In lieu of the actual 787 airplane, which won't fly until 2007, Boeing brought to the Paris Air Show some tantalizing photos. They don't show the...

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In lieu of the actual 787 airplane, which won’t fly until 2007, Boeing brought to the Paris Air Show some tantalizing photos.


They don’t show the typical airplane sections assembled from sheets of shiny, riveted aluminum.


Instead, Boeing’s show-and-tell at the air show today was expected to highlight photos of the plane’s nose-and-cockpit section, fresh-baked in a single piece of black, Darth Vader-like plastic — something the aerospace industry has not seen before in a large commercial jet.


Manufacturing the large-scale prototypes is progressing well, 787 program head Mike Bair said in an interview before leaving Seattle for the year’s premier aviation trade show.


Engineers are working to whittle down the plane’s weight, although he acknowledged, “we’re not to the target yet.”


And competition from the expected launch of Airbus’ A350 doesn’t dampen his expectations for the 787 at all.


Bair, who was scheduled to provide an update on the 787 at the air show this morning, could plan on a relaxed presentation without straining to impress his Paris audience.


The major 787 news — the surge in firm orders and commitments this year has pushed the total to 266 airplanes — came well in advance of the show.


Boeing will settle on a firm configuration for the airplane within weeks, Bair said in the pre-show interview. That marks completion of preliminary overall design work. The company’s partners will then work on the detailed design of their assigned pieces of the airplane.


The first detailed part design to be completed has already been released for manufacturing: a pin that holds the engines to the wing pylons.


Bair said Boeing is close to releasing the preliminary design specifications on heavy metal forgings for landing gear parts, which take a long time to produce.



Manufacturing plan



Yet Boeing must still successfully execute its daunting global manufacturing plan.


The photos Bair took to Paris are to prove that everything is on track.


The carbon-fiber reinforced composite nose-and-cockpit section was baked to hardness in a high-pressure oven in Wichita within the last few weeks.


The corresponding section on a traditional Boeing jet is painstakingly handbuilt by skilled mechanics in Wichita from many panels of aluminum and thousands of fasteners.


Constructing the 787 nose-and-cockpit in a single piece promises a revolution in commercial airplane manufacturing.


“The question was never, ‘Could we build one?’ ” Bair said. “But, ‘Could we efficiently build at [full production] rate?’ “


Boeing also has been working with its global supplier partners inside its research facility on Marginal Way in Seattle to produce composite plastic fuselage barrels and wing sections.


Bair also will show in Paris a photo of a large composite prototype wing skin, produced in Seattle in collaboration with engineers from Mitsubishi Heavy Industry.


The skin panel, covering about two-thirds of the wing, is 19 feet wide where it will join the fuselage and 49 feet long. Mitsubishi will build the 787 wing in Japan.



Too heavy



In the pre-show interview, Bair also conceded that the 787 design is currently heavier than its target weight — a big issue for an airplane because extra weight lowers fuel efficiency and performance.


Because the plane is made from composites, the 787 target weight is very light, about 13 percent lighter than an equivalent aluminum airplane, Bair said.


Internal documents obtained by The Seattle Times give the target at 216,000 pounds for an empty airplane.


As of two months ago, according to the documents, the Rolls-Royce-engine version of the 787 was 6,800 pounds over the target weight; the GE-engine version was 6,100 pounds overweight.


But Bair downplayed the problem and expressed confidence it will be solved. He said Boeing had focused on keeping costs down in the early stages of development and “kind of let the weight float.” But Boeing began an intense weight-reduction effort in February, he said.


The internal documents show that in March managers pushed a goal of shaving more than 100 pounds off the weight each manufacturing day through firm configuration this summer.


“Bair affirmed that “we’re not in any danger of missing a customer requirement or a guarantee we’ve made.”


“We’re in better shape now than we were at this point on the 777 program,” Bair said. “We were over 20,000 pounds out at that point on the 777.”



A350 rival



With Boeing’s 787 presentation in Paris relatively low-key, the most significant news affecting the airplane out of Paris may be the launch of the Airbus rival, the A350.


Airbus is touting it as an all-new plane with a composite rear fuselage, new composite wings and the engines designed for the 787. Airbus has said it will announce more than 100 orders for the jet in Paris.


Stuart Klaskin, a partner with Florida-based aviation consulting firm KKC, said he expected Airbus to meet that goal handily because it will offer exceptional financial deals to launch customers “as they try to recover from what they see as orders lost to the 787.”


In advance, Bair was quietly confident the A350 will not dent the prospects of the 787.


“We have no expectation we’ll win everything,” he said, “Our business case assumed Airbus would be in there fighting and be reasonably successful.”


“They are going to win some campaigns” for orders, he added. “And that’s fine.”


The A350 will be slightly larger than Boeing’s 787, and therefore competitive on a cost-per-passenger basis. Airbus claims the plane will burn 4 percent less fuel per seat.


But Bair believes his plane will be a better overall performer.


“We have a larger, more efficient wing; we’re considerably lighter; we’re using the same engines,” Bair said. “So we can always be better than they are.”


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