Boeing’s Dreamliner No. 5, one of the six flight-test 787s, was too heavily re-worked to sell. Finally, Boeing is dismantling the aircraft, in a reminder that the now-popular jet had major birthing pains.
Built in 2009 at an enormous cost of just over $600 million, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner No.5 at last has arrived at its embarrassing final destination — the boneyard.
Boeing long ago abandoned any hope of finding a buyer for the jet. Now an airplane parts and recycling contractor is cutting the carbon fiber jet to pieces at Paine Field in Everett and dismantling it for scrap.
While Boeing pitches this ignominious end as an exploratory step forward in recycling technology, it’s also a cruel reminder that the now popular 787 had a ruinously difficult and expensive birth.
By now Boeing has sold more than 1,300 Dreaminers, and nearly 700 are flying worldwide. The planemaker is delivering the innovative jet at the fast clip of a dozen jets per month, expected to rise to 14 per month in a year or two.
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But the earliest 787s were a disaster.
The Everett final assembly plant, fed by a dysfunctional global supply chain, received large sections of the airplane held together with temporary fasteners and in various states of undocumented semi-completion — a production nightmare.
Mechanics toiled to put the planes together, often having to do the work out of sequence, which meant repeatedly assembling and disassembling the parts. Then design flaws were discovered, and the jets had to be torn apart all over again to incorporate fixes.
All this contributed to the first delivery being more than three years late and added billions of dollars to the cost of development.
Analysts estimate that Boeing must have spent upwards from $20 billion in development costs, blowing past a 2004 internal target for its share of the cost at just over $5 billion.
Despite the very healthy sales success of the jet since, Boeing is unlikely ever to recoup that money.
More than a dozen of the early 787 jets, the so-called “Terrible Teens,” were slowly sold off over the years at a steep discount.
Launch customer All Nippon Airways of Japan took the first three built after the flight test fleet.
According to reliable data compiled by the All Things 787 blog, Ethiopian Airlines took four of the Terrible Teens; Korean Air took one; another today is flown by Air Austral, plying the skies between France and its island territory Reunion in the Indian Ocean.
Another was bought by Crystal Air Cruises for use as a luxury tour jet, but that one was subsequently put in storage in Victorville, Calif., and may have been returned to Boeing when Crystal bought a larger 777 instead.
However, the first six flight test airplanes were so heavily reworked that no airline would touch them.
In 2009, Boeing acknowledged that the first three had “no commercial value” because of “the inordinate amount of rework and unique and extensive modifications” they required. It wrote off the cost of producing those three jets: a staggering $2.5 billion.
Dreamliner No. 1 is now the showcase exhibit in a big gallery at Chubu Centrair International Airport in Nagoya, Japan — near where the jet’s wings are manufactured.
Dreamliner No. 2 is on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.
Dreamliner No. 3 is on display at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.
No. 6 was bought by the Mexican government and converted into its presidential aircraft.
In July 2016, Boeing finally gave up looking for anyone to take the two remaining 787 flight test planes, Dreamliners No. 4 and No. 5. That month, Boeing wrote off both jets and reclassified as a development expense the cost to build them: $1.235 billion.
In its flight test days, No. 5 flew more than 1,600 hours. Now it’s the endgame.
Boeing spokesman Paul Bergman said contractor VAS Aero Services, which has an office in Kent, is leading the dismantling process, which includes parts removal and recycling.
Select parts will be reused. Additional sections will be retained for archival displays to commemorate the history of the Dreamliner flight test program.
Bergman said Boeing is working with recycler ELG, headquartered in Duisburg, Germany, on a “breakthrough scaled technology” for carbon fiber recycling. ELG will pay for the carbon fiber composite material.
“The carbon fiber will be recycled into new products such as electronics and auto parts,” he said. “This is the first time this has been done.”
Dreamliner No. 4 remains in storage at Moses Lake in eastern Washington, awaiting a similar fate.