Assembly of Boeing's big jets begins in the "spar shop" at the back of its manufacturing complex in Everett, where the long structural beams...

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Assembly of Boeing’s big jets begins in the “spar shop” at the back of its manufacturing complex in Everett, where the long structural beams at the back and front of the wings are drilled and fastened together.

That’s where Boeing executives, engineers and mechanics Tuesday celebrated the start of the assembly of the first cargo model of its successful big 777 twinjet. By the end of this year, the finished freighter aircraft is due to be delivered to Air France.

Boeing must smoothly introduce this new cargo derivative into its assembly line even as it dramatically transforms the traditional 777 production system to a moving line — a painstaking project that’s been in progress for more than two years and will climax this summer. Reaching this point took long and careful planning.

“We, in manufacturing, really wait for the day when we start to get building,” said Elizabeth Lund, director of 777 manufacturing, at the ceremony. “This is it.”

Even as Boeing addresses this manufacturing challenge, rival Airbus is promoting a new, all-composite large twinjet — the A350-1000 — that threatens future sales of the 777.

Larry Loftis, vice president of the 777 program, said Boeing is looking for opportunities to enhance 777 performance with technologies developed for its forthcoming smaller sister, the 787 Dreamliner.

But because Boeing is still awaiting clear data on how the A350-1000 might perform, “we don’t have a firm date or a firm configuration” for any enhanced 777, Loftis said.

At Tuesday’s event, a crane hoisted aloft the pieces of one wing spar destined for the Air France freighter. These were to be loaded that evening into the assembly tool, where another spar was already in place.

Spar production manager Bob Young — enthusiastic about his crew’s role in producing “the backbone of the wing” on the 777 — took reporters up inside the “automated spar-assembly tool.”

A long row of precisely located metal clamps and teeth hold the 118-foot-long spars in place from above and below as an automatic machine moves along its length drilling 5,418 holes and inserting fasteners.

Later, spar-shop mechanics will drill a couple thousand more holes as they fasten flight control or engine supports to the spars.

The 777 freighter program is already a success, with 80 firm orders. But five years out, the future of the 777 still hangs in the air.

Loftis said airline customers are discussing with Boeing the long-term outlook for the 777.

British Airways, for one, is weighing the 777 against the A350-1000 for a new jet order this year.

In the midst of all the challenging new work on the 777, the pressure is on Boeing to go even further.

767 tanker program

reaches a milestone

Boeing’s 767 tanker program achieved a major milestone Tuesday when a Japanese Air Force 767 tanker successfully transferred fuel to an F-15 jet fighter at night — the first nighttime refueling ever for a 767 tanker.

Boeing is competing for a lucrative U.S. Air Force refueling tanker contract against an airplane based on the Airbus A330 that is proposed by the European manufacturer’s parent company EADS and its U.S. partner Northrop Grumman.

The EADS/Northrop tanker under development has not yet passed fuel to a fighter.

While Boeing’s successful refueling flight can only help its chances, the proposed 767 tanker for the U.S. Air Force differs considerably from the Japanese 767 tanker, the first of which is set for delivery within weeks.

The tanker for Japan is based on a 767-200 airframe. The U.S. tanker has a 767-200 fuselage joined to a 767-300 wing and with a 767-400 cockpit and wing flaps. It also has a more advanced refueling boom.

The U.S. Air Force contract, worth $40 billion initially, is to be decided next month.

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