When an aircraft program is launched, the manufacturer must manufacture several prototypes in order to test various systems and ensure safe and reliable operation for the following models that enter commercial service. These prototypes undergo rigorous testing and are put through all sorts of challenging conditions, including extreme heat and cold. “The plane has been dragged, dropped, soaked, forced to hover, shudder and flutter,” Boeing said of its 747-8 testing. But after being stressed in all sorts of ways, what happens to these prototype units once the planemaker is finished with them?
Testing and experimentation continues
While an aircraft program might achieve all the necessary certification, and mass production might commence, the prototype units may just continue as test aircraft.
Data from Planespotters.net indicates that many early models of well-known commercial aircraft became what are known as ‘testbeds,’ – which Merriam-Webster more precisely defines as: “A vehicle (such as an airplane) used for testing new equipment (such as engines or weapons systems).”
Thus, the teams at companies like Airbus and Boeing will use their prototypes to continue the aircraft development process, looking for ways to improve systems further. The testbed may even be instrumental in developing the next family of aircraft – the first 747 was actually a testbed for developing the Boeing 777 engine program.
An aircraft testbed in its most extreme form, this is how the National Air and Space Museum describes the Boeing 707’s prototype (367-80) life:
“At one point, the Dash 80 carried three different engine types in its four nacelles. Serving as a testbed for the new 727, the Dash 80 was briefly equipped with a fifth engine mounted on the rear fuselage. Engineers also modified the wing in planform and contour to study the effects of different airfoil shapes.”
Off to the museum
Usually, once the testbed phase is finished, the manufacturer will try to find a new home for the aircraft. The new home is typically at a museum – perhaps one that might have a focus on aviation. Great examples include Seattle’s Museum of Flight (home of the first Boeing 747 and 737) or Toulouse’s Musée Aeroscopia (home of the first Airbus A320 and second-built A380).
— Airbus (@Airbus) September 7, 2017
Where are the jets now?
So, where specifically are some of the initial prototypes of the world’s most common passenger jets from Airbus and Boeing? Let’s take a look:
- A220-100/Bombardier CS100 (MSN 50001): The very first A220, built as the CSeries CS100, is preserved at Toulouse. In January 2020, its fuselage was cut into sections and used for training and trade shows. MSN 50002, however, is active as a testbed, as is the first CS300/A220-300.
- A300B1 (MSN 001): While listed as ‘scrapped,’ the jet was preserved in a way. Some parts are in Munich while other parts are preserved at Toulouse and Paris’ Le Bourget.
- A320-100 (MSN 001): The aircraft flew as a testbed to develop further A320 enhancements. It was also used to test winglets. In 2019 it was moved to Aeroscopia in Toulouse (see above Twitter post).
- A340-300 (MSN 001): Used as a testbed and demonstrator, the first Airbus A340 was most recently used as its laminar-flow “BLADE” test demonstrator aircraft. It now sits stored in Tarbes, France.
- A350-900 (MSN 001): The first A350 continues flying as a testbed.
- A380 (MSN 001): This aircraft is marked as a testbed that is currently stored at Toulouse. It should be noted that the 2nd A380 (MSN 002) was used as a testbed for several years. Following this, it was preserved and moved to Aeroscopia in Toulouse.
There is no MSN 001 for the A330, which starts at MSN 012. This is due to its parallel development with the Airbus A340.
- 707: The prototype to the Boeing 707 was the 367-80 Jet Transport. It sits at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum at Washington Dulles.
- 727-100 (Line No. 001): The very first 727-100 was delivered to United Airlines in 1963 but, after its service life, was moved to the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
- 737-100 (Line No. 001): After flying as a Boeing testbed from 1967 to 1973, the jet became a “flying laboratory” with NASA. In 2003 is was installed at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
- 747-100 (Line No. 001): Used as a testbed before preservation at the Museum of Flight in 2003.
- 757-200 (Line No. 001): Data indicates that this aircraft is still active as a testbed.
- 767-200 (Line No. 001): The first 767 never had the honor of going to a museum. Built in 1981, the aircraft was stored at Victorville in 2003 before being scrapped.
- 777-200 (Line No. 001): The first 777 was used as a demonstrator before serving with Cathay Pacific. In 2018 it found a final resting place at Tucson Pima Air & Space Museum.
- 787-8 (Line No. 001): The first Boeing 787-8 was preserved in Nagoya on June 22nd, 2015, at the Flight of Dreams Complex, which opened in 2018. The 2nd 787 built is on display at the Pima Air Museum in Arizona (photo below) while the 3rd is at the Museum of Flight.
Long and varied lives
As you can see by the history of each model, prototypes serve well past the entry into service of the aircraft type. From testing new engines to other flight systems experiments, prototypes can potentially fly for multiple decades.
It looks like the best place to spot some of the first prototypes is in Arizona, Seattle, or Toulouse. We’ll have to wait and see if new jets like the A350 and A220 get the privilege of museum storage as well. Of course, considering the first A340’s continued test activity, this may not be for another decade.
Did you know about this ‘prototype afterlife’? Have you seen some of these ‘first aircraft’ for yourself? Let us know in the comments.