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Boeing’s 787 Prepares For First Test Flight

Boeing's 787 is designed for the environment with lower emissions and quieter takeoffs and landings.
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Above: Boeing's 787 is designed for the environment with lower emissions and quieter takeoffs and landings.

Airline passenger traffic is down, money for airlines to buy new planes is tight and aerospace giant Boeing has lost dozens of orders for its brand new 787. Still, with more than 850 orders for the jet, Boeing views the so-called "Dreamliner" as its plane of the future.

Now, roughly two years behind schedule, Boeing is about to begin flight-testing its newest jet, and a couple weeks ago, Boeing officials swung open the door to the 787 paint hangar and led a group of journalists inside.

Inside this massive hangar, workers were touching up the royal blue paint and installing wiring and other flight-test equipment on airplane No. 1.

The first flight is just a few weeks away, and Boeing has to prove to regulators and airline customers that the jet, designed to carry between 200 and 300 passengers on long international routes, will perform as advertised. All the computer simulations, modeling, component and ground testing, can only prove so much.

Interior of the Boeing 787
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Above: Interior of the Boeing 787

"Some of the conditions we will be testing will be normal conditions, but know, too, that we are also looking for those extreme conditions so that we know how to tell the airlines and our crews how to respond," says Barbara Cosgrove, Boeing's vice president of flight-test operations.

The pilots, for example, will deliberately stall the airplane and land in extreme crosswinds. Boeing's chief test pilot, Frank Santoni, says the crews will be ready.

"We actually dry-run most of the tests we do in the simulator, and now that the simulator is very robust and feels like the airplane," he says. "We are in there every day."

Using a total of six aircraft, Boeing plans to flight-test for eight or nine months — less time than usual. Some observers say the schedule is too tight and can't be met, but with the plane about two years behind schedule, the company is under enormous pressure to get this plane tested and into service.

A New Approach To Airplane Construction

The problems and delays on the 787 stem primarily from Boeing's radical new approach to making airplanes.

Inside Boeing's factory where the 747 jumbo jet is made, mechanics still rivet pieces of the plane together. But there's no riveting on Boeing's 787 assembly line — there's no need for it. Most of the major parts, explains Boeing's Robt Noble are not made by Boeing — and they arrive at the factory pre-assembled.

Boeing workers take the sections — which arrive from places as far away as Japan, Italy, France and Sweden — and fit them together like a giant and very sophisticated erector set. Many of the pieces are made from composite materials, and the company's goal is to produce each plane in just three days.

But that goal won't be achieved for some time, and aviation analyst Scott Hamilton says the 787 is only one of a number of Boeing programs behind schedule.

"Boeing has to demonstrate that it's got its whole system back on track — design, production, assembly — the 787 gets all the headlines, but these other programs have problems, too," Hamilton says.

But for the moment at least, all eyes will be on the 787 as it flies for the first time in June, and Boeing test pilot Frank Santoni will be among those cheering.

"It's like the whole company takes off at the same time. It's not just the pilots — they are taking the whole company with them," Santoni says. "You know we don't do first, new airplanes every day, and it's got the potential to be one of the biggest successes we ever had."

To a large degree, Boeing's future is riding with this airplane — Boeing puts the value of the 861 orders now on its books at $144 billion. If those planes are delivered, the Dreamliner could become the blockbuster Boeing is betting on.

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