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Originally published March 20, 2011 at 9:01 AM | Page modified March 21, 2011 at 10:50 AM

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Boeing's biggest passenger jet completes first flight

Sunday's maiden flight of Boeing's latest and largest passenger plane went so well that chief 747-8 test pilot Capt. Mark Feuerstein squeezed in a few maneuvers not ordinarily flown on a first flight.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Sunday's maiden flight of Boeing's latest and largest passenger plane went so well that chief 747-8 test pilot Capt. Mark Feuerstein squeezed in a few maneuvers not ordinarily flown on a first flight.

In one such move, "It flies basically sideways, but in a straight line," Feuerstein said at a news conference after landing at Boeing Field. "Fortunately, it didn't surprise us at all."

The new 747-8 Intercontinental, painted in a vivid orange-and-white livery with gray and gold striping, crisscrossed the state for those flight test maneuvers. On the way, Feuerstein positioned the jet with Mount Baker as a backdrop for some photos taken from a chase plane.

"It was one of the cleanest first flights of a new airplane I've seen," Feuerstein said. "It just went perfectly."

Though the future of the 747 jumbo jet was the focus Sunday, its past was also recognized.

As the giant plane rolled down the runway for takeoff from Paine Field in Everett, the initials JFS were clearly visible on the nose landing gear door.

That's in honor of Joe Sutter (middle name Frederick), the famed chief engineer on the original 747, which first flew in 1969.

Sutter, who turns 90 on Monday, watched the 10 a.m. takeoff from the side of the runway, along with other VIPs, including Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh.

Just over four hours later, Sutter was at Boeing Field to see the jet land and greet the pilots as they emerged. Speaking at the side of the runway, he deflected congratulations away from himself.

"It was the people of Boeing's achievement," Sutter said. "I helped a little bit."

Although the 467-seat jet has sold slowly so far, its first flight sets the stage for what Boeing believes will be a successful sales year.

At the news conference, 747-8 program manager Elizabeth Lund said 2011 will be "the year of the 747."

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Earlier this month Air China ordered five 747-8s, bringing the total to 38 orders for the passenger model and 76 for a freighter version.

Last week, Albaugh told industry executives at the annual conference of the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading (ISTAT) in Phoenix that this year fully half of Boeing's orders are expected to be for wide-body jets — including the jumbo jet. By contrast, last year 80 percent of Boeing's orders were for the small 737 narrow-body jets.

The 747-8 Intercontinental has a list price of $317 million. But large discounts are standard, and aircraft-valuation firm Avitas estimates that the real market price is about $166 million.

It's the longest airliner in the sky at 250 feet, with a 224-foot wingspan.

The plane has an extended forward fuselage hump with a row of upper-deck windows that stretch all the way back to the wings. The wings are newly designed, as are the engines and the advanced flight deck.

Parked alongside the 747-8 Intercontinental at Paine Field were 11 completed freighter versions of the jet, including the first one scheduled to be delivered this summer, which will go to Cargolux.

The passenger version is scheduled to complete flight tests and be certified and delivered by year-end.

In flight tests of the earlier freighter model, some problems emerged: barely perceptible vibration at the wingtips and in a movable control surface on the wing during extreme flight conditions.

Brian Johnson, 747-8 deputy test program manager, said Sunday that because the upper deck of the passenger jet is so much longer than the cargo version, the plane is structurally and aerodynamically different. So the vibration problem that occurred on the freighter version may or may not materialize.

"We need to get it up in the air and fly it to see," he said.

As for the freighter version's vibration, he said, "we're essentially done with that." Boeing awaits only a formal signoff from the Federal Aviation Administration.

On Sunday's first flight, the passenger model aced the first tests of how it handles.

At one point, Feuerstein put the rudder all the way to the floor — which tends to turn the aircraft — while at the same time rolling the jet a little to maintain a steady heading. That makes it fly at an angle to the direction of travel, with the pilot's side window facing forward.

It flew just fine and as expected, he said.

Flight testing

The plane that took off Sunday will be the first passenger model delivered. Industry buzz suggests it will go to the government of Kuwait, one of two VIP versions of the jet the Kuwaitis have ordered.

VIP customers typically take their airplanes to outside designers to be fitted with lavish customized interiors, at an added cost that can easily top $20 million.

On this maiden trip, however, the jet was prepped not for royal luxury but for serious flight testing.

Inside, orange wiring snakes along the floor to racks of electronic boxes and computers in the center of what will be the passenger cabin. The cavernous interior space is otherwise largely empty except for dozens of squat, black water barrels fore and aft, connected by tubes.

During the upcoming flight tests, water that serves as ballast will be pumped around these barrels to simulate various loads.

At the back of the cabin, a device resembling a giant hamster wheel, about 4 feet in diameter, is installed. During test flights, this wheel reels in, from the tip of the vertical tail, a long tubular line attached to a cone-shaped sensor that takes air pressure readings well away from the fuselage.

A second test plane will debut next month, outfitted with a complete passenger-cabin interior. About 600 hours of flight tests are planned.

Rival to Airbus A380

The airplane's prospects are much debated in the industry.

At the Phoenix conference, prominent aviation entrepreneur Steven Udvar-Hazy, chief executive of Air Lease, said that the 747-8 freighter jet is "in a class by itself" and will sell well for the next 15 or 20 years.

Still, he thinks many passenger airlines that want to buy Boeing will choose the slightly smaller but more efficient 777 rather than the 747-8.

"They'll get some sales," Udvar-Hazy said. "But I don't see it as a massive number of units."

The 747-8 passenger jet is also up against the larger 525-seat Airbus A380 superjumbo airliner.

The A380 is shorter at 239 feet, though with a full-length double-decker passenger cabin it is larger overall and can carry 525 passengers in three classes.

Boeing claims that the 747-8 offers airlines better operating economics than the A380.

At the ISTAT conference, Airbus marketing Vice President Andy Shankland attacked Boeing's claim in great detail, accusing Boeing of fiddling with the numbers by overstating the number of passengers the 747-8 will carry.

According to Airbus, airlines will likely configure the Boeing plane with closer to 400 seats than 467. Indeed, Lufthansa, scheduled to be the first airline to put the 747-8 into passenger service early next year, says it plans around 380 seats.

Using the lower seat-count numbers, the Airbus plane comes out on top in fuel efficiency.

Yet there may well be some room for both of these behemoth jets, which are different enough in size to fill different slots in the market.

Lufthansa, after all, has ordered both 15 Airbus A380s for its highest-density routes as well as 20 Boeing 747-8 Intercontinentals.

Boeing's 42-year-old icon certainly has an extended life ahead as a cargo jet. Time will tell how well it will continue to sell as a passenger plane.

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

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