Aerospace Notebook: New Boeing 717 design is bound to lift quite a few eyebrows
Updated 10:00 pm, Tuesday, April 23, 2002
The Boeing Co.'s 717 jetliner is about to get a face lift. And the 737 could be next.
Nobody's trying to improve the look of either jetliners, which in the case of the 717 is not all that old. Rather, the issue is reducing costs, for both Boeing and the airlines. And one way to do that, Boeing has determined, is to get rid of the so-called "eyebrow" windows just above the cockpit windshield -- a feature that has been on some models made by Boeing and McDonnell Douglas since the dawn of the jet age.
The first of the 717s cockpits built without the eyebrow windows will be rolling down the 717 assembly line in Long Beach, Calif., in July.
It's not certain when the eyebrow windows might disappear from the next-generation 737, which is assembled in Renton. But such a change is under consideration.
These windows are also on the 707 and the 727, as well as the DC-8, DC-9, MD-80 and MD-90 jets. But all those models are out of production.
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They are not found on any Airbus jetliners.
Contrary to popular belief, the eyebrow windows, at least for McDonnell Douglas jets, were not designed to help pilots navigate by the stars in event the onboard navigation system failed.
"In asking retired flight-operations people, the windows were put there for better crew visibility," said Gary Bartz, a senior engineer in the 717 design office in Long Beach who was one of the original flight-test engineers for the DC-9, which first flew in 1965.
When making steep banking turns during an airport approach for landing, he said, the pilot or co-pilot could keep the airport runway markings in sight using the eyebrow windows.
Boeing and McDonnell Douglas used eyebrow windows on their first passenger jetliners -- the 707 and the DC-8. Those jets entered commercial service in the late 1950s.
Models that followed also had the windows.
That's because the 727 and 737 had essentially the same diameter fuselage as the 707, so the newer jets used the same basic nose and cockpit design. The same was true for the DC-9 and MD-80 and MD-90s jets that followed the DC-8.
The eyebrow windows are not found on the widebody jets made by Boeing or McDonnell Douglas. Those planes have a wider fuselage than the single-aisle planes and a different size nose and cockpit.
Boeing's single-aisle 757 also does not have the eyebrow windows.
Bartz said the DC-8 did have a portal in the cockpit ceiling so crews could use a navigational sextant to guide the jet by the stars if the on-board systems failed. A hose attached to the portal, he said. Pilots discovered it also made a very effective vacuum cleaner.
"The eyebrow windows had nothing to do with navigation," Bartz said.
The 717 was formerly known as the MD-95. The name was changed after Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997. The plane was designed by McDonnell Douglas as a modern-day replacement for the aging DC-9. It entered service a couple of years ago.
During the development of the 717, McDonnell Douglas considered eliminating the eyebrow windows, Bartz said. In the end, the windows stayed.
Since the 717 entered production, however, Boeing has had an aggressive, ongoing program to reduce the unit cost of each plane. The eyebrow windows were identified as one way to reduce costs.
Not only would it cost less to build the planes without the windows, Bartz said there is also a maintenance cost benefit in eliminating them because they're heated just like the main cockpit windshield.
"All we needed was to get the FAA to agree," Bartz said.
The Federal Aviation Administration has specific regulations regarding cockpit visibility. But the eyebrow windows were not used as part of the FAA certification for the 717. That made it much easier to get the agency's okay to eliminate them, Bartz said.
Another important factor in getting FAA approval, he said, was the impact on pilot training -- none. The full-motion simulators that are used today to train pilots to fly the 717, as well as the DC-9 and MD-80 and MD-90, do not use the eyebrow windows. Crews perform all their training with just the view out the main windshield.
Bartz said Boeing 737 engineers in Renton are very interested in what the 717 folks in Long Beach have done to eliminate the eyebrow windows and save costs.
"They are exploring the feasibility of doing the same thing," Bartz said. He did not know whether the 737 eyebrow windows were used to obtain FAA certification of the plane, which might make it more difficult to get approval to eliminate the windows.
The first 717 without the eyebrow windows will go to lessor Pembroke Capital, which has placed a number of 717s with customers overseas. In this country, AirTran operates the 717, and Midwest Express recently ordered its first 717s.
Despite the cost benefits, pilots may not want to lose the eyebrow windows: It means one fewer place to stick the newspaper.