Boeing's Dreamliner, jumbo 747-8 move closer to takeoff

--

May 1--Boeing's great airplane-making machine, bedeviled by unprecedented production delays during the last two years, is almost ready to introduce two new airplanes to the world.

Thursday morning, the 787 Dreamliner No. 1 -- like a butterfly not quite set to emerge -- lay cocooned inside a paint hangar beside the Paine Field runway.

Eager to show off the virtually complete airplane, Boeing allowed journalists from around the world inside the paint hangar, where they clambered all over the rigging surrounding the jet.

Journalists touched its carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic skin and kicked its hardened rubber tires.

A reporter walked along a sloped ramp right up to the gracefully swooping wingtip, pulled on it gently with one hand, and made the slender wing vibrate.

First flight of the all-new Dreamliner is imminent: next month. And Boeing's other new plane should fly by the end of the year.

Across the freeway at the assembly plant, mechanics drilled holes in the trailing edge of a nearly completed wing for the first 747-8, the newest and biggest version of the jumbo jet.

The latest state filings show that more than 13,000 production workers, 7,000 engineers and about 8,000 supporting staff work at the Everett plant.

After more than five years of intense development work and repeated setbacks, Boeing's two newest planes are finally within reach of the sky.

747-8 moves ahead

The 747-8 may be lacking customers -- only one airline has ordered the passenger version -- but with the creation of the wings and the forward fuselage, the first plane is taking shape.

And the 787 Dreamliner may be two years late, but the butterfly should fly within weeks.

Inside the assembly plant Thursday, the last of the current 747-400s -- a freighter destined for a Kuwaiti cargo operator -- sat close to the large bay door, ready to roll out soon.

It will be several months before the first of the new 747-8s rolls out that same door.

The forward nose section of the first new jumbo, complete with its iconic hump, is already joined to the fuselage section behind it. The nose and cockpit sections for airplanes 2 and 3 are partially complete.

In an adjacent bay, mechanics finished a wing for the first 747-8.

The immense assembled wing, 135 feet long, lay flat upon supports about 5 feet off the ground.

Two teams of mechanics hunched beneath as they drilled upward, sitting incongruously in rather battered office swivel chairs.

Busy as that scene looked, work on the 787 Dreamliner is more feverish.

Six planes

The six flight-test airplanes are in advanced stages of assembly. Nearby, most of the parts for the first production plane, Dreamliner No. 7, await their turn.

Standing beside one of the gigantic Dreamlifters -- the ungainly but awesome custom-built jets that transport 787 parts from Boeing's far-flung global partners -- Bob Noble, Boeing vice president of supplier management, said the condition of the arriving assemblies continues to improve.

The big pieces of planes No. 1 and 2 arrived as empty shells that the partners had failed to complete. The pieces of Nos. 3 and 4 were better, but still lacked many of the expected installed systems.

By contrast, said Noble, "Airplanes 5, 6 and 7 looked very, very good."

Close to where two Dreamlifters were parked Thursday, Dreamliner No. 1 appears much as it did when it first rolled out two years ago -- except this time, it's complete inside as well as out.

Boeing moved the jet from the assembly plant and into the paint hangar about 4 a.m. Monday morning.

Since then, it's been inspected by Federal Aviation Administration officials, and Boeing flight-test mechanics are flushing out the fuel tanks with water and mild soap to remove all residue.

On Thursday, Boeing gave reporters access to the jet via the decking used when jets are painted in the hangar. From there, they could touch the underbelly, repainted in March with the Boeing blue-and-white livery.

The word "experimental" is stenciled over the flight-deck door, reflecting the aircraft's certification for test purposes only.

Some of the passenger windows have been replaced with plugs containing measuring instruments.

Rolls-Royce engines

The Rolls-Royce engines are ready to be switched on once the plane is fueled, possibly as soon as this weekend.

The tires, Bridgestone radials made in Japan, are ready to meet the runway.

The ground tests will take weeks, but an on-schedule first flight in June seems assured.

Back in the factory across the freeway, mechanics scrambled in and out of Dreamliner No. 3, the only one of the six test airplanes that will be fitted with an interior passenger cabin.

Two bays over, on the main 787 assembly line, Dreamliners No. 2, 4, 5 and 6 were lined up one behind the other, their airframes largely complete.

Boeing will refurbish the six test airplanes after flight test. It previously had assigned each to a customer. Their painted rudders show that 2, 4 and 5 were intended to go to All Nippon Airways of Japan, Northwest Airlines and Royal Air Maroc.

That won't happen now. Recently, all those customers opted to take regular production jets instead.

Boeing is now seeking new customers to take the test airplanes, likely private VIP customers willing to take the heavier planes at a knockdown price.

Still, whoever gets Dreamliner No. 1 may pay a premium for a piece of aviation history.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Video -- Boeing 787 ready for its closeup

Loading