From the start, Dreamliner jet program was rushed

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 25, 2013 at 3:13 pm •  Published: January 25, 2013
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NEW YORK (AP) — The 787 Dreamliner was born in a moment of desperation.

It was 2003 and Boeing — the company that defined modern air travel — had just lost its title as the world's largest plane manufacturer to European rival Airbus. Its CEO had resigned in a defense-contract scandal. And its stock had plunged to the lowest price in a decade.

Two years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, financially troubled airlines were reluctant to buy new planes. Boeing needed something revolutionary to win back customers.

Salvation had a code name: Yellowstone.

It was a plane that promised to be lighter and more technologically advanced than any other. Half of it would be built with new plastics instead of aluminum. The cabin would be more comfortable for passengers, and airlines could cut their fuel bills by 20 percent.

But once production started, the gap between vision and reality quickly widened. The jet that was eventually dubbed the Dreamliner became plagued with manufacturing delays, cost overruns and sinking worker morale.

In interviews with The Associated Press, a dozen former Boeing engineers, designers and managers recounted the pressure to meet tight deadlines. Adding to the chaos was the company's never-before-tried plan to build a plane from parts made around the globe.

The former Boeing workers still stand behind the jetliner — and are proud to have worked on it. But many question whether the rush contributed to a series of problems that led the Federal Aviation Administration last week to take the extraordinary step of grounding the 787. Other countries did the same.

Even before a single bolt was tightened, the Dreamliner was different. Because executives didn't want to risk all of the billions of dollars necessary to build a new commercial aircraft, they came up with a novel, but precarious, solution.

A global network of suppliers would develop, and then build, most of the parts in locations as far away as Germany, Japan and Sweden. Boeing's own employees would manufacture just 35 percent of the plane before assembling the final aircraft at its plant outside Seattle.

The decision haunts Boeing to this day.

The FAA's order to stop flying the Dreamliner came after a battery fire aboard a 787 in Boston and another battery incident during a flight in Japan. It was the first time the FAA had grounded a whole fleet of planes since 1979, when it ordered the DC-10 out of the sky following a series of fatal crashes.

Inspectors have focused on the plane's lithium-ion batteries and its complicated electrical system, which were developed by subcontractors in Japan, France, Arizona and North Carolina.

Boeing declined to comment about the past but said its engineers are working around the clock to fix the recent problems.

"Until those investigations conclude, we can't speculate on what the results may be," the company said in a statement. "We are confident the 787 is safe, and we stand behind its overall integrity."

For decades, Boeing has been responsible for the biggest advances in aviation. The jet age started in 1958 with a Pan American flight between New York and Paris that took just eight and a half hours aboard the new Boeing 707. It wasn't the first passenger jet, but it was the one that lasted and changed the world.

In 1970, Boeing ushered in the era of the jumbo jet with the 747. The giant plane, with its distinctive bulbous upper deck, made global air travel affordable. Suddenly a summer vacation in London wasn't just for the rich.

By the start of the 21st century, change was much more incremental. Consolidation had left the world with two main commercial jet manufacturers: Boeing and Airbus.

Boeing executives initially had not considered government-backed Airbus a serious competitor. But in 2003, the unthinkable happened. Boeing delivered just 281 new jets. Airbus produced 305, becoming for the first time the world's biggest plane manufacturer.

American jobs — and pride — were at stake.

And that wasn't all. Airbus was starting to develop its own new jet: the A380, the world's largest commercial plane, capable of carrying up to 853 passengers, or the equivalent of at least five Boeing 737s.

"They were scaring everybody," said Bryan Dressler, who spent 12 years as a Boeing designer. "People here in Seattle have been through the booms and busts of Boeing so many times, even the slightest smack of a downturn makes people very edgy."

Airbus believed that larger airplanes were needed to connect congested airports in the world's largest cities. Boeing executives weren't so sure.

They believed airline passengers would pay a premium to avoid those same congested hubs with long nonstop flights between smaller cities. Now they just needed to develop a plane that would somehow make such trips economical.

It had been 13 years since Boeing started development of a new plane, the 777. The company had recently scrapped two other major projects: a larger version of the 747 and the Sonic Cruiser, a plane that would fly close to the speed of sound.

A development team with a knack for assigning new planes code names based on national parks had just the thing: Project Yellowstone.

The plane — eventually rechristened the Dreamliner after a naming contest — was unlike anything else previously proposed.

Half of its structure would be made of plastics reinforced with carbon fiber, a composite material that is both lighter and stronger than aluminum. In another first, the plane would rely on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to start its auxiliary power unit, which provides power on the ground or if the main engines quit.

While other planes divert hot air from the engines through internal ducts to power some functions, the 787 uses electricity. Getting rid of that air-duct system is one thing that makes the plane more fuel efficient.

There were also benefits for passengers. The plane's extra strength allowed for larger windows and a more comfortable cabin pressure. Because composites can't corrode like aluminum, the humidity in the cabin could be as much as 16 percent, double that of a typical aircraft. That meant fewer dry throats and stuffy noses.

Before a single aircraft was built, the plane was an instant hit, becoming the fastest-selling new jet in history. Advance orders were placed for more than 800 planes. Boeing seemed to be on its way back.

"Employees knew this was going to be a game changer, and they were stoked that the company was taking the risk to do something big," said Michael Cook, who spent 17 years as a computer developer at Boeing.

But this was no longer the trailblazing, risk-taking Boeing of a generation earlier. The company had acquired rival McDonnell Douglas in 1997. Many McDonnell Douglas executives held leadership positions in the new company. The joke was that McDonnell Douglas used Boeing's money to buy Boeing.

The 707 and 747 were blockbuster bets that nearly ruined the company before paying off. McDonnell Douglas executives didn't have the same appetite for gambling.

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