Boeing 777-200LR: Mean machine that India's polar flight heroines flew

The B777-200LR flown by Captains Zoya Agarwal, Thanmai Papagari, Akanksha Sonawane and Shivani Manhas thundered at a speed of 1,032 kmph

Four ace women pilots of Air India made history last week by flying all the way from San Francisco in the US to Bengaluru, steering their plane over the north pole. The flight, which travelled a distance of 15,154 km, was the longest in the annals of Indian aviation and the longest for any Indian carrier. It was the second-longest flight among those in service at the moment. It was also the first polar flight by an all-woman cockpit crew, and the inaugural direct flight between two of the world's leading silicon valley cities, which are also diametrically opposite city pairs.

All four women -- commanders Captain Zoya Agarwal and Captain Thanmai Papagari and co-pilots Captain Akanksha Sonawane and Captain Shivani Manhas spoke to Plane Vanilla to share their experiences of the journey, the challenges associated with a polar flight, difficulties during the Covid-19 pandemic and indeed their personal struggles and what went into making the brilliant aviators that they are today. They shed light on various unknown facets of their lives and careers, and Plane Vanilla was the first, in this regard, to bring all four of India's polar flight heroines on the same platform. 

The Air India Boeing 777-200LR with registration code VT-ALG. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Mike Burdett

Now that we know about these women in considerable detail, let us now look at the machine: the gigantic Boeing 777-200LR that Captain Agarwal and her "polar girls" so skilfully manoeuvred with over 200 passengers onboard.

Also read: India's four polar flight heroines speak on tricky mission, personal struggles 

According to the Air India website, the carrier owns three wide-bodied B777-200LR planes. These planes carry registration codes of VT-ALF, VT-ALH and VT-ALG respectively, according to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). Among these, the polar flight was undertaken by the plane with the registration code of VT-ALG. Air India said that it is a 12-year-old aircraft and nicknamed as 'Kerala'. It is painted with a Mahatma Gandhi motif, and it was highly apt to have the 'Father of the Nation' 'watching' as history was being made by four 'Bharat ki Betis'. It would have surely made the Mahatma proud!

The B777-200LR operating Flight AI-176 thundered at a speed of 557 knots/1,032 kmph and went up to an altitude of 37,000 feet during its final leg, as it entered the Indian airspace, according to an Air India tweet on January 11. The plane reached the north pole at a speed of 470 knots/870 kmph, Air India live-tweeted at around 5 pm (Indian Standard Time) on January 10. The airline tweeted after about one-and-a-half hours, saying that Flight AI-176 was leaving the polar region at a speed of 508 knots/940 kmph and was southbound at an altitude of 34,000 feet, with Captain Papagari at the helm.  

The twin-aisle B777-200LR has a maximum capacity of 238 seats, comprising eight first-class, 35 business class and 195 economy class seats. Captain Papagari said proudly that there was a full load of passengers on this inaugural direct flight between San Francisco and Bengaluru. Both Captain Papagari and Captain Manhas told Plane Vanilla that there were passengers who had bought tickets to specifically be on this flight and "be a part of history". 

 Air India would operate two non-stop flights every week from San Francisco to Bengaluru departing on Saturdays and Tuesdays, according to a statement by the San Francisco International Airport. The return flight would reach San Francisco on Mondays and Thursdays. The B777-200LR aircraft would be used for these flights.

Captain Agarwal said that this flight was the long-standing dream of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Captain Papagari explained, "This was a much-awaited sector, which was long overdue. Plus, it's very good for all the cities down south, especially for Bengaluru, where we have a huge load from this silicon valley to the US silicon valley. We have reduced stopover. Earlier it always used to be via Mumbai or Delhi. Now they (passengers) don't have to do that. Plus they save time too, and during these pandemic times, it's even better because your exposure reduces. You are not getting off at airports. It was perfect timing for such a flight."   

Captain Zoya Agarwal in the cockpit. Image courtesy: Instagram/@captainzoya

The first-class of this plane is in a configuration of 1-2-1, with a seat pitch of 80 inches and a seat width of 23 inches between armrests and a total seat recline of 180 degrees. The business class, on the other hand, is in a configuration of 2-3-2. It features a seat pitch of 76 inches and a seat width of 19.5 inches. The economy class is characterised by a regular 3-3-3 twin-aisle configuration. It features a seat pitch of 34 inches, a seat width of 18 inches, and a seat recline of six inches, according to the Air India website. 

Also read -- Boeing 777X: World's largest plane that beats competition hands down

Air India's B777-200LRs are 209-feet long. That is the length of two blue whales. Its overall height is 61.8 feet or the height of around three giraffes. The wingspan of the mammoth plane is 212.6 feet. The cabin width of the B777-200LR is 19.1 feet. A comparison with Boeing's new 777-9 -- billed as the world's largest twin-engine plane -- would put things into perspective. The B777-9 has a length of nearly 251 feet and 9 inches, a height of 64 feet and 1 inch and a wingspan of 235 feet and 5 inches. The B777-200LR is, therefore, not smaller by much. 

In February 2006, Boeing delivered the first 777-200LR (Worldliner), with a capacity of carrying 314 passengers up to 9,290 nautical miles (17,205 km). That first delivery was made to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), with the airline having had plans to connect Toronto and Karachi via direct, non-stop flights. According to the plane-making behemoth, the B777-200LR is the world’s longest-range commercial jetliner and capable of connecting virtually any two city pairs around the globe.

Captain Thanmai Papagari in the cockpit. Image courtesy: Thanmai Papagari

The B777-9, on the other hand, has a range of 7,285 nautical miles (13,500 km) and the B777-8 can fly up to 8,730 nautical miles (16,170 km). The B777-300ER, a modified version of which flies the Indian President, Vice President and Prime Minister on official state visits, is longer in length but has a shorter range of 7,370 nautical miles (13,649 km).

The B777-300ER is reported to be the best-selling aircraft in the 777 family. Among the other variants of this family, the B777-200 has a range of 5,240 nautical miles (9,700 km), the B777-200ER has a range of 7,725 nautical miles (14,305 km) and the B777-300 has a range of 6,030 nautical miles (11,165), according to Boeing. 

Also read: Airbus A380 number 116 flies into Emirates fleet, this time powered partially by biofuel

So clearly, the B777-200LR scores more than all its family members in terms of range. It created a world record for the longest non-stop flight by a commercial jetliner when it flew from Hong Kong to London-Heathrow, covering a distance of 11,664 nautical miles (21,602 km) in November 2005, according to a report in The New York Times.

Eight pilots steered the flight, taking turns of two at a time to fly more than halfway across the world, breaking the record set by a B52 bomber that flew 10,890 nautical miles (20,168 km) in 1962. Technically speaking, however, the distance record for a jet aircraft is held by the Global Challenger, a one-person jet that flew about 17,700 nautical miles (32,780 km) earlier in 2005.

The B777-200LR, or Worldliner from Hong Kong to London, flew east, rather than the usual 5,300 nautical-mile (9,816 km) westward route, reaching its destination in 22 hours and 42 minutes. Boeing chose to more than double the length of this flight largely to flaunt its technological supremacy over arch-rival Airbus.

The B777-200LR has a greater range than the other members of the 777 family. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/ Lofting 

In 2006, British Airways used a B777-200ER to operate the longest commercial non-stop flight, covering 9,274 nautical miles (17,157km) from Brussels to Melbourne in 18 hours and 45 minutes.

In 2018, Singapore Airlines launched the world's longest scheduled commercial flight with non-stop services from Singapore to New York (Newark Liberty International Airport), using the A350-900ULR planes. It was, however, suspended due to the global drop in demand in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In October 2020, Singapore Airlines unveiled plans to return to New York. It launched the longest currently active commercial flight between Singapore and John F Kennedy Airport in New York at 8,288 nautical miles (15,349 kilometres), operated by an A350-900. 

Boeing no longer markets the 777-200 and 777-300, indicated by the planemaker removing them from its price listings for the 777s. Boeing also proposes to replace the B777-200ER with the B787-10 Dreamliner. 

The B777-200LRs flown by Air India have an average cruise speed of 0.84 Mach (1,037 kmph) and can go up to an altitude of 43,100 feet. These planes are powered by two GE90-110B1L1 engines. The maximum thrust of the B777-200LR is 49,940.5 kg and maximum takeoff weight is 347.5 tons. The maximum fuel capacity of these planes is 148.7 tons. According to Captain Agarwal, the San Francisco-Bengaluru polar flight saved 10 tons of fuel.

The payload capacity of Air India's B777-200LR is 45.8 tons (31.4 tons of passengers and baggage and 14.4 tons of cargo) on US routes and 40 tons (23.6 tons of passengers and baggage and 16.4 tons of cargo) on non-US routes.   

The state-of-the-art B777-200LR is priced at $346.9 million, according to Boeing. The aircraft's closest competitor from Airbus is the A350-900ULR and the discontinued A340-500HGW. 

A Singapore Airlines Airbus 350-900ULR. This plane competes with the B777-200LR. Image courtesy: Singapore Airlines

In 2013, Air India's decision to sell five B777-200LR for a throwaway price of Rs 2,135 crore (Rs 427 crore per aircraft) to Etihad created some controversy, according to a Mail Today report. This price was a mere one-third of the Rs 1,400 crore that Air India had to shell out for each of these B777-200LRs.  

The planes were purchased only six years ago, and the carrier reportedly had lined up three more B777-200LRs for sale as well. These planes were supposed to fly for 25 years, the then civil aviation minister Praful Patel had said in August 2004.

Aviation experts and even Air India pilots complained that there was no justification in Air India selling these high-quality planes instead of leasing them. Air India had termed the B777-200LRs as fuel-guzzlers, though an actual comparison showed a different picture. A pilot pointed out that the B777-200LR has a longer range and can accommodate more passengers than the Dreamliner.

Cover image and video: The Boeing 777-200LR aircraft flown by Captain Zoya Agarwal and her team as part of the historic flight from San Francisco to Bengaluru. Image courtesy: Twitter/@HardeepSPuri. Video courtesy: Twitter/@BLRAirport)