Boeing Takes Flak over 747-8 Freighter Delays

 - October 8, 2010, 6:01 AM

It didn’t take special insight to guess that Boeing wouldn’t meet its year-end target to certify and deliver the first 747-8 Freighter. Company executives certainly sent enough signals over the summer to clue in the most casual observer to the fact that, indeed, the program appeared bound to suffer yet another delay. Then, on August 30, Boeing handed oversight of the project to Pat Shanahan, Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president and general manager of airplane programs, in an attempt to “re-energize” a flight-test and certification effort that had apparently fallen short of expectations. 

Although all signs pointed to a delay of some magnitude, not until last week did Boeing finally go public with its intention to shift first delivery to mid-2011–some six months later than the previous official target and almost two years later than originally planned. Boeing blamed earlier delays on a lack of engineering maturity and a shortage of engineering resources due to the simultaneous effort to certify the 787. Later, it cited flight-test “discoveries,” such as buffeting at flap setting 30 and, more recently, a low-frequency wingtip vibration in certain flight conditions and an underperforming aileron actuator.

Engineers resolved the buffeting problem by adjusting the angle of the main landing gear doors, while ongoing tests of a software solution to the wingtip vibration problem and a redesign of the inboard aileron actuator to address what a Boeing spokesman termed a “force vibration” have left the project team “feeling pretty good about the results.”

When it finally does reach the market, the 747-8 might well prove worth the wait.

But while analysts and commentators appear to better understand, if not forgive, the delays to the indisputably innovative, mainly composite 787, they’ve tended to show less patience with the 747-8–a design generally considered less ambitious than that of the Dreamliner. Boeing counters that while the 747-8 might look a lot like earlier jumbo jets, new content accounts for 70 percent of the airplane’s weight. “While the shape remains the same, this airplane is pretty much new,” said the spokesman. “We’ve got a new wing design, new engines, new flight deck with updated flight management computer, the materials are new, it’s bigger, it’s wider…Everything about this plane is pretty much new.”

Of course, Boeing has built new airplanes in the past, but rarely has its engineering competence come under question. Hopefully, for its sake, its customer base will prove more forgiving than the pundits.

“We understand the issues encountered in flight test and are working through the solutions,” said Shanahan. “We recognize that our customers are eager to add the 747-8 Freighter to their fleets, and we understand and regret any impact this schedule change may have on their plans to begin service with the airplane.”