SEATTLE (Reuters) - Boeing Co completed the long-delayed first test flight of its new 787 Dreamliner on Tuesday, heralding a new era of plastics-based aircraft that promise to save airlines millions of dollars in fuel costs.
The 3-hour flight, cut short by bad weather, brought relief to customers and investors who have watched Boeing postpone delivery of the new plane by more than two years due to production problems, but industry experts warned that the program still faces risks.
“It’s the first positive milestone we’ve seen Boeing achieve on this program in a long time,” said Macquarie analyst Robert Stallard. “But they’re not out of the woods.”
The 787’s highly anticipated takeoff was witnessed by more than 12,000 Boeing employees, industry VIPs, airplane enthusiasts and reporters, eager to see the first flight of a commercial aircraft made primarily from carbon-based plastics and titanium.
The 186-feet-long aircraft, painted in Boeing’s blue and white livery, took off at 10:27 a.m local time from a freezing gray runway next to Boeing’s plant about 30 miles north of Seattle. It landed 3 hours and six minutes later at Boeing Field, just south of Seattle.
The flight was meant to last five hours or more, but the two pilots were held back by low cloud and bad visibility, going no higher than 15,000 feet at a maximum speed of about 207 miles per hour.
News of the takeoff buzzed across the radio waves among commercial jets and air traffic controllers, according to chief pilot Mike Carriker.
“Everybody wanted to know if the Dreamliner was airborne, and it was really cool to say, ‘You bet, we are airborne today’,” said Carriker after the flight, to cheers from Boeing employees.
“Is it a relief? Yes. Was it great fun? Yes. Would I like to go and get another 80,000 pounds of gas and good weather and go again, you bet I would,” added Carriker, although he said the next flight would not be for another week as more instruments are added to the test plane.
Airlines like the concept of the twin-aisle, mid-sized plane that can carry about 250 people very long distances. They have ordered 840 of the aircraft, worth about $140 billion, since work began on the plane in 2004.
But production has been delayed five times in the past three years, and the first flight has been postponed six times, due to a shortage of bolts, faulty design and a two-month strike at its factory.
Rival Airbus, a unit of Europe’s EADS, has been attracting buyers for its competing A350 plane, which will also be made primarily from carbon-composite materials.
Exactly how much profit Boeing can expect to make from the plane is uncertain. Analysts have said the company has invested more than $10 billion in the project, and will have to give some sort of compensation to customers for late planes. How late the planes will be and how they will perform will not be known until flight tests have been completed.
“It’s a major step-off point to the ultimate goal which is certification and customer delivery. It’s an important milestone but it’s not the end goal,” Clay Jones, chief executive of Rockwell Collins said at the Reuters Aerospace & Defense Summit in Washington.
Rockwell makes display systems, communications and surveillance systems and pilot controls systems for the 787.
Boeing’s shares closed down 38 cents, or 0.7 percent, at $55.67 on the New York Stock Exchange. The company’s shares have risen about 90 percent since March, outstripping the rebound in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index.
The flight starts at least nine months of airborne tests on a fleet of six 787s running around the clock, which Boeing executives say will be like running a small airline.
The test flight program is designed to push the plane well beyond limits expected in ordinary commercial flights, practicing mid-air stalls, dives and steep banks, as well as seeking out extremes of heat and cold.
Boeing has said the first 787 should be delivered to Japan’s All Nippon Airways in the fourth quarter of next year, more than two years after the original target of May 2008.
The plane has been beset by problems partly because of the new materials being used and extensive outsourcing. Early delays were due to shortages of parts and the difficulties of bringing together fuselage and wing structures from Japan, Italy and elsewhere in the United States, aggravated by a two-month strike last year.
The most recent delay occurred when Boeing needed to reinforce the side of the plane where the wing meets the fuselage.
The revolutionary use of carbon fiber and the problems of joining it to other materials mean there could still be snags.
“Just as they (Boeing) found hurdles on the way to first flight, they are going to find hurdles on the way to certification,” said Richard Aboulafia, aerospace analyst at research firm Teal Group.
(For a graphic of Boeing's share price and 787 development, see link.reuters.com/nud76g)
Reporting by Kyle Peterson and Bill Rigby; Additional reporting by John Crawley, Tim Hepher and Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Gary Hill