Boeing: 787 power-on, first flight scheduled for early 2008

Despite some doubts that it can pull it off, Boeing executives announced last week that it remains on schedule to power-on the first 787 in January 2008, followed by first flight in March.

Executives of The Boeing Co. (Seattle, Wash.) held their quarterly 787 Dreamliner update conference call/Webcast with investors, analysts and journalists on Dec. 11, 2007, emphasizing that the composites-intensive jet remains on its new, modified production schedule: Power-on late this month, first flight sometime in March and delivery to Japan's All-Nippon Airways before the end of this year.

The conference call marked the debut of Pat Shanahan, a Boeing veteran and the new vice president and general manager of the 787 program. He replaced former program manager Mike Bair in October 2007, following Boeing's announcement that the first flight of the 787 would be delayed from fall 2007 to spring 2008. The first Dreamliner was officially rolled out on July 8, but since then the program has been plagued by production problems stemming, in part, from the complex supply chain Boeing developed for the 787. Because major fuselage and wing structures are built and delivered to the Everett, Wash., assembly facility by outside supplier/partners based in a variety of locations worldwide, Boeing says that completing and outfitting the first plane has proved to be more difficult than expected. In addition, the plane has been plagued by flight control software problems, and the aerospace industry in general is short of the critical fasteners and connectors (mostly titanium) that are required to assemble the Dreamliner.

Shanahan says he is working toward two goals: Finish assembly of the first 787 to ready it for its first flight in early 2008, and troubleshoot supply chain problems so that production can be ramped up smoothly following delivery of the first plane. One of the biggest challenges, Shanahan says, has been the coordination of work among Boeing's supplier-partners, which include Spirit AeroSystems (Wichita, Kan.), Vought Aircraft Industries (North Charleston, S.C.), Alenia Aeronautica (Grottaglie, Italy), Fuji Heavy Industries (Tokyo, Japan) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (Shinagawa, Japan). Boeing, he says, has dispatched engineers to several supplier facilities to streamline the production process, and Shanahan meets with staff and managers daily in Seattle to assess progress.

Testing of the carbon fiber/epoxy composites used on the plane, says Shanahan, is about 80 percent complete and remains on schedule to meet first-flight and certification requirements. Most concerns now center on whether or not Boeing can meet its aggressive post-2008 production schedule. Six planes are in progress for flight certification, and the company expects to produce 40 by the end of 2008, but its goal for 2009 is 109 planes - nine per month. Further, 787 production will increase in 2010 to 14 planes per month. Both goals have the investment world nervous, and Shanahan admits that it's an ambitious plan: "There's no doubt our ramp-up is aggressive, but throughout this effort we have not found any fundamental flaws in our production system to say it's not doable.”