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Boeing Dreamliner’s next stop: Power on

A long-awaited milestone for Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner — activating the jet’s extensive electrical systems for the first time — is on target for next month, company executives say.
Image: Boeing 787 jets are lined-up nose to tail
Boeing 787 jets are lined up nose to tail as the planes are put together on the assembly line in Everett, Wash. The plane, the first new Boeing jet in 14 years, is targeted for an anticipated first flight sometime late in 2008, well behind schedule. Elaine Thompson / AP
/ Source: contributor

When Boeing executive Pat Shanahan arrives to work at 5:30 each morning, he has only one thing on his mind: “Power on, power on, power on.” And when the chief of the company’s long-delayed 787 Dreamliner program leaves his office around 10 each night, he’s usually still silently chanting the “power on” mantra.

The long-awaited 787 milestone — activating the jet’s extensive electrical systems for the first time — is on target for next month, Shanahan told reporters Monday during a “kick the tires” tour of the cavernous airplane factory where four Dreamliners are lined up in various stages of production.

Shanahan, who seven months ago inherited a program plagued by parts shortages and embarrassing production snafus, tried to dispel skepticism about the program, which is 15 months behind schedule. Airplane parts that for months were being delivered from worldwide suppliers incomplete are now arriving fully assembled, said Shanahan, vice president/general manager of the 787 program.

The factory tour was the first time the media has been allowed to see the 787 since its elaborate rollout ceremony July 8, 2007, when the airplane was basically an empty shell. Since then, that same jet — dubbed Airplane No. 1 — has been undergoing months of rework. It still sits at the front of the assembly line in the Everett, Wash., airplane factory, which is big enough to house 75 NFL football fields.

“Powering up the airplane and looking at the integrated systems will allow us to retire a lot of risk,’’ Shanahan said as dozens of assembly workers and mechanics swarmed over the airplane Monday in a beehive of activity. They were installing wiring and preparing the airplane for next month’s systems startup — a crucial task that was supposed to have happened months ago.

Unlike the last six months, when morale on the factory floor sunk to its lowest levels, Shanahan said the mood among workers is “energized” these days. “I’ll be walking through the factory and a mechanic comes up to me and says ‘you gotta see this.’ Two months ago, it was: ‘I sure hope this works.’”

But Boeing still has a long way to go before the airplane can take its maiden flight. And its game-changing manufacturing approach, in which worldwide partners and suppliers are responsible for producing and testing major airline components, has yet to prove successful.

Last month, Boeing announced its third delay on the 787 program, postponing the airplane’s debut in commercial service until the third quarter of 2009. The airplane originally was slated to be delivered to Japan’s All Nippon Airways this month. It was Boeing’s third delay since October, putting the Dreamliner 15 months behind schedule.

The 787, Boeing’s first newly designed jet since the 777 was introduced into commercial service in 1995, has been Boeing’s biggest-selling new airplane, logging nearly 900 orders valued at about $154.3 billion. But airlines won’t be flying their new planes for many months, and in the meantime, are demanding compensation. Boeing officials have been dispatched across the globe to mend relations and negotiate penalty clauses with its customers.

“Most of the conversations we have with the airlines start out “I’m sorry,’’ Shanahan told reporters. “The airlines obviously want their airplanes and we are working with them one by one.’’

Analysts have predicted the delays will cost Boeing anywhere from $800 million to $5 billion in penalties and additional production costs.

Boeing officials, whose previous 787 delivery predictions have repeatedly been proven wrong, are now operating on a more realistic timetable for production, testing and delivery of its revolutionary, yet-troubled new airplane.

Boeing now plans to deliver only 25 airplanes in 2009, down from its previous estimate of 109. The Dreamliner’s first flight, which originally was scheduled for September 2007, then pushed to June, is now targeted for sometime in the fourth quarter of this year.

Boeing will use six test airplanes to prove to the Federal Aviation Administration and its shareholders that the 787 can safely fly higher, faster, farther and more cheaply than its aluminum predecessors and competitors.

In the next several weeks, Boeing will begin static and fatigue structural testing on the 787 in a nearby hangar. There, the airplane’s structural limits will be tested in simulated extreme conditions.

Randy Harley, vice president of engineering and technology for the 787, who jokes that he is in the business of breaking things, described the structural testing phase as a graduation of sorts for the Dreamliner.

For the first time in its 92-year history, Boeing is relying on suppliers and partners worldwide to produce, test and assemble major sections of the 787 before shipping them to Everett for final assembly. The 787 is Boeing’s first large commercial airplane made mostly of carbon-fiber composites, which are lighter and more durable than aluminum and don't corrode like metals.

But the revolutionary approach hasn’t worked out as planned with many of the 787 airplane components being delivered unfinished or lacking parts. That forced Boeing to reconfigure its final assembly bays with giant scaffolding to accommodate the extra rework. Instead of snapping together the 787 aircraft sections, Boeing also had to set up support stations where technicians track the needed changes and rework on individual computers.

But Shanahan said worldwide suppliers are doing a much better job of delivering the airplane components nearly completed. “In a few months, this won’t be here,’’ he said pointing to the scaffolding and computer work stations.

He literally knocked on wood Monday when he said the 787 program was operating relatively smoothly and joked that he measures the program’s progress with four categories of concern: “no big deal, grenades tossed in the office, meteors (that’s a big one that causes us to pause) and planet killers.”

“There are no planet killers out there and I haven’t seen any meteors in a while. It’s mostly grenades right now.”

So far, he said his team has been able to work through the problems and diffuse the “grenades.”

“This is the part of the journey where we go from dream to reality,” Shanahan said.