Touring 787 line

We had the opportunity last week to tour the 787 production line.

There is optimism that the program is back on track, though there appears to be an emerging hiccup. We toured the line before information began emerging over the weekend that there may be a problem with airplane #4. We know that a major trade writer is also pursuing this event, including detail that is not in the initial report involving Section 44. Although there were elements of airplane 4 on the production floor during our tour, the fuselage barrels weren’t among them. We’re told the information did not begin to emerge from Charleston until after our tour, which was Thursday.

Be that as it may, Boeing tells us that traveled work continues to decline. The company pointed us to information released by Vought recently that Sections 47/48 traveled work was as follows, with the percentages representing the amount of completed work at the time of shipment to Everett:

AP1: 16% structures

AP2: 93% structures

AP3: 98% structures, 37% systems

AP4: 98% structures, 87% systems

Boeing reports that Alenia shipped Section 44 for airplane 5 with 100% of the work completed, “the first partner to ship an assembly with no open jobs.”

Boeing says that Power On airplane 1, which was two weeks earlier than anticipated under the current, revised schedule that had a June 30 target date, had fewer issues than anticipated. With that, Boeing is still planning a fourth quarter first flight with airplane 1. Although Boeing won’t give a more precise target date, word has more-or-less widely circulated that it’s supposed to be in October. This may or may not be correct.

The flight test program is planned for seven months, and with first delivery set for September 2009 (a date that slipped during the Investors Day last month), this suggests that the flight testing won’t begin until February (September, the ninth month, minus seven brings us to February–even we don’t need Excel to do this math). If this schedule seems aggressive, it is, and it’s something Boeing previously acknowledged. As the company also previously acknowledged, flight testing is planned to run 24/7 with six airplanes.

Some analysts have compared the aggressive 787 program with the flight testing of the 777, which ran 11 months. The 777 had nine test airplanes–a bit of a surprise, since it was thought there were fewer planes in that testing than planned for the 787. The 777 also had three engines offered on the airplane, vs. two for the 787, and was pioneering some ETOPS that won’t be necessary for the 787. Accordingly, Boeing believes, the compressed 787 testing is feasible.

There are some within Boeing, and outside of Boeing, who are concerned that the current 787 schedule now conflicts with the flight test program for the 747-8F, stretching resources. This isn’t the first time this concern emerged; originally an earlier 787 delay would have conflicted with the flight test schedule for the 777F. With the 777F due to take off any day now, this conflict is gone but the potential conflict now may overlap the 747-8.

There may be an easy answer, though, if painfully arrived at: with massive layoffs in the US airline industry, Boeing may find a ready pool of pilots available to supplement its own test pilot group of some 40.

Boeing has also created a new flight test center organization, as outlined in this story by Aviation Week magazine.

Update, 500 PM PDT: Here they are–the details of the Section 44 issue.

Update, Tuesday, July 1, 345 PDT: Bloomberg News has this extensive story about this development.

Update, Wednesday, July 2, 700 AM PDT: The Seattle Times writes that production was halted at Charleston after an FAA audit found irregularities. Although it was just for 24 hours, the news is a disturbing indication that all is not well even after Boeing assumed control of the plant.

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