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TV REVIEW : '777: First Flight' One for the Engineers

June 21, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The aerospace engineer, a rapidly dying species in the Southern California economic jungle, is even scarcer on television. Perhaps the best thing about the KCTS-TV and British Channel 4 co-production "777: First Flight" is that engineers get their due.

Alas, it may be only engineers who will stay with this stolid, hourlong look at the making of Boeing's newest commercial airplane. Without the kind of background scientific graphics that help the lay viewer appreciate the problems faced by Boeing's designers in constructing and testing the 777, many of the engineering mini-crises shown will, ahem, fly right by you.

The crucial importance of the 777 to Boeing's position in the increasingly competitive commercial aerospace market gets the skimpiest summary possible. In fact, the 777 is a test of whether American-style, private corporate production of airplanes can hold up against the kind of publicly run, international consortium project symbolized by Europe's Airbus. As this program shows, the 777 is the most lab-tested plane on the ground and in the air; whether it passes the business test remains to be seen.

The 777 project also involves an innovative worker-manager working style, dubbed by Boeing, "Working Together." Yet this report never shows the style in action, what it means for workers, and instead resorts to lame accounts of the experiment by guys in suits behind desks.

One guy in a suit, though, is by far more interesting than the 777 itself, which looks on TV to be a another standard plane (it even lacks the stylistic character of the 747). Alan Mulally, general manager of Boeing's 777 division, talks in almost New Age terms of the plane and his people. He encourages staff like a coach at halftime, and cries and whoops when the plane finally takes off.

With his unhidden passions, Mulally belies the notion of the cold, corporate engineer type. The film could have used some of his spirit.

* "First Flight" airs at 8 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28, and at 9 on KVCR-TV Channel 24.

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