After Its First Flight, Boeing 787 Faces Its Sternest Tests

 - December 21, 2009, 5:54 AM

With the first flight of its mold-breaking 787 Dreamliner finally accomplished, Boeing now will attempt the Herculean task of finishing flight testing and obtaining certification by the end of next year. Only the weather marred the first flight of the first 787 (ZA001) on December 15, forcing test pilots Mike Carriker and Randy Neville to cut the planned four-hour mission to three hours.

The pilots departed from Paine Field in Everett, Wash., at 10:27 a.m. into cloudy skies that turned rainy shortly after the departure, then landed in rainy skies with good visibility at 1:33 p.m. at Boeing Field in Seattle.

Both pilots characterized the flight as flawless. They retracted and extended the landing gear once and kept the flaps set at 20 degrees for most of the flight, then landed with 30 degrees flaps. They reached a speed of 160 knots and an altitude of 13,200 feet. The next flight will take place after the 787 team installs some additional instrumentation in ZA001. Plans call for six flight-test airplanes to participate in the certification program. The second is due to fly before year-end, depending on Seattle-area weather conditions, and all six are scheduled to be flying by June next year.

The 787 represents a big bet for Boeing on many fronts. When it launched the 787’s sales campaign in 2003, company researchers developed an elaborate presentation that underscored a major philosophical change. Boeing’s analysis of the airline market showed that airplane sizes, measured in numbers of passenger seats, were steadily declining. To Boeing, that meant megaliners like the Airbus A380 would prove too large. The declining size of airplanes signaled to Boeing that a new and untapped market niche had developed, one for a smaller, long-range airliner that could fly farther (up to 8,500 nautical miles) than existing 200-passenger airliners and thus allow airlines to provide more point-to-point service.

Boeing’s timing appears on target (the airplane stands as the fastest selling airliner in history, with firm orders for 840 examples), despite the fact that first flight occurred nearly two and a half years later than originally planned. The program suffered numerous delays due to problems ranging from an accumulation of so-called traveled work to the failure of the airplane’s composite wings to satisfactorily withstand stresses placed on them during bending tests. But the payoff seems clear: As the world clamors for more efficient use of energy, the 787 promises 20-percent better fuel efficiency and 30-percent lower maintenance costs than its peers.

Now comes the time for the 787 to prove it can meet the lofty expectations Boeing set for it when it launched the program in 2004. If all goes as planned, it will do so at least to the satisfaction of the FAA by year-end, leaving Boeing to perhaps its tallest challenge of all: accelerating production to 10 airplanes a month by 2013.