6th Dreamliner takes to the air (belatedly)

By Tim Raetzloff | Oct 07, 2010

“The normal expectation is that test hours would increase as the program goes along”

 The sixth Boeing 787 Dreamliner took off on its first test flight just about an hour before I began this report.

No. 6 arrives in the test fleet at an important point. Test hours have been dropping for months and reached a nadir last week when only 13 hours and 10 minutes of test flights were completed.

The week before it was 27 hours and 20 minutes, and the week ending Sept. 19 had 28 hours and 35 minutes of Dreamliner test flights.

In May, Boeing executives confidently predicted that 90 hours of test flights a week were an easily attainable goal, and at that time it didn’t seem out of reach. During May, Boeing completed 332 hours and 30 minutes of test flights, very close to the predicted 90 hours a week.

But that was the peak.

In June, flight-test hours fell to 205 hours and 35 minutes, including 6 hours and 20 minutes for Dreamliner No. 5, the first test plane using GE engines. The remaining 199 hours and 15 minutes were completed by the four Dreamliners powered by Rolls Royce engines.

In July the test program completed 315 hours and 50 minutes, one-third of those hours flown by the first GE-powered 787. In August flight tests fell to 270 and 25 minutes. And flight-test hours fell again in September to 233 hours and 5 minutes.

The normal expectation is that test hours would increase as the test program goes along. The prediction by Boeing executives in May indicates that they believed the test program would pick up.

What happened? At the end of June, Boeing discovered a “workmanship issue” in the horizontal stabilizer and interrupted test flights to inspect all 787s. That would account for a small drop-off in test flights for June, but not the dramatic decline that was actually experienced.

After the inspection was completed in early July, flight tests never got back to the tempo of May and certainly never increased, as had been expected.

The pace picked up in July, boosted by the addition of the fifth test 787, but not to the level of May. In August and September test-flight hours continued to fall. In the last 15 days of September there were seven days in which there were no test flights at all.

I don’t know what is going on; I only keep statistics, but it is clear that all is not dreamy in Dreamliner flight-test land.

The projected completion of the flight-test program by Sept. 15 was missed badly, and will take several additional months to complete. More puzzling is the continued decline in flight-test hours at a time when more hours, not fewer, should be the norm.

Perhaps the newest test plane will turn the program around, or not. An additional test plane – this will make seven – is now being prepared for flight tests, and an eighth is being prepped for ground tests.

I feel like an auctioneer – I have 8; do I hear 9? Where this stops nobody knows, including, obviously, the people in charge at Boeing.

I am still short Boeing stock.
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(Tim Raetzloff, who operates Abarim Business Computers at Five Corners in Edmonds, evaluates Puget Sound business activity in his regular column in the Beacon. In the interests of full disclosure he says, “Neither I nor Abarim have any interest in or conflict with any company mentioned in this column.”)

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