On December 15, 2009, the Boeing Company’s revolutionary 787 jetliner, the first passenger jet made mostly of composite materials, flies for the first time, more than 27 months behind schedule. The flight at least momentarily lifts a cloud that has shadowed the 787 program because of repeated delays in the company’s globally dispersed production scheme and strikes by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in 2005 and 2008. Boeing declares the three-hour flight -- cut back from a planned five and a half hours because of bad weather -- a success and says the plane will deliver on its promise of 20 to 25 percent better fuel efficiency than conventional metal jets. But nine months of flight trials totaling 3,000 air hours on six test planes lie ahead before the 787, dubbed the Dreamliner, can earn certification from the Federal Aviation Administration and delivery to customers can begin in late 2010.
The Sonic Cruiser Morphs into the 787
The idea for the 787 began to take shape in 2002 after major airlines nixed Boeing’s proposed Sonic Cruiser, an advanced, partially composite long-range airliner that would have cruised just below the speed of sound, which is about 660 m.p.h. at the altitudes commonly used by commercial jets. This would have been roughly 100 m.p.h. faster than competing commercial jets and would have noticeably trimmed long-haul flight times. But in the depressed travel market that followed the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York, airlines were more interested in fuel economy than speed. In response, Boeing shelved the Sonic Cruiser, and decided to apply the advanced composite construction techniques it had been developing to a new concept initially called the 7E7. The E stood for “efficiency.”
The plane stirred controversy from the beginning. Boeing, which had moved its corporate headquarters from Seattle to Chicago in 2001, made it clear that Washington state would have to compete with other, lower-cost, locations for the right to build the plane. Twenty-two states bid for the work, but a 20-year tax break worth an estimated $3.2 billion, passed by the Washington Legislature and signed into law by Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950), closed most of the financial gap and secured the project for the state.
Another flashpoint was Boeing’s decision to outsource construction of most major components to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Fuji Heavy Industries, and Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Japan; Alenia in Italy; Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kansas; and the Charleston, South Carolina, plant of Dallas-based Vought Aircraft Industries. Only the vertical tail fin would be manufactured in Washington. The rest of the parts would be flown in on specially modified 747 freighters called Dreamlifters and snapped together like so many Legos at Boeing’s Everett assembly plant.
At least that was the theory. The concept, however, proved much simpler than its execution.
In the fall of 2005, Boeing said most of the main design had been completed and that details had been sent to its manufacturing partners. Soon, signs of trouble began to emerge. In the spring of 2006, the company said its suppliers wouldn’t be fully up to speed when the first few airplanes were built, so more of the work than originally anticipated would be done at Everett.
That was just the beginning. In June 2007, Boeing workers assembling the first plane discovered a gap three-tenths of an inch wide between the nose/cockpit section of the aircraft and the fuselage behind it. The ill-fitting parts came from different manufacturers. The first plane was officially rolled out the following month, but it was far from ready for flight, scheduled for August. In October, Boeing announced the program was at least six months behind schedule; in January 2008, another three-month delay was announced; in April, Boeing said the 787 was a further six months behind.
Meanwhile, orders for the plane, which had begun with a disappointing trickle, were accelerating toward a flood. Then, with pressure on Boeing to deliver increasing, a home-grown problem cropped up. In November 2008, it was discovered that about 3 percent of fasteners in the first five test planes had been installed incorrectly and had to be redone. The following month, Boeing pushed the schedule back an additional six months. The early months of 2009 proved no better. In May, engineers discovered a structural defect where the wing joins the body, and the following month Boeing said it was indefinitely postponing the plane’s first flight.
This was devastating news. No Boeing aircraft in modern history had ever been even six months behind schedule. The delays were costing the company billions of dollars in penalties and, in a few cases, canceled orders. Finally, the horizon began to clear in August, when Boeing said the plane would make its first flight by the end of the year, with deliveries to follow by the end of 2010.
As Boeing struggled to get its manufacturing on track, it and the Machinists Union failed to agree on amending the union contract to preclude further strikes. Shortly after the negotiations ended, the company announced it would establish a second 787 production line in Charleston, where Vought workers had recently decertified the Machinists Union. This outraged its Seattle area union workforce, and distressed politicians and community leaders.
The 787 Takes Wing
Against this problematic backdrop, the 787 program badly needed a lift. It got one at 10:27 a.m. on December 15, 2009, when Dreamliner No. 1 gracefully took to the air at Paine Field on a damp and chilly day before hundreds of Boeing employees, company CEO Jim McNerney and executives of the 787’s first customer, All Nippon Airways. To observers, the liftoff appeared picture-perfect. Many, including McNerney, remarked on the unique arc formed by the plane’s unusually flexible wings. “Those composite wings, they just look different than any other wings that have ever flown,” McNerney said (Gates, “Joyful McNerney”).
The 787 program’s chief test pilot, Mike Carriker, and his first officer, Randy Neville, took the plane on a low-speed (about 200 mph) flight over Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, describing multiple loops back and forth across the route. A leg over the Cascades to Eastern Washington was canceled because of deteriorating weather. Just after 1:30 p.m., the 787 landed at Boeing Field in Seattle and Carriker emerged with a broad smile and clenched fists raised in enthusiasm.
In an interview with The Seattle Times following the flight, McNerney sought to reassure the Puget Sound area that the company would be here for some time to come, despite its investment in Charleston. “For the foreseeable future, the majority of airplanes, the 787 and other airplanes we do, will be done right here,” he said (Gates, “Joyful McNerney”). He also said he was certain the airplane would meet its performance and efficiency goals.