EVERETT, WA (WCSC) - After delays spanning more than two years, Boeing's newest airliner went airborne for the first time Tuesday morning. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the world flocked to Boeing's website, the company's Everett, Wash. manufacturing facility, or the Global Aeronautica facility in North Charleston to watch the first-ever aircraft built from primarily composite materials to taxi down the runway.
In North Charleston, Global Aeronautica employees gathered to watch the event unfold on a live feed narrated by a Boeing press agent.
The jet lifted off for a flight that would circle Washington state several times, signaling the start to a long testing process that the company hopes will end in certification by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The test flight was tentatively scheduled to last some five hours, but deteriorating weather conditions in the area caused the two-man crew to end the tests an hour early.
While in the air, the crew performed a series of system checks across the plane -- including the landing gear and flaps -- before returning to the ground in Seattle, about 40 miles away. The rear fuselage was built at Boeing's plant and the mid-fuselage was built at Global Aeronautica.
"The airplane responded just as we expected," said Randy Neville, one of the two pilots. "It was a joy to fly."
The plane is the first of six 787s Boeing will use in the nine-month flight-test program that will subject the planes to conditions well beyond those found in normal airline service. Then the Chicago-based company will start filling orders for 840 of the jets. The first planned delivery will be to Japan's All Nippon Airways late next year.
The 787 signals a massive shift in aircraft design. Where other massive passenger jetliners are built from heavier metals like titanium, steel and aluminum, the 787 was constructed primarily from light-weight composite materials like carbon-fiber.
The technology has been in place in smaller components and in smaller military-grade aircraft, but the 787 is the carbonto engineer such a passenger plane. The result, Boeing CEO Jim Albaugh said, is going to be seen in efficiency and comfort. "This is going to be a very efficient airplane. It's going to change the way people travel. The passengers are going to love to travel," said Albaugh.
Boeing says the aircraft will be quieter, produce lower emissions and use 20 percent less fuel than comparable planes, while giving passengers a more comfortable cabin with better air quality and larger windows.
Much of the parts production has relied heavily on outside sources, which has created several glitches in the production process including poorly-fitting parts and other delays. The inaugural 787 flight was first slated for 2007 with completed aircraft to be delivered in 2008. However, Boeing was forced to push back production several times at the expense of billions of dollars.
An eight-week strike by production-line workers in Seattle piled on more delays for the airliner, but ultimately played a big part in Boeing's decision in October to build a second assembly plant in North Charleston.
Factoring in all of the costly delays, however, the 787's list of orders to fill make it the company's highest-selling aircraft.
The last time Boeing had a test flight was in 1994 when the 777 was rolled off the production floor.
Bob Behanian contributed to this report from Global Aeronautica in North Charleston, SC.