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Boeing CTO John Tracy Speaks on Future of Aviation

Everywhere he goes, Boeing Chief Technology Officer John Tracy asks the same question: If you close your eyes and think of the word Boeing, what comes to mind?

And everywhere, he gets the same answer: the hump-topped 747, the company’s famous jumbo jet.

But that might soon change: Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner is the most fuel-efficient plane in the sky and is the first commercial jet to be built with mostly composite materials. The airplane's technologies, along with Boeing’s other futuristic projects, represent the future of aviation, Tracy said to a packed room as part of the McCormick School of Engineering Dean’s Seminar Series on May 29.

Those projects have come a long way from the makeshift plane that the Wright brothers flew in 1903, but Boeing has been a part of aviation history ever since the company's inception in 1916.

Boeing's John Tracy“Every manned space flight in U.S. history, we’ve been a part of,” Tracy said.

Perhaps its biggest coup came in 1969 with the debut of the 747, the double-decker, 400-passenger plane that can fly more than 8,000 miles before refueling.

“It changed commerce, it changed politics, it changed communication,” Tracy said.

That excitement remains today: air passenger traffic grows 5 percent a year, in line with global GDP. By 2030, the number of commercial airplanes will double to 40,000. Boeing, in addition to building fuel-efficient airplanes, is involved in developing plane-ready biofuels and more efficient air traffic management concepts to help make that growth sustainable.

Their latest effort, the 787, has a fuselage made from graphite epoxy composite, which makes it lighter and more fuel efficient but also provides creature comforts of bigger windows, higher air humidity, and lower pressure. When traveling, the pressure will be equivalent to 6,000 feet rather than 8,000 feet, which will reduce passenger fatigue.

But Boeing has also set their sights beyond this summit. The company is testing advanced technologies on a variety of prototype aircraft – including some that are unmanned, such as a space plane that's been in orbit since March 2011 and a high-altitude craft that runs on two hydrogen-powered Ford F-150 engines.

But none of this would be possible without the Boeing engineers, who are driven by dreams, passion and vision, Tracy said.

“You can be the ones that define what’s next,” he said to the students in the room. “We need you to create the future.”