On an assembly line inside Boeing's Renton plant, machinists are putting together a special 737. The underbelly has a cavernous bomb bay...
On an assembly line inside Boeing’s Renton plant, machinists are putting together a special 737.
The underbelly has a cavernous bomb bay for torpedoes and launching tubes for sonar listening buoys. Missile pylons protrude from its wings. Military antennas bristle on the surface of its nearly windowless fuselage.
This is not the workhorse commercial airliner. It’s the first 737 to be transformed into a submarine-hunter jet for a program the U.S. Navy calls P-8A, or Poseidon. On a recent morning, mechanics inside the plane installed wiring, plumbing and other systems. The loud vibrating rhythm of rivet guns came from an adjacent assembly bay where the wings are made.
Poseidon shows off Boeing’s new model for how its commercial and military divisions can work as an integrated team — an idea the company would have replicated in Everett had it won the Air Force refueling-tanker program.
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In the past, when Boeing converted a commercial airframe into a warplane, military equipment was added later at one of its defense plants.
But on the P-8A, machinists install all the military infrastructure as they assemble the airframe, reaping all the efficiencies that come from a mature commercial production system that rolls out almost 30 civil airliners a month.
Poseidon general manager Mohammad Yahyavi says the P-8A is a full-blown military airplane “designed and built in the heart of Boeing Commercial.”
For the government, Boeing’s new model should provide cost savings and efficiency.
For this region, it provides jobs. Between 1,200 and 1,300 Boeing employees in Renton and Seattle are working on Poseidon. A few hundred more are in St. Louis at the headquarters of Boeing’s Integrated Defense Systems division.
The initial contract to build five test airplanes is worth $3.9 billion. Boeing will build three more test planes, then 108 production jets. And it expects to get orders for a 100 more from foreign buyers, with India and Australia first in line as sales prospects.
From 2012 on, the Renton plant plans to roll out 12 to 18 of these sub hunters a year.
In total, the program should bring in around $40 billion over 25 years.
Seven days a week
Every day, seven days a week, Yahyavi holds reviews with managers and visits the assembly crew to assess progress. A balding man with a warm and humble manner, he exchanges handshakes with the workers, who greet him affectionately as Mo.
The Iranian-born Yahyavi came to the U.S. to study as a young officer in the shah’s Imperial Navy, just months before the 1979 revolution in his country. He never returned to Iran.
After 28 years as an engineer and manager at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Yahyavi is clearly proud that life has circled him back into a Navy program for his adopted country.
He oversees a showcase project for the Puget Sound region’s airplane industry.
And unless Boeing’s protest overturns the Air Force tanker award, which in February went to an Airbus plane backed by Northrop Grumman, by the middle of the next decade Poseidon could be the defense giant’s only fixed-wing military-aircraft program.
The P-8A is designed to fly low and slow over the ocean, searching for enemy vessels on or under the surface.
Because it must fly for extended periods in severe weather commercial airliners would avoid, it eschews the now-common 737 upswept winglets in favor of raked-back wingtips better suited for icy conditions.
The jet has no passenger windows, just one large rectangular observer window on each side.
Doors on the underbelly open to reveal attachments for five large torpedoes. Holes in the fuselage behind that bomb bay are the launching tubes for sonobuoys — listening devices that float just under the surface of the sea. Weapon stations on the wings will carry missiles.
A large rigid tube juts down through the cabin right behind the cockpit. It’s the receptacle for the boom from an aerial-refueling tanker.
Along the top of the fuselage, small finlike antennas line up like the spines on a stickleback. Elsewhere on the fuselage, telltale bumps and square plates stick out, varieties of other antennas needed to connect with all the other planes, ships and satellites on the Defense Department’s global information grid.
“This airplane will communicate on a network much grander than a commercial 737 would ever need to,” said Bob Feldmann, co-program manager and Yahyavi’s counterpart in Boeing’s defense division.
All these decidedly non-civil aviation features will be delivered by Boeing Commercial Airplanes to the defense division factory-installed.
But instead of building P-8As on one of its two commercial 737 assembly lines, Boeing built a whole new 737 line for the P-8A in the building where it once assembled 757s.
That’s because the first planes take relatively long to build, and even the later P-8As will require significantly more assembly work than their commercial counterparts.
Having the P-8As interspersed with regular 737s would have slowed the commercial line too much, said Perry Moore, factory manager for the program.
When a P-8A leaves Renton, it will go to a defense facility on the west side of Boeing Field, where the company already services AWACS jets, topped with their distinctive large rotating radar disks. There, Boeing defense workers will install sophisticated military computer stations and avionics.
The first P-8A is due at Boeing Field early next year after extensive ground tests in Renton.
In December 2006, two years into the Poseidon contract, Boeing quietly delayed the program seven months as it struggled to integrate engineering drawings for the new military features into its commercial 737 production system.
Since then, progress has been smooth and assembly of the first P-8A is going well — in contrast to the much-delayed 787 Dreamliner in Everett.
It took less than five months to assemble the first military plane, with a 737-800 fuselage and an advanced 737-900 wing that was attached May 1.
“We got our first fuselage on time, with zero parts shortages and zero work transferred to Boeing” from suppliers, Yahyavi said enthusiastically.
But Capt. Joe Rixey, who manages the Navy’s maritime-patrol programs, wasn’t about to send roses to Renton.
“They met the schedule. If that were new military construction, that would be impressive,” Rixey said. “But they build planes. And that’s what we are trying to leverage. … That’s the advantage we were looking for.”
Tapping Boeing’s efficient, well-integrated production system was why the Navy awarded Boeing the contract in 2004, he said.
Rixey declared himself “very impressed” with the level of integration. And indeed, he may need the expected efficiency of Boeing’s production system.
Last December, metal-fatigue problems forced the Navy to ground 39 of the 161 turboprop sub hunters in its fleet, built by Lockheed Martin. That prompted the Navy to ask Boeing if it could speed up the P-8A program.
Rixey said the Navy is “still in the process of negotiating its options” on that score.
Inside the Renton P-8A assembly building, a chain-link fence cordons off the production line to protect the military secrets held by Boeing’s defense side. A security code and a special badge are needed to pass through. No foreign visitors are allowed in.
But it turns out that Boeing Commercial Airplanes has its own secrets: It won’t share cost data and other sensitive information with the defense unit.
“They are not authorized or allowed” to get manufacturing cost details, said Yahyavi about his counterparts on the defense side. “They don’t know exactly how many people [the commercial division] brings in to get the job done. All they need to know is when the job will be complete.”
That’s because the commercial division does not reveal its costs to customers, who negotiate varying and closely guarded prices for every airplane deal.
In contrast, Boeing’s defense division sells to the government on a “cost-plus” basis and must lay out detailed estimates.
So on this Navy contract, as on previous programs, the commercial unit delivers a plane to the defense division and gets paid a fixed price for the work — just like any other subcontractor.
Despite working closely together on the Poseidon, Boeing’s two divisions must still maintain some boundaries.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com