Latest 747 Embodies Ongoing Challenges for Boeing

 - February 25, 2011, 9:45 AM
Thousands of well-wishers gathered in Everett, Wash., during the February 13 unveiling of the Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental. [Photo: Boeing]

At Boeing’s colossal plant in Everett, Wash., the February 13 gathering of some 10,000 employees, government officials and customer, partner and supplier reps served not only as a chance to celebrate a long-overdue “unveiling” of the 747-8 Intercontinental, but as a reminder of a painful legacy left by top management a decade or more ago. Of course, both the 747-8I and the new 787 Dreamliner have fallen well behind schedule–by some 18 months and three-and-a-half years, respectively–as the company struggles to combat the effects of early retirement buyouts of legions of senior engineers and the design/build outsourcing scheme for major components on the 787.

The problems with the 787 spilled over to the two new 747-8 programs, the Intercontinental and the 747-8F freighter, in a couple of ways. Boeing “borrowed” engineers working on the new 747 to speed development of the 787 program and the company’s plans to incorporate Dreamliner technology into the new 747 fell behind schedule.

Earlier this month, Todd Zarfos, Boeing 747 engineering vice president, claimed that the company has resolved handling and vibration problems on the 747-8 by modifying its super-efficient new 224-foot, 7-inch wing with fly-by-wire outboard ailerons and reconfigured Krueger flaps. Asked what caused the problems in the first place, Zarfos admitted: “Not enough time in the wind tunnel.” He said the company continues to work with General Electric to “optimize” fuel consumption of the new GEnx-2B67 engines and to extract more weight from the 975,000-pound-mtow jumbo jet.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of product development Elizabeth Lund, who now manages the 747 programs, characterized the goal of getting the Intercontinental certified and delivered in the fourth quarter of this year as “achievable, but aggressive.”

Despite booking orders for only 33 copies of its new 747-8I, Boeing executives remain confident that a robust market for the aircraft exists over the long haul. The airplane generates 30 percent less noise than the 747-400 and burns 16 percent less fuel. Composites account for 25 percent of the airframe parts. In mixed-class configuration the aircraft will seat 467 and fly 8,000 nm at Mach 0.86 and have a dash speed of Mach 0.91, making it the fastest airliner since the supersonic Concorde.

Boeing anticipates a market for 720 large aircraft–meaning this 747 and the A380–between now and 2029. Airbus has already sold 240. However, Boeing claims that the $300 million 747-8I can use more airports than the A380 and that pilots with 747-400 experience can transition into the 250-foot-long airplane with just three days’ training.