Dream finally takes flight

For once in the checkered history of The Boeing Co.'s revolutionary new airliner, nearly everything went right Tuesday for the 787 Dreamliner and the company that built it.

The plane made its flying debut nearly on schedule as it lifted off into the dull, late fall skies at 10:26 a.m. at Everett’s Paine Field. Three hours later, pilot Mike Carriker greased a perfect landing in the persistent rain at Seattle’s Boeing Field.

In the time between, Carriker and co-pilot Randy Neville said the twin-engine jetliner made of lightweight composite materials performed as beautifully as promised.

“Give me 20,000 pounds more fuel and clear weather, and I’d go right up and fly again,” said Carriker, who was in a celebratory mood at a post-flight news conference.

Only the weather kept the 787’s maiden test flight from going exactly as planned. A low ceiling, an incoming December squall and turbulence over Eastern Washington shortened the flight – originally scheduled to last five hours – to just more than three.

The test crew wanted to keep the plane in clear and calm conditions for the initial flight, but Carriker and Neville found only a small pocket of good weather between Whidbey Island and Sequim to stretch the plane’s wings.

Heading for Boeing Field, the pilots had to rely on instruments, something they hadn’t planned to do on the first flight, as they approached. The plane’s electronic navigation system worked perfectly, they said.

For Boeing’s sake, it was good the plane performed so well. About 25,000 people gathered to watch the jetliner take off, Paine Field operations director Bruce Goetz said.

Dozens of journalists from places as distant as Japan, Brazil and Europe observed the first flight. And airline executives from many of the 55 airlines that have ordered 865 Dreamliners were on hand for the historic occasion.

They all had learned not to expect too much from Boeing over the past 21/2 years, as the 787 program repeatedly marched past first-flight dates with the plane solidly grounded.

The Dreamliner has run into parts shortages, engineering miscalculations, labor strikes and supplier issues on its way from an ambitious concept nearly seven years ago until Tuesday.

Seattle-area aviation analyst Scott Hamilton said the flight was an important milestone, but also “very mundane on takeoff and very mundane on the landing, and that’s exactly what you want on the first flight of an experimental airplane.

“Boring is good in aviation,” said Hamilton, of Leeham Co. Now that the triumph of the first flight is done, Chicago-based Boeing still has many tasks to perform and promises to keep.

Tuesday marked the first of hundreds of flights by six test aircraft to explore the limits of the Dreamliner’s performance envelope and to uncover any glitches that computer models might have missed.

One real world test – a ground stress test of the wings of another test aircraft – uncovered a weakness in the wing-to-body joint, forcing a six-month delay that began in late June. Boeing had to design, install and retest reinforcements to that critical joint.

Nine months from now, after Boeing test pilots have flown the aircraft in high and low temperatures, at high-altitude airports, in fierce cross winds, in lightning-laden storms and in mock airline service, Boeing hopes the Federal Aviation Administration and its foreign counterparts will give their blessings for the 787 to enter airline service.

All Nippon Airways, the 787 launch customer with 50 planes on order, is expected to get its first plane late next year and put it into service in early 2011, more than 21/2 years after its originally scheduled commercial debut.

If the 787 lives up to Boeing’s promises, All Nippon will get an airliner that is 20 percent more efficient than present airliners; can fly nearly halfway around the world unrefueled, and is more comfortable, durable and attractive than any plane in service.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

A chronology of 787 first-flight delays

July 8, 2007 – Rollout of the supposedly finished Dreamliner before a worldwide audience. The Boeing Co. would later reveal the plane was an incomplete shell held together in places by hardware store fasteners. September then was talked about as a first-flight date.

Sept. 5, 2007 – Boeing announces a three-month delay in the first flight. It blames a shortage of aerospace grade fasteners and other critical parts.

Oct. 10, 2007 – The company says the first flight will be put off three more months because of incomplete work on the aircraft.

Jan. 16, 2008 – A third postponement for the first flight. This time it’s another three months.

April 9, 2008 – Boeing says the Dreamliner won’t fly until the fourth quarter.

Nov. 4, 2008 – The plane is still incomplete, but Boeing promises to get it in the air by the end of June 2009.

June 23, 2009 – After saying the plane was on schedule for its flying debut just 10 days earlier at the Paris Air Show, Boeing says it’s uncovered a flaw in the wing-body joint. It must design, install and test a reinforcement. New first flight date: late 2009.

Dec. 15, 2009 – The Dreamliner leaves terra firma for the first time for a successful three-hour test flight ending at Boeing Field.

John Gillie, The News Tribune