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Originally published July 8, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 8, 2007 at 11:01 PM

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Boeing unveils 787 Dreamliner in worldwide production

After five years of planning, today was time to party as Boeing unveiled this afternoon a real airplane to a worldwide audience.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Boeing unveiled this afternoon a real airplane to a worldwide audience.

The 787 Dreamliner is heavier than it should be. It's got 1,000 temporary fasteners holding things in place. It's missing some systems and final wiring. But it's well on track according to Boeing and its customers.

After five years of planning, today was a time to party. And Boeing knows how to throw a big one.

Some 15,000 invited guests, including the heads of most of the world's top airlines and senior Boeing executives past and present, were at the Everett factory for a glittering ceremony emceed by former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw.

Workers on the Dreamliner program at Boeing's major 787 partners in Italy, Japan, Charleston, S.C., and Wichita, Kan., participated via satellite links. The Alenia executive in Italy made mention of how they had an eight-hour start on today's celebration.

"We don't want people to think the Italians are having a better time than we are," said Brokaw, encouraging the local crowd to make some noise, which they did.

The crowd hooted and hollered some more — with digital cameras raised — as the 787 was towed toward the crowd inside the factory building.

And tens of thousands more watched live at various remote sites, including some 35,000 Boeing employees, retirees and guests, including Gov. Christine Gregoire, at Qwest Field in Seattle.

In a gracious congratulatory letter to Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney, the head of rival Airbus, Louis Gallois, said it was "a great day in aviation history."

"Even if tomorrow Airbus will get back to the business of competing vigorously, today is Boeing's day — a day to celebrate the 787," Gallois wrote.

Production on track

During presentations about the new airplane Friday to hundreds of journalists from around the world, Mike Bair, who leads the Dreamliner program, said "there's a lot of angst" throughout the 787's global supply base.

"Standing up a brand new [airplane] program is a pretty terrifying process early on," Bair said.

But he sought to calm nerves. "Once you get through that early process, things will be just fine," he said.

He offered reassurance that despite recent problems, everything is still on track.

All those temporary fasteners will be replaced with permanent bolts before the airplane's first flight in September, and the fastener shortage is being dealt with.

A 0.3 inch gap that appeared when the first two fuselage sections were joined was fixed in short order.

And although the first airplane needed much installation work in Everett that should have been done at partner plants, that issue was anticipated and is already diminishing.

"With each unit we get delivered, either to Everett or to [the Charleston fuselage-assembly plant], the elements of the airplane are more and more complete," said Scott Strode, head of 787 production.

Bair compared the Dreamliner to the superfast Sonic Cruiser that Boeing unveiled plans for in March 2001.

After the airlines expressed a preference for better fuel consumption over speed, Boeing replaced that futuristic-looking concept in December 2002 with the much more conventional design that is now the 787 — a long-range jet that flies at regular airplane speeds but is 20 percent more fuel efficient than equivalent-size planes flying today.

The technologies under development for the Sonic Cruiser, including composite plastics for the structure, more electronic-control systems, and a bold manufacturing plan to build the airplane in completed sections around the world, were transferred to the standard-shaped airplane.

"We took all that technology, minus the unique [shape] and put it into this airplane," Bair said. "It's very much the son of the Sonic Cruiser."

The decision to switch to greater fuel savings turns out to be a bigger selling point than Boeing could ever have imagined.

Environmental concerns over fossil-fuel emissions increasingly threaten the aviation business, especially in Europe, and airlines are clamoring for Boeing's "green airplane."

Jeff Hawk, who heads the 787's environmental efforts, said Friday the Dreamliner consumes about one gallon of fuel per seat per 100 miles of travel.

"That's less than a typical sedan," said Hawk, "and a half to a third the fuel consumption of an SUV."

Chris Browne, managing director of First Choice Airways, a Britain-based tour operator that has ordered a dozen Dreamliners, attended the rollout ceremony.

She said the airline is under pressure to prove its green credentials from major British institutional investors.

"The 787 has become a large part of our commitment to trying to help the environment," Browne said.

Designed to be different

Though the airplane's exterior won't immediately strike most people as very different from other jets, it is subtly rakish.

"There are features on that thing that will subconsciously attract people," said Blake Emery, the 787's director of differentiation strategy.

Emery, who wears arty, heavy-framed glasses and has the look of a stylish architect, was in charge of the Dreamliner's appearance, both inside and out.

"If you tell the world, 'This is new,' and it looks like what already exists, that's a problem. It had to look really good," Emery said. "To show the world a very conventional-looking airplane, we just didn't want to do that."

In profile, the Dreamliner's nose shows a smooth line from above the window to the base. There's no trace of a nose bridge typical on today's jets.

And those 787 wings seem razor thin and hooked at the ends. Viewed from the back, they have a distinct upswing.

"I'm really happy with the way people who love airplanes are talking about it," said Emery, slicing his hands through the air with a passion. "It's a hit."

Composite skin

The skin of the airplane is almost entirely made from carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, a composite material that is hard, strong and lightweight.

Across much of the skin, the outer layer of carbon fiber includes an interwoven phosphor bronze wire mesh to protect the plane from lightning strikes.

Because composites don't corrode or fatigue like metal, Boeing expects the airframe structure to essentially last the 20- to 30-year lifetime of the jet with minimal maintenance.

Back to work

Serious work begins again Monday to get the plane ready for a much more important and emotional milestone: first flight in September.

By then, those temporary fasteners must be replaced and many systems installed, as well as the wiring that connects the systems. Then everything must be ground-tested thoroughly.

When the airplane first lifts off the ground, people who've worked for the moment for years will fight to hold back tears. When it lands again safely, there'll be palpable relief.

That dramatic day is up next.

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

More orders

for new jetliner

Boeing landed orders Saturday for 35 new 787 Dreamliners, with Air Berlin ordering 25 and Alafco Aviation Lease and Finance of Kuwait taking 10.

Together, the orders are valued at $5.62 billion at list prices, although customers typically negotiate discounts.

Alafco's order is in addition to 12 787s the company ordered in March. Those planes will be placed with Kuwait Airways.

Air Berlin's order is the largest single one placed by any European carrier, Boeing said. The airline also secured 10 options and 15 purchase rights for additional 787s.

Boeing now has orders for 677 787s from 47 customers.

The Associated Press

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