Boeing ready to negotiate any 787 roadblocks

Paris Air Show » 2007
June 19, 2007, 11:12 AM

Boeing has made plans to accommodate any delays in the first-flight schedule for its new Model 787 twin-aisle twinjet now in final assembly at Everett, Washington. The first aircraft is scheduled to be rolled out on July 8 and will be the company’s first new airliner for 13 years. Having overcome various circumstances that already have led to subassemblies arriving incomplete from suppliers, the U.S. manufacturer is being characteristically frank in conceding the possibility of slippage beyond a one-month window already built into the program.

The 787 is programmed to fly around “the end of August, or in September,” officials saying that there was a four-week allowance from the initial date before further delay would put pressure on the May 2008 service-entry date. On the eve of the show here in Paris, Boeing Commercial Airplanes president Scott Carson reportedly estimated “mid-September” as a prospective date for first flight, a timing not challenged here yesterday by 787 program general manager and vice-president Mike Bair.

Bair confirmed the current window to Aviation International News, saying, “We look like we’ll end up somewhere in there.” Asked how much later than, say, September 15 the aircraft could fly without endangering the delivery schedule, Bair said, “We’ve got plans about what to do if we go past that.” He said that four weeks from “the end of August” did not constitute a “finite period.”

Frequently, Bair and other Boeing executives have been careful to say “the 787 will fly when it’s ready to fly,” and last week marketing vice president Randy Tinseth said in London that Boeing had “until the end of September, and then we have to start looking at the flight-test window” to see where time could be gained.

To help program partners in danger of missing their schedules, Boeing earlier this year had more than 100 engineers out into the field to liaise with suppliers. Boeing has also acknowledged the amount of “traveling work” that was still outstanding when subassemblies had to be released by sub-contractors to keep to the initial final-assembly program.

Putting the first aircraft together at Everett is going ahead, although Bair conceded here yesterday that there were problem areas Boeing is addressing to stay on time, as it has successfully done in earlier stages. “We’re where we need to be, although there are pockets where we’re behind.”

A major consideration had been a worldwide shortage of fasteners, things like nuts and bolts, because of aerospace manufacturers’ burgeoning order books. Boeing has ended up using “thousands” of temporary fasteners in, for example, the wings before shipping to Everett, where they have all had to be removed and replaced.

Such has been the precision with which Boeing and its partners have been able to master composites materials technology, that the manufacturer has been surprised at the accuracy discovered in final assembly. Bair said that when the left-hand wing was mated with the center-section there was a discrepancy of just 0.04 inches, or put another way one-twenty-fifth of an inch. The right was even better: it was “dead on.”

Boeing has not yet decided whether to test the 787’s wings to destruction. Structural testing requires that the wings be subjected to a 150-percent limit load for at least three seconds, after which it could go on until the wing breaks. Bair said there was “a raging debate” within the company about what to do.

As of this week, Bair said the number 1 and 2 cabin doors had been fitted with doors 3 and 4 about to follow. Boeing is getting ready to fit final systems, which will be followed by “three or four weeks” of testing.

Bair said the first 787 main landing gear had arrived at the Everett factory and that “within a couple of days” the aircraft would be rolling around on its own wheels. The engine pylons have been attached although the tailfin remains to be fitted.

Work also is progressing with subsequent airframes, Bair saying that Spirit Aerospace in Wichita was already working on number 7 as program partners begin to accelerate manufacture, which aims to see 112 aircraft delivered within the first two years.
If certification flight testing goes to plan, Boeing still expects to have 42 aircraft sitting on the ramp ready for delivery as soon as airworthiness approval is received.

Noting that the schedule has been set four years ago, Bair pointed out that development of the Large Capacity Freighter, a much-modified Boeing 747 converted to carry huge 787 subassemblies, had been four or five months behind but the manufacturer had “found a way to make that work.” 

“Right now, there’s a lot of things we’re working around, but there’s nothing we see [that suggests] we’ll not meet commitments next May.” Of course, a successful first flight and the beginning of test flying will not be the end of the story. Bair said yesterday, “It’s called ‘flight test’ for a reason and something could get in the way” of the May service entry date.

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