The newest version of the venerable 747 sports the latest in wings, electronics and engines, but it's heading for first flight during a market just as difficult as when the original jumbo jet flew 41 years ago.
Things are looking up for Boeing’s venerable 747 jumbo jet.
The newest and largest version yet, the 747-8, is set to reach for the sky on its inaugural flight as early as Monday, one day shy of the 41st anniversary of the first 747 taking off in 1969.
And inside the Everett factory, after months of delay, the process of building the massive jets finally looks well-oiled and ready to roll.
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The original 747 jumbo jet was delivered at the height of the infamous 1970s “Boeing bust” with paltry orders awaiting it. Yet the airplane, a gamble that could have bankrupted Boeing, eventually catapulted the company into global leadership in the aviation industry.
The latest version is set to take off during another sharp industry downturn and again faces slack customer demand.
Unlike the blistering pace of the original jumbo’s development, the 747-8 has been delayed more than a year past its original schedule. And rival plane-maker Airbus dismisses this latest 747 as “old technology,” overshadowed by the A380 superjumbo jet that first flew just five years ago.
Yet Joe Sutter, the veteran Boeing engineer who led the legendary team of “Incredibles” that built the first 747 and who remains a consultant on the program, is convinced the 747-8 can rejuvenate the iconic brand.
Says the engineer, now a spry 88, “It’s a brand new airplane where it needs to be new.”
The plane has a new aerodynamically efficient wing, updated flight-control avionics, and new GE engines derived from those on the Dreamliner.
Although the market for a passenger version might be no more than 12 airplanes a year, Sutter thinks Boeing can sell twice that many 747-8 freighters with virtually no competition in the high-capacity, long-haul air cargo market.
The 747 “is going to be around for another 20 years just because of that,” Sutter said.
Relief to program
As it was for the Dreamliner’s maiden flight in December, the 747-8 first flight will come as a relief to a troubled program.
It’s been delayed by extensive changes to the wing, discrepancies between the older and newer parts of the design, software-integration issues and supply-chain glitches.
Two employees working on 747-8 production described problems assembling the three test planes because parts from suppliers were late or didn’t fit. But both workers said these issues have eased on the follow-on jets now in the factory.
One sign that the immense logistics of the production line are clicking into place: On Jan. 27, after the third and final test airplane moved outside to the flight line, the giant planes and airplane sections behind it in the factory were all moved forward to the next assembly station in a single night.
As 747-8 program chief Mohammad “Mo” Yahyavi led a tour the following day, the production flow looked streamlined.
Neat kits of tools and parts were set up exactly where needed on an uncluttered plant floor. Mechanics, electricians and tooling experts worked on the planes with a spring in their step.
“Things happen almost overnight. Everyone knows exactly what to do. Parts come in on time. It fits. It works,” Yahyavi said. “This is going to be a good airplane.”
First flight should be an impressive sight. The massive freighter jet is 250 feet long, with a wingspan of 225 feet.
In the most significant update to the jumbo jet since the 747-400’s maiden flight in 1991, the new plane has a fuselage stretched 18 feet longer and a wingspan 13 feet wider.
Boeing promises that the 747-8 freighter will have 16 percent more cargo capacity, 17 percent lower fuel costs and 16 percent lower overall operating costs than the -400.
The plane has a list price of $300 million. But with big discounts standard on new jets, an airline could likely buy one for close to half that.
Boeing projects losses in excess of $2 billion due to the production issues and delays, on top of development costs that analysts estimate at some $4 billion.
Can Boeing make a profit on that investment?
The company concedes large commercial jets represent a shrinking niche market as airlines switch to making more frequent flights using smaller jets, like the 777 or the 787 Dreamliner. So the 747-8 business plan assumes only modest sales.
After two cancellations last month, sales are stalled at just 108 total orders.
Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney offered assurance last month that if Boeing can reach a target of about 350 total sales of the 747-8, “there will be no problem with profitability.”
But at the Singapore Air Show last week, Boeing’s Marketing Vice President Randy Tinseth told Dow Jones wire service that given the mounting charges, making a profit on the 747-8 will be “a huge challenge.”
If Boeing is to sell many of the jets, the plane will have to perform well in flight tests.
The 747-8’s maiden flight, weather permitting, is set for 10 a.m. Monday from Everett’s Paine Field. A few days later, the first test plane will fly to Moses Lake in Eastern Washington where it will be based for about a month until it achieves initial airworthiness. After that, the other two test planes can fly.
Then, to steer clear of the Dreamliner flight testing based at Boeing Field, all three 747-8 test planes will be shifted to Palmdale in Southern California for the remaining nine or 10 months of flight tests.
Dennis O’Donoghue, who heads all of Boeing’s test operations, said he’s “very optimistic” that the flight tests will be completed on time so the first plane can be delivered to Luxembourg-based freight carrier Cargolux by year end.
Most of the delay on the program so far is ultimately attributable to a lack of engineering resources, which were hogged by the 787 program.
A final hitch came last fall.
Boeing didn’t invest in multiple systems-integration labs for the 747, as it did for the Dreamliner. So only when the first plane was fully assembled could its engineers test all the systems together. They soon discovered that the new flight controls and the underlying software would need more integration than expected.
After an embarrassing last-minute postponement of first flight in October, Boeing worked to fix those problems.
Since then, extensive ground tests have simulated flight conditions with the engines running round the clock through 11 straight shifts and three pilot crews cycling through the airplane. Those tests turned up some issues but they were easily dealt with, Yahyavi said.
He said the factory should roll out about three jets every two months this year, and by the time of first delivery he expects to have around 20 jumbo jets fully built or in final assembly.
Boeing began clearing woods to build the Everett plant in May 1966 and flew the first 747, with its instantly recognizable forward hump, just 32 months later on Feb. 9, 1969.
On the Paine Field flight line late last month, mechanics preparing the first test airplane painted on its nose landing-gear door the initials JW in large letters. That’s in memory of Jack Waddell, the pilot on that maiden flight in 1969.
Chief 747 pilot Mark Feuerstein, with Tom Imrich as co-pilot, will command this week’s planned 747-8 flight.
“I think she’s ready to go,” Sutter said.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com