Proud of their plane

Soley Roman has had a hand in building every Boeing Co. 787 to date.

New aircraft programs come along so rarely that few employees get to work on a plane production line from the first aircraft on. Roman has found hers.

Oddly enough, Roman didn’t join Boeing until shortly after the company rolled out the first Dreamliner in an elaborate ceremony on July 8, 2007. But that 787 needed extensive rework, which is where Roman comes into the picture.

Now a production manager, the 32-year-old has worked on several sections of 787 final assembly, including the horizontal stabilizer.

The first 787 “was so trying,” she said.

When that first Dreamliner took off from Everett on Dec. 15, 2009, for its maiden flight, Roman was there.

“I cried. It was just amazing,” she said. “It’s the quietest airplane I’ve ever heard.”

Over the last four years, workers in final assembly have been forced to complete tasks out of the usual sequence due to shortages of parts. They’ve finished work that should have been done by Boeing’s suppliers, spread out across the globe. They’ve had to re-do work to accommodate changes to the design of the aircraft brought about by testing.

The 787’s delays were “discouraging” for Roman.

“It’s hard to keep people motivated,” she said.

As a manager, Roman tried to keep her employees focused on the tasks they could control, the goals they could accomplish despite the program’s setbacks.

Roman’s husband also works on the 787 line. The two commute to Boeing from Mount Vernon, where they live with their three children.

“Pretty much everyone in my family works at Boeing,” she said.

Roman’s children have 787 posters on their bedroom walls. Their parents talk about the plane they both work on over dinner. But getting the 787 through its setbacks to where it’s ready for delivery also has meant sacrifices for Roman’s family.

“I can’t even tell you how many hours of overtime I’ve worked,” she said.

Roman’s day begins at 2:30 a.m. She doesn’t usually leave Boeing until 2:30 in the afternoon. For a year, her daughter couldn’t take gymnastics after school because her parents couldn’t be there to shuttle her.

But delivery of the first 787 will make the sacrifices worthwhile — for Roman, for her family, for her fellow 787 workers.

That delivery “is going to be such a morale booster,” Roman said.

Delivering the first airplane also means a new challenge will unfold for Roman and other 787 workers: building 787s faster. Roman has faith the company can meet its production goal of building one 787 every three days by 2013.

“People are proud to work on something so innovative,” she said.

As for Roman, “I’m definitely looking forward to flying on one.”

They took Christmas off last year

Stacie Sire’s engineering group at the Boeing Co. may have worked on Christmas Eve, but they got the 25th off.

That wasn’t always the case in the life of the 787.

Sire, 38, has worked in various structural engineering departments on the 787 over the past nine years. For six of those years, she has been a manager.

There is no bitterness in her voice, or even weariness on her face, when Sire talks about the long hours that she and her coworkers have devoted to the Dreamliner.

“People here worked Christmas after Christmas,” she said. “They contributed their lives, their families, to the 787.”

Sire, who is recently engaged to another Boeing employee, has worked for the aerospace company for 14 years. She was on one of the early engineering teams that looked at various airplane designs before the company picked the 787.

“It became pretty obvious that the public was looking for a fuel-efficient airplane,” Sire said.

A quick glance at Boeing’s 787 backlog proves Sire’s statement. Boeing has more than 800 orders for its Dreamliner. That number was once closer to 1,000, but delays in the program have led some airline customers to cancel.

Sire admitted the delays have been frustrating. But she pointed out that ultimately Boeing accomplished something that had never been done before — designing and building a mostly composite aircraft.

“We learned en masse — we kind of fed off of each other,” Sire said. “It was quite a feat.”

After watching the Dreamliner go from concept to model to flight, Sire recently got to take part in a 787 test flight. Boeing filled the Dreamliner to its maximum occupancy on Sire’s flight. Then, the company asked its “passengers” to test the in-flight entertainment system. By “test” Boeing meant: try to break the system.

After so many years, so many hours of working on the Dreamliner, Sire wasn’t disappointed in her flight on the 787. During all the long hours over the last years, Sire kept herself motivated by envisioning her family and friends riding on the Dreamliner.

“I knew this was a great product,” she said. “I knew this was something the flying public would enjoy.”

As engineering work winds down on the 787-8, Sire’s group will turn their focus to the 787-9, the next version of the Dreamliner that’s due out.

And Sire will find time for another big event.

“I haven’t had a chance to plan a wedding,” she said.

Passing on aerospace knowledge

When Boeing Co. executives say they’re worried about losing the “institutional knowledge” of longtime employees, they’re talking about workers like A.C. Darby Jr.

Darby, 61, started in the aerospace industry in 1970, gaining experience at both Lockheed and Rockwell before coming to work at Boeing in 1988. He has worked on every Boeing plane program that’s still in production.

In 2007, “I got my call and I’m proud to say this: I was one of the first 10 — no, the first five — inspectors on the 787,” Darby said.

Boeing unveiled its first 787 to the world in 2007. But the plane and program had plenty of problems — bad or incomplete parts from suppliers, sections that had to be redesigned. Quality inspectors like Darby are responsible for catching badly built parts.

Darby, an Everett resident, has seen new airplane programs face challenges. It always takes a while to wade through the process of development, he said.

“This one here was a little longer than what we planned,” Darby said. “But we made it.”

The 787 consists of more composite material than previous planes. It also uses more electrical power than other aircraft.

Those changes meant more training for workers who were used to building and inspecting aluminum aircraft. And Boeing had plenty of new employees who had never before worked on aircraft.

Darby, who says he has no plans to retire soon, clearly enjoys his unofficial role as mentor to other workers — teaching them the tricks of the trade. He also takes seriously his position as quality inspector.

“There’s a lot of responsibility that goes along with it,” Darby said.

People who fly Boeing airplanes, “they are counting that the quality is there,” he said.

Married for 41 years, Darby is the father of seven and has six grandchildren. Several of them are “fascinated” by the 787. Darby is especially intrigued by the 787’s passenger comforts — like the lower-altitude cabin pressure and larger windows.

After the delivery of the first 787, Darby expects the assembly process to become more stable, with fewer tasks being done out of sequence.

With all his years of experience, Darby could choose to work a different position — perhaps as a manager. However, Darby said he gets “more joy” working in the quality department, especially on the 787.

“I feel that I’m better fitted on the floor — to ensure the integrity of the airplane,” he said.

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