Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dreamin' the Dream

A big announcement rolled through our company last month. The Dreamliner is coming—the Boeing 787. Twenty-five of them.

Yet there wasn't much fanfare and even less enthusiasm for the news. We are the last major US airline to order them. And only 25 at that. In times past we would have been the launch customer. No one seems to be excited.

I ask my first officers, “You got your Dreamliner bid in yet?” Of course there won't be vacancy bids for several years yet, but the question breaks the ice. They all react the same—they shrug and shake their heads. They're middle-aged guys and gals with families. The lowest paid first officers of major airline pilots, they're all struggling to make ends meet. The promise of the Dreamliner doesn't fix that.

Whining aside, what a magnificent machine it is. Have you seen the videos of the roll-out and the first flight? It's the prettiest jetliner ever built. I keep trying to think of a single word that most describes it. Smooth is what keeps coming to mind. The smooth curves, the smooth sounding engines, the smooth way it slips through the sky. It's so smooth it's slick. It's truly a dream machine.

This is the first airliner, in my memory, that the manufacturer has actually assigned a name to. But will we use that name or make up another one? The precedent for the latter choice is huge.

For example, American and Delta pilots have a history of dropping the first number of a Boeing product and just saying the last two numbers, but they say them as individual numbers, like: “Seven-six” (767) or Seven-three (737). On our property we tend to say “Sixty-seven” and “Thirty-seven.” But we make up nicknames, as well. The 737 is the “Guppy.” (The 737-200 was the “Thunder Guppy” because it was so loud. The 737-300 was the “Super Guppy” because its engines were so powerful.) Will the Dreamliner simply be the “Eight-seven?” Boy I hope not.

There were many other adopted names, too. The old 727 was the “Three Holer” and the DC-10 was the “Diesel Ten” (It smoked heavily on start-up.) The 747-400 is the “Whale” because of the big hump on its spine, and the French-built Airbus A320 is the “Fi-fi Jet.” (I think that was Pepe LePew's girl friend's name.) But more often we call it the “Scarebus.”
Airlines that still fly the primitive Super MD-88s, call them “Mad Dogs” and sometimes just “Supers.” We often call them “snakes” because their long, low-slung bodies look like slithering rat snakes when they cross the taxiway or runway ahead of you.

Military pilots are really radical. They rarely use the official name for their planes (at least not in the USAF). The F-100 Super Sabre became the “Hun.” The F-102 Delta Dagger was the “Deuce.” The F-105 Thunderchief was dubbed the “Thud,” and the F-106 Delta Dart became the “Six Pack.” Nobody ever called the F-16 by its official name, the Falcon. They immediately tagged it the “Viper.”

The A-7 Corsair II—my old mount—was the SLUF, which meant “Short Little Ugly F-----.” (It was actually quite pretty in flight.) The A-10 Thunderbolt II became the “Warthog” (It is actually very ugly whether in flight or on the ground.) The venerable B-52 Stratofortress is much better known as the “BUFF” (Big Ugly Fat F-----), an undeserving name. It's neither fat nor ugly.

The heavy guys did the same. The C-130 Hercules was always called the “Herc,” or simply the “130.” The C-141 Starlifter was the “T-Tailed Mountain Magnet,” but more often the “Lizard.” The C-5 Galaxy is “FRED” (F---ing Ridiculous Economic Disaster).

So, in keeping with all this divergent tradition, what now do we call the Dreamliner? Will we break with tradition—as Boeing itself has done by assigning a name—or will we ignore Boeing's affectionate moniker and invent a new one to suit our fancies?

Knowing the pilot ilk as I do, I suspect there will be a name change. But what? Dream Machine? Dream Sled? Dream Boat? Dream Baby? Nightmare Liner? Seattle Sleeper?
You name it. Put it in the comments. Maybe your name will stick.

As for me, I'm not holding my breath until we get the Dream-whatevers. I'll be retired by then. But I hope to high Heaven those first officers I fly with will some day fly 787. I hope for their sake it's no daydream.