5-hour first flight of Boeing’s stretched 787-9

SEATTLE — Five hours and 15 minutes will get you to the East Coast, but Boeing Flight 001 on Tuesday never left the state. Instead, the two people aboard the first flight of a 787-9 logged valuable test hours, mostly over arid and sparsely populated Eastern Washington.

The plane took off from Paine Field in Everett at 11:03 a.m. and landed as planned at Boeing Field here at 4:18 p.m.

“This is about as close to a flawless first flight as I could have imagined,” said Mark Jenks, vice president of 787 development, at a news event at Boeing Field.

Said Capt. Mike Bryan: “We’ve got five more hours of gas left in there. We’d still be flying if they hadn’t told us to bring it back.” It was, he said, a “no-squawk flight.” A squawk in pilotspeak is a big or small problem that must be addressed, and usually there are at least a few.

Tuesday’s first flight of the 787-9 kicks off testing needed to gain airworthiness certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. With the 787-8 already certified after more than 4,800 flight-test hours and the two models’ systems essentially the same, Boeing will have to fly fewer hours to prove the 787-9 variant.

As usual, testing will involve multiple airplanes. The company is allowing for up to nine months of test-flying before delivering the first 787-9 to Air New Zealand in mid-2014.

The Boeing Co.’s new Dreamliner is a stretched version of the 787 — the second of what eventually will be three sizes. With 388 mid-sized Dreamliners on order, it’s an important part of the company’s strategy to serve long routes between unlikely places such as London and Austin, Texas. The slightly smaller, original 787-8, which launched the Dreamliner program and has been in service for two years, has logged 498 orders.

The new 787-9 is 20 feet longer than the original Dreamliner. The -9 will carry 250 to 290 passengers on routes of 8,000 to 8,500 nautical miles. That’s about 40 more passengers and 300 nautical miles farther than the 787-8.

After the -9 took off, Ray Conner, president and CEO of Renton-based Boeing Commercial Airplanes, was interviewed on a company webcast, calling the plane the “sweet spot” in the 787 family, based on its longer range and greater capacity.

The 787, which is about 50 percent carbon-fiber composite material, was designed by Boeing to be economically viable on very long, “thin” routes — routes that don’t have the passenger volume to justify using a bigger long-range plane like the 777.

For example, Conner noted, British Airways plans to launch non-stop 787 service between London and Austin next year. “You would never be able to do that route before,” Conner said. There wouldn’t be enough people flying between those two cities regularly to fill older models that have the necessary range.

The 787-9 isn’t the largest Dreamliner family member. In June, Boeing officially launched the 787-10 program. That model will seat 300 to 330 passengers on routes up to 7,000 nautical miles. It will be 38 feet longer than the 787-8. The first -10 delivery is planned for 2018. That plane won’t have as great a range and is intended for busier routes.

On Tuesday, about an hour behind schedule — not unusual for a first flight — the 787-9 lifted off from Paine Field runway 34L, northbound toward Possession Sound, and banked to the west before disappearing into a cloud layer at about 5,000 feet. Over Whidbey Island, the 787-9 turned east, climbing steadily on a heading for sparsely populated Eastern Washington, where Boeing conducts a lot of flight testing.

The new Dreamliner flew mostly at modest speeds and at 15,000 to 20,000 feet, back and forth above the wheat in an area north of Moses Lake and Spokane, before returning to the Puget Sound area and the landing at Boeing Field.

Piloting the plane with Bryan was Randy Neville. They were the only souls aboard. On later flights, they will be joined by a cadre of test engineers.

“We worked through the clouds and found some decent air in the middle of the state,” Neville said. The marginal weather was an opportunity to test the instruments. The crew also tested the airplane in slow flight, with flaps extended.

On the way from the Moses Lake test area to Seattle, the crew flew a circle around Mount Rainier.

As usual, there were two chase planes to observe the flight and photograph the plane for promotional purposes. “I think we got a good shot with Mount Rainier,” Bryan said.

Chicago-based Boeing delivered the first 787-8, built in Everett, two years ago this month — more than three years behind schedule. And there have been noteworthy problems since the 787-8 entered service. For one, Boeing had to redesign the lithium-ion battery system after two serious thermal events aboard planes in service, which prompted officials to ground the model for three months earlier this year. Delays in the 787-8 program affected the 787-9 timetable, too. With no squawks on Tuesday, perhaps such troubles are over.

Chuck Taylor: 425-339-3429; ctaylor@heraldnet.com.

Boeing 787 family

Model 787-8 787-9 787-10 All 787s
List price $211.8 million $249.5 million $288.7 million
Capacity 210-250 250-290 300-330
Range 7,650-8,200 nm 8,000-8,500 nm Up to 7,000 nm
Orders 498 388 50 936
Deliveries 83 0 0 83
First flight 12/2009 9/2013 2017?

Data from the Boeing Co. through August. Capacity and range depend on configuration.

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