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Originally published December 16, 2009 at 12:08 AM | Page modified December 16, 2009 at 3:16 AM

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Rain shortens 787 first flight, fails to dampen optimism

Pat Shanahan, who headed the 787 program for just over a year and now oversees all Boeing's commercial-airplane programs, confidently portrayed the first flight as proof of Boeing prowess and a promise of further innovation to come.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Vital stats on first flight

Takeoff weight: 390,000 pounds (195 tons)

Maximum speed: 180 knots (207 miles per hour)

Time in air: Three hours

Altitude reached: 15,000 feet

Source: Boeing

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The graceful arc of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner's upwardly swept wings wowed the large crowd of Boeing employees and spectators at Paine Field in Everett on Tuesday and underscored that this was no conventional airliner.

Viewed from behind as the plane took off on its first flight, the slender wingtip-to-wingtip curve of the first mostly composite passenger jet impressed even Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney, an aviation veteran.

"Those composite wings, they just look different than any other wings that have ever flown," McNerney said after the plane had disappeared from sight.

The plane's carbon-fiber composite plastic wings are lighter and more flexible than those in standard metal airplanes, and their elegant curvature in flight distinctively marks the new jet.

In the airplane business, however, beauty won't be enough. Boeing won't secure its financial future until the innovative but much-delayed jet proves itself over the next nine months of flight tests and can be delivered to eager customers.

Still, in an interview after the flight, Pat Shanahan, who headed the 787 program for just over a year and now oversees all Boeing's commercial-airplane programs, confidently portrayed the first flight as proof of Boeing prowess and a promise of further innovation to come.

"After all that hard work, the airplane performed like we had planned. The effort and the commitment was worth it," Shanahan said. "It was a long hard journey. The team working on this never quit.

"One by-product of all this challenge is a cadre of engineering and manufacturing professionals who really are going to be prepared for the next new, new thing we do, which isn't that far out," Shanahan said, perhaps alluding to Boeing's need to update its 737 and 777.

A break in the clouds

With a T-33 chase plane in front and another on his right wing, chief 787 test pilot Mike Carriker took advantage of a briefly bright window in the threatening Pacific Northwest skies to soar into the air at 10:27 a.m.

After takeoff and initial checks showed the plane "good to fly," Carriker turned the plane west over Puget Sound and then climbed above the cloud cover, where, he said, he was struck by an arresting sight he'll always remember.

"There were the snow-capped Olympics and the Strait of Juan de Fuca all framed in the front left window of the 787 at 10,000 feet," he said.

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A Boeing T-38 advance plane had reported that toward Eastern Washington "the weather is bad and the air is really turbulent," Carriker said at a post-flight news conference. "So we went with plan B," which took the jet in a spaghetti-like pattern of turns across northern Puget Sound and the Strait.

Carriker said the air traffic controllers gave him free rein to fly wherever he wanted.

He said that in answer to their first question, "It was really cool to be able to say, 'You bet, we are airborne today.' "

He took the jet no higher than 15,000 feet and reached a relatively low air speed of 180 knots, or about 207 miles per hour. That's customary on a first flight.

Less than an hour after takeoff, heavy rain fell on Paine Field and the sky closed in. With visibility and the cloud ceiling both low, the takeoff probably would have had to be postponed if the jet hadn't taken off precisely when it did.

In the end, because the pilots wanted to complete the first flight under visual flight conditions and not depend on instruments to land, the weather shortened the flight from a planned 5 ½ hours to just three.

"We expected to be able to fly a very long, straight flight path," Carriker said. "The only thing that stopped us today was the descending cloud deck up in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. That's what slowed us down."

The jet turned back from the lowering clouds and, after flying around over a relatively confined portion of Puget Sound, headed south to Seattle's Boeing Field.

It landed there smoothly just after 1:30 p.m., greeted by a crowd of invited guests and Boeing executives.

The latter included some whose careers were tripped up by the plane's repeated delays: Scott Carson, who was CEO of the commercial-airplane unit until August, and Mike Bair, vice president of business strategy who was in charge of the Dreamliner program from 2003 until November 2007.

Shanahan, who took over from Bair as head of the 787 program, recalled a final review meeting Friday attended by all of the 787 leaders and managers, at the end of which Carriker stood and said: "I'll bet my life on the work you've done."

At the post-flight news conference, Carriker conceded that "there's always a bit of risk in flying an airplane that's never been flown before. There's apprehension."

But he joked throughout the exchange with journalists, saying that though landing safely was a relief ("I thought the landing was pretty good," he quipped), the flight was also "great fun." The less-than-ideal conditions still allowed him to complete many of the checks he wanted to do ("We got a functional check on the windshield wipers.").

And yes, Carriker said, he would take the jet up again right away if he had the chance.

Next up?

In fact, Dreamliner No. 1 will not fly again for a week or more. Now that it is housed at Boeing Field, engineers will install new instrumentation there.

Shanahan said Dreamliner No. 2 may fly before No. 1 flies again, and perhaps before Christmas. No. 3 will fly in January, he said.

With that, the flight-test program will begin in earnest.

The six test planes must perform well enough for the 787 to be certified to fly passengers by the Federal Aviation Administration and well enough to prove it's capable of meeting the range and fuel-efficiency targets Boeing has promised to airline customers.

Dreamliner program chief Scott Fancher said at the news conference he's sure "the 787 will be the game-changer it was meant to be" for the airline industry.

Representing the first 787 customer at the event, All Nippon Airways (ANA) Vice President Mitsuo Morimoto said he felt emotional watching the plane come in.

ANA is supposed to get its first airplane by the end of next year, some 2 ½ years later than originally planned.

"After the test flight today, I feel confident the delivery schedule will be on time," Morimoto said.

Boeing's top salesman, Marlin Dailey, said the first flight "fires everybody up."

"You know the journey that we've been on — it's been very difficult," Dailey said. "We hit it right. We have a great airplane."

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

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