Tuesday, August 07, 2007


A few days ago, the Denver Post had this article on efforts by the FAA and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association to streamline the regulations for certifying interiors for luxury private aircraft. Currently these interiors are required to meet standards set for commercial passenger aircraft and this is difficult when private owners want to do different things:

"Until now, VIP air travelers have had to seek exemptions, often a long and costly process, when they wanted to upgrade jet interiors with such amenities as large bedrooms; bathing facilities; big dining areas with LCD lighting - or spiral staircases."


"Sometimes, the answer is no. The agency denied a request for a glass disco dance floor in a Boeing 777-200; it also has declined to allow chandeliers."

I said in a post last month that I had worked in the aviation industry and that one of my jobs had been in this business, custom aircraft completions. The Post article spends some time discussing Boeing Business Jets, or BBJs, which was one of the aircraft that we worked on. A BBJ is essentially a Boeing 737-700/800 available for a custom installation. That aircraft gives you an interior space of approximately 900 square feet to be configured as the customer would like.

I pasted in the pic above of a BBJ owned by Ty Warner, who made his fortune in Beanie Babies. It is not an airplane that we worked on, but I got to see it often in the Santa Barbara Airport (Warner has a home there) and admired its unusual paint scheme. That's a crew waxing and polishing the hull and nacelles in the picture.

I learned that painting these aircraft is a big deal, and you can easily spend $100,000 to $200,000 or more on a custom paint job. Most of the clients we dealt with wanted fairly plain exteriors, not much different from an airliner. The primer (to ensure none of the rivets show) and paint are very important in calculating the weight and balance of the aircraft as they add about 800 - 1000 pounds of weight.

Another thing to notice in this photo is the blocked windows. BBJs are delivered with the full complement of windows down the sides of the hull. In cases where some interior installation like a galley, or shower, or bedroom blocks the window, it's usually pulled and a metal plug inserted. You can see quite a few of those on this plane.

Of the BBJs we worked on we really only had two that were painted in a somewhat unusual manner. One had a light blue top (actually kind of a UNC Tarheel blue) that gradually faded out into an off-white below the window line to give a cloud-like effect. Another faintly resembled Warner's: it was mostly a bright white with a gold stripe along the window line that broadened out to completely cover the tail in gold. This customer originally wanted to use gold leaf, but we were able to dissuade him from that impracticality. Not long before we were due to deliver this plane, the company that the owner was the CEO of underwent a very public and scandalous bankruptcy. He was able to sell it to a Russian oligarch, apparently an intimate of Putin's, who based it in Siberia after we delivered it.

Months later we received a series of grumpy telexes from Yakutsk, complaining that the BBJ's plumbing kept freezing while it was parked on the tarmac. Plumbing inside the cabin is assumed to stay heated and is never insulated. Plumbing between the pressure vessel of the cabin and the hull is wrapped in electrical heater tapes or blankets that are turned on when airborne to keep them from freezing. We explained that none of these are turned on while the plane was parked outside in the Siberian winter, so yes it would freeze. For a reasonable price we offered to come up with a custom ground heater system for them but they seemed to lose interest.

Oh, and I actually saw that glass disco dance floor that the FAA refused to allow on the Boeing 777. One of our suppliers was building it for another completion center, and they showed it to me while I was visiting to inspect work they were doing for us. It was for a Middle Eastern customer, and the bulkheads and cabinets that fit around it were of the most awful shade of metallic purple. The scale was enormous, designed to fill the middle third of the plane. I never found out what their fall-back plan was.


I unearthed this photo last night of a BBJ prior to receiving its paint job. They were flown down to us from Seattle with only a light protective coating over the aluminum hull. We had a bird control problem in this hangar and the plastic sheets draped over the fuselage are there to protect it from bird droppings.

Last night I also remembered another design feature of the Boeing 777 with the glass disco dance floor. In a different part of the plane there was another glass floor. This was a circular "prayer floor" about nine feet in diameter set into the deck that had motorized bearings set on its edges. These were controlled by a GPS device that turned the floor so that indicators etched into the glass were always oriented toward Mecca. Passengers answering the call to prayer could be certain they were facing the right way.

I don't know what the FAA thought about that. It seemed a little incongruous next to the big disco dance room, but I guess there's a time to pray and a time to play.


Anonymous said...

I love these airplane posts, Reid! Did you ever read Crighton's "Airframe?" It wasn't that good a story, as I recall, but it had a lot of weird airline inside baseball.


Peter said...

I suppose the most extreme thing would be an onboard swimming pool, but it probably would weigh too much.

Reid Farmer said...

Matt -
I have not read "Airframe" and probably should sometime. A friend who also has an aerospace background read it and she said that some parts were very real and believable and others pretty implausible. But I guess that's why they call it fiction.

Glad you like the posts and hope you catch the update to this one. Will have more of these.

Peter -
The issue with pools is as much the uncontainable water slopping around as the weight. We did put showers and even steam rooms in airplanes, though

Matt Mullenix said...

There is a practical solution to bird control in hangars. I have two of them at home (solutions, not hangars)!

For 100k, I'll be happy to fly anywhere in the continental US (1st class, with seats for birds) and rid hangers of pigeons and starlings.