt, United would “have taken on some aircraft, not a large acquisition, just to feel our way along.”