Boeing prepares Dreamliner to enter flight-test program

 - July 31, 2007, 12:11 PM

Some 15,000 well-wishers witnessed the first public appearance last month of the Boeing 787 in Everett, Wash., an event broadcast live via satellite in nine languages and “potentially” reaching more than 100 million people. Now the company’s attention has turned to a more select and critical audience of airworthiness authorities, as it prepares the mostly composite, twin-aisle Dreamliner for first flight and an eight-month flight-test program.

Two days before the rollout, held 7/8/07, Boeing 787 program manager Mike Bair reiterated estimates of late August or September for first flight and a “high degree of confidence” in first delivery to All Nippon Airways next May. He dismissed suggestions that wiring could present a problem similar to Airbus’s travails with the A380, citing the comparative simplicity of the 787’s electrical configuration, but the short supply of fasteners made primarily by Alcoa remained a concern. Workers assembled the first 787 using temporary fasteners and must replace them before the airplane can fly.

Drawing confirmed firm orders for 677 airplanes as of July 12, the 787 can already claim commercial success. In fact, Boeing calls it the most successful launch of a civil airplane in its history. A 25-aircraft firm order for 787-8s from Air Berlin on the eve of the rollout only helped cement the claim. Worth $4 billion at list prices, the order ranks as the largest yet from a European airline. Just a few days later Chile’s LAN announced its board of directors agreed to add 32 Dreamliners to its fleet between 2011 and 2016. A purchase contract for 26 airplanes, at press time still under negotiation, would give Boeing its largest single sale in South America. LAN said it plans to lease six 787s from a third party and place a purchase option with Boeing for 10 more.

At press time, Boeing held orders for seven Dreamliners in executive configuration.
But attracting orders for what many consider the technological marvel has proved easy compared with coordinating the industrial aspect of the project. The company has outsourced more of the systems design and integration for the 787 than for any other program upon which it has embarked. Although Boeing clearly believes the benefits outweigh the risks, it must depend more on program partners to meet its certification and delivery schedule targets than ever before.

So when Kawasaki, Mitsubishi, Fuji and Alenia, for example, fall behind on their delivery schedules, Boeing needs to dispatch engineers to work with the partners on a solution. All that costs money, of course, and the board has allocated an extra $635 million to keep the 787 on schedule.

Any desire to expand production capacity in 2011 will depend on not only
the partners’ technical ability to deliver their respective parts and systems, but a willingness and ability from everyone involved to commit to the plant and equipment investment needed.

Current schedules call for delivery of 112 airplanes by the end of 2009. The company plans to build 42 production airplanes even before All Nippon Airways accepts its first, meaning it expects to complete at least 70 more airplanes during the 19 months leading to December 2009. Although Boeing doesn’t talk about production rates per se, it has said it aims by 2010 to build one airplane every three days–or roughly 120 per year.

The plan to build and park airplanes ahead of time lends Boeing some degree of cushion against unforeseen obstacles to first flight. During June’s Paris Air Show, Bair didn’t challenge reports of a mid-September estimate for first flight from Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Scott Carson, adding, “We’ve got plans about what to do if we go past that.” However, he wouldn’t pin down a precise point at which delays to first flight would jeopardize the May certification target.

A week earlier, Boeing Commercial Airplanes v-p of marketing Randy Tinseth identified as a cut-off point “the end of September, and then we have to start looking at [closing] the flight-test window” to meet delivery promises. But whatever it ultimately takes to satisfy certification authorities, Boeing will not breach its own standards of safety simply to meet a first flight target. “The 787 will fly when it’s ready to fly,” Bair has said repeatedly.