Boeing South Carolina rolls out first plane, looks to future
Even as Boeing South Carolina made history by rolling out its first 787 Dreamliner on Friday, the talk was as much about the future as it was about the accomplishments to date.
The distinctions of the plane, the plant and the workforce were highlighted repeatedly, but so were the work that remained to be done on the inaugural jet and the production possibilities down the line.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh recounted the history of the plane before willing the narrative forward.
“We got some more work to do here,” Albaugh told the crowd behind the final assembly building in North Charleston. “Three weeks from now we're going to fly that thing, and then sometime in June we're going to deliver it.”
Boeing plans to ramp up and make three 787 airplanes a month in North Charleston, but Albaugh urged the local workers to go beyond that number.
“If we can build more, we can sell them,” Albaugh said. “Please do that.”
After the closely watched plane emerged through a staged smoky haze into the bright Lowcountry sun, Gov. Nikki Haley took the stage to the tune of Aerosmith's “Dream On” and uttered the same catchy phrase as last June when the final assembly building opened.
“We build cars, we build tires and now we build dreams — big mack-daddy 787 dreams,” Haley said.
“The dream is just starting,” the governor added, and she pledged to make a return visit to the Boeing campus when the first Dreamliner, which will then be fully painted and tested, is delivered to Air India in a couple of months.
Albaugh and Haley spoke to an audience of thousands, mostly local Boeing employees, invited to bear witness as the much-anticipated plane made its high-profile public debut. Composed of parts from Japan, Kansas and places in between, the jet is now one unified flying machine.
The crowd counted down as the plane was tugged out, and as it came into view, the onlookers surged forward, cell phones and cameras held high to capture the moment.
“Ladies and gentlemen, here it comes,” said Jack Jones, vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina. “Your 787!”
Greg Carroll, who's been an assembly mechanic in the aft-body unit for three years, and co-worker James Lewis verbalized their pride as the jet exited the building, turned to the left and came to rest.
“Number 47 and 48,” said Carroll, referring to the fuselage sections his unit manufactures and delivers to the final assembly plant for integration.
“That's us,” Lewis chimed in a second later.
Others reveled in the glory of the moment as well, people with a different kind of fingerprints on the plane.
Former state Secretary of Commerce Bob Faith and Alenia North America executive Vicenzo Caiazzo remember back to the mid-2000s.
Faith had tried to land the 787 final assembly line back then, but Everett, Wash., won that battle. Instead, it was Caiazzo's Dreamliner fuselage supply operation that posted up in North Charleston. Boeing bought out the Alenia-Vought Aircraft joint venture known as Global Aeronautica and a neighboring Vought plant over the course of 2008 and 2009 to achieve better control of its far-flung supply chain.
“We are proud that we started the dream here,” Caiazzo said as he and Faith stood feet away from the first Dreamliner on the tarmac.
A time-lapse video projected on a big screen near the stage helped tell the tale of how a large tract of wetlands at Charleston International Airport became a plane-making campus and how the first jet came together inside the massive building beginning last summer.
“I wish building an airplane was as easy as that video,” Albaugh quipped.
U.S. Lindsey Graham joked liberally during his remarks, which started with a series of one-liners that smacked of a stand-up comedy routine.
“The NLRB couldn't be with us today,” he said at one point, poking fun at the federal labor agency that sued Boeing over its decision to place an assembly line in South Carolina last year. “Which was a good decision on their part — the only one I can remember actually.”
Graham also made light of the enormous incentives package Boeing negotiated to set up shop in the Palmetto State, a collection of tax breaks and workforce training worth more than $900 million, according to a Post and Courier analysis. He said the state legislature was asked to convene a special session without knowing why and then to vote “yes” without knowing what they were voting on.
“They all did,” he said. “That's good government.”
S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell took issue with that characterization of his peers' actions in 2009, but he agreed with Graham that Boeing made the right choice and that the aerospace giant has a bright future here.
Harrell said the Charleston area will be known for building the most advanced aircraft in the world, just as Silicon Valley is known for computers and New York is known for stock trading.
“The future of flight takes off right here in South Carolina,” he said.
But it will need more government help, Albaugh cautioned toward the end of his remarks.
He urged the U.S. Congress, the only present member of which was Graham, to reauthorize and expand the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which facilitates lending to many of Boeing's international airline customers and whose authorization expires at the end of May.
U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, who opposes the reauthorization of the government lender, had a pre-existing commitment, according to his spokesman, and couldn't attend Friday's rollout. The state's U.S. representatives did not attend because of an expected voting session in the House.
Jones had said representatives from Air India would attend the rollout, but they were also absent, according to Dr. Dinesh Keskar, Boeing's senior vice president of sales for Asia Pacific and India. Keskar said Air India will fly the first Dreamliner it picks up next month through North Charleston on the way back to the Subcontinent.
In the meantime, Boeing South Carolina will make the final adjustments and do the final testing to get the plane ready for its airline customer. Now that the plane has officially exited the final assembly facility, it will not go back in, Jones said.
But there are 96 jobs that remain to be done on the plane, known as “travelers” in Boeing factory lingo. But that's an impressively small percentage of the original 12,000 tasks, according to Jones.
“A couple hundred travelers is not unusual,” he said.
That work, and plenty of testing, will be done by the delivery center teams before the plane takes its first flight in three weeks, then goes to Texas to get painted.
“They are like a racehorse at the gate,” Jones said of the delivery center workforce.
James Dewees is one of those eager steeds.
“I'm ready to go,” said Dewees, a flight line operations manager who worked for Boeing in the Puget Sound before joining the South Carolina operation two years ago. “Our team is ready to go.”
Asked for his final thought as he bid farewells among the dissipating celebration, Boeing vice president Marco Cavazzoni alluded to the wonder of what's happened so far while also hinting at what's to come.
“I just think this is magical,” Cavazzoni said, “and it really is just the beginning.”
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 or follow him at twitter.com/kearney_brendan.