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Boeing Pushes ‘Right at First Flight’ as 737 Max Starts Flight Test Campaign

 - February 15, 2016, 2:00 AM
Boeing’s first 737 Max lifts off from the Renton Municipal Airport on its maiden flight.

If Boeing’s new 737 Max 8 proved anything at all during its first flight, it was that the company’s narrowbody mainstay can operate in bad weather. Aircraft 1A001 successfully navigated inclement conditions as it took off smoothly on January 29 from Runway 34 at Renton Municipal Airport near Seattle, Washington. The crew of the 737 Max consisted of Boeing 737 chief pilot Ed Wilson and Craig Bomben, chief test pilot and the company’s vice president of flight operations. They said the only complications they encountered related to the weather.

Consequently, they conducted their tests to the west, over the Olympia Peninsula and Puget Sound, rather than over eastern Washington as they had initiallyplanned. “In places, it was a little tough up there,” said Wilson at a news conference after N7801Q touched down. “The weather wasn’t real kind to us over eastern Washington, but it was great over in the west, so we stayed over on the west side and got everything we needed to getdonetoday.”

The first-to-fly 737 Max, call sign BOE1, reached a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet and flew at a top speed of 250 knots during its maiden journey, which lasted two hours, 47minutes. A four-airplane, nine-month flight test campaign is expected to culminate in FAA certification and delivery to launch customer Southwest Airlines in the third quarter of2017.

The first flight characterized Boeing’s new philosophy of “Right at First Flight,” a mantra that took shape in the aftermath of the 787 Dreamliner’s shaky rollout in July 2007. Boeing had to delay the 787 program repeatedly as it battled myriad problems ranging from kinks in the supply chain to softwareglitches.

So far, the 737 Max has suffered no delay-causing problems. The first airframe, “Spirit of Renton,” rolled off the assembly line and into the paint booth days early. In fact, the Max took off early for Friday’s maiden flight, as Boeing moved up its departure 14 minutes to stay ahead of the worseningweather.

The airplane’s new CFM Leap-1B engines, whose efficiency improvements account for most of the 14-percent fuel burn reduction Boeing cites for the Max 8 variant over the today’s 737NG, spooled up with a distinctive whine Friday as the airplane prepared to roll down the runway on its firsttake-off. But once underway, test pilot Wilson reported a noticeable lack ofnoise. “We were amazed at how quiet the cabin was,” he toldreporters.

In addition to the new-design engines and major avionics upgrades, there are several aerodynamic changes. These include a pair of “dual feather” winglets expected to deliver up to a 1.8-percent fuel efficiency improvement over the current “in line”design.

Having now collected orders for more than 3,072 Max jets, Boeing will build the first airplanes exclusively on a new production line in its Renton, Washington factory. The new line will allow the team to isolate assembly of the first 737 Max from the rest of production to help it learn and perfect the new build process while the Renton factory continues to turn out airplanes at rate of 42amonth. Once mechanics validate the production process, the company will extend Max production to the other two final assemblylinesinRenton.

Since last year, Boeing has restructured the factory floor in Renton yet again and installed the wing-to-body join tool that the two current production lines use, ensuring its production readiness for the Max. Meanwhile, the company has consolidated fuselage systems installation from two parts, each serving one assembly line, into a single new three-level, moving design tool, allowing the company to make more efficient use of itsavailablespaceinthe Renton.

Using the reworked floor plan, Boeing plans to increase production three times by 2019, when the rate is expected to reach 57 airplanes amonth.