EVERETT, Wash. — The first Boeing 787 Dreamliner has taken off on its maiden voyage, more than two years behind schedule.
To the sound of cheers from the hundreds of people watching at Paine Field, the plane took off at 10:27 a.m. The engines were kicking water off the wet runway.
Two chase planes will be flying alongside the 787, taking photos and keeping tabs on what the plane is doing from the outside.
Pilots Michael Carriker and Randall Neville hope to take the 787 on a five-hour flight over Washington state, beginning the extensive flight test program needed to obtain the plane's Federal Aviation Administration certification. They are given a lot of discretion, not only when to take off but where they'll take the plane during its first tests.
Before landing at Seattle's Boeing Field, the two-member crew will perform a variety of basic tests and systems checks, said Boeing Commercial Airplanes spokesman Jim Proulx. "They will essentially make sure that the airplane under normal circumstances flies the way it's supposed to fly," he said.
The pilots could take the airplane to different zones where Boeing conducts a lot of its test flying, away from populated Puget Sound. One of those locations includes Tatoosh Island at the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula and along the Washington coast. Another zone is over unpopulated areas of Eastern Washington.
"Our pilots are spending all the time in the simulator practicing," Boeing's chief test pilot Frank Santoni said as the plane was being readied for a test six months ago. That test was put on hold after engineers discovered a weak series of joints in the wing-to-body joints. That problem is now fixed.
The testing will be quite tame. There are no plans to stall the jet. The plane will be flown by hand, autopilots are not expected to be used. The plane will fly with its landing gear down most if not all the time.
Only the pilots will be on board, but special instruments will feed data to the ground electronically. Those instruments and engineers on the ground will keep tabs on the structural stresses the plane will experience even under these mile-flying conditions.
But after today, the flight test program will ramp up quickly, slated to complete over 3,000 hours of flight testing split between six Dreamliners. These tests will include stalls, where the plane is slowed down to the point where it starts falling. This test can put a lot of stress on the plane's tail.
Dreamliners will have to endure tests where their tails are dragged along the ground during takeoff, land in severe cross-winds, take off on one engine, and endure extreme cold and extreme heat.
But there's also another series of ground tests that include driving the plane's wheels through troughs of water to make sure that water doesn't get splashed into the engines in large enough quantities to stop the engines during a takeoff. The plane's brakes will be slammed on at high speed.
Boeing, which has orders for 840 787s, plans to make the first delivery to Japan's All Nippon Airways late next year.
The 787 is a radical departure for Boeing: About 50 percent of the plane is made of lightweight composite materials, with large sections produced by suppliers around the globe and assembled by Boeing at Everett. The plane, Boeing says, will be quieter, produce fewer emissions and use 20 percent less fuel than comparable aircraft, while passengers will enjoy a more comfortable cabin with better air quality and larger windows.
But the program has been plagued by ill-fitting parts and other problems. The first flight was supposed to be in 2007 with deliveries the following year, but Boeing has been forced to push that back five times -- delays that have cost the company credibility, sales and billions of dollars. Most recently, Boeing said it needed to reinforce the area where the wings join the fuselage, with tests completed on that fix just two weeks ago.
An eight-week strike last year by Seattle-area production workers also hampered the program and was a factor in Boeing choosing North Charleston, S.C., in October as the site for a second 787 assembly line.
The 787 remains Boeing's best-selling new plane to date, though some airlines have been forced to cancel or postpone purchase plans due to the weak global economy.
The version being tested will be able to fly up to 250 passengers about 9,000 miles. A stretch version will be capable of carrying 290 passengers and a short-range model up to 330.