Boeings first S.C.-made 787 takes its maiden voyage
It was a soaring achievement.
For the first time, a Boeing Dreamliner made in North Charleston took flight, staying aloft through rigorous testing over the Atlantic Ocean before landing safely back at Charleston International Airport.
The uneventful voyage represented another major success for the local plant and another step forward for the state’s aviation ambitions.
Scott Hamilton, a Washington-based aviation analyst, called the flight “a milestone for S.C. and Boeing” and said the continued progress here shows “Boeing clearly has high ambitions for S.C.’s new aerospace cluster.”
The maiden flight lasted just more than five hours, but the work leading up to it goes back years.
Lawrence Bothner, an instructor at the North Charleston plant and the president of its motorcycle club, knows that as well as anyone. He started as a contractor when the factory was making fuselage pieces for the second-ever Dreamliner.
“I’ve been here since Ship 2 and I never thought I’d see this,” Bothner said minutes after takeoff.
After a projected 8 a.m. start was pushed back without explanation, the action began around 11:30 a.m. as the flight crew cranked the plane’s engines.
The cheers from the throng of Boeing employee onlookers grew louder when the big bird began to roll forward toward the final assembly building that produced it.
“Fast little rascal, isn’t she?” an employee was overheard saying as the jet began to move under its own power.
The plane then maneuvered its way to one of the two runways shared by Charleston International, Joint Base Charleston and Boeing.
While Boeing workers watched on big screens inside the final assembly building, the plane performed a low- and high-speed taxi test.
Then it was time for the real thing. It accelerated down the runway, and in a matter of 10 seconds, the Dreamliner was airborne — at 12:01 p.m. It banked gently to the left as it gained altitude and could be seen headed southeast as it flew over the campus.
As it crossed the bright sky overhead, Michael Strampp, a tool engineer who has worked at Boeing for 15 months, shared the moment with his wife over the phone. She had been following the lead-up to takeoff on television at home.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Strampp said. “I’ve got goose bumps.”
He recalled when the final assembly site was a construction site.
“Here we are 15 months later, and we’re flying,” he said.
‘Freezer to flight’
The 787 took to the sky less than a month after making its high-profile public debut. The company rolled out the plane on April 27, and cranked the engines for the first time 10 days later.
Boeing test pilots Randy Neville and Tim Berg were at the controls Wednesday, taking the jet on looping runs off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Neville was in the cockpit for the first-ever 787 flight in 2009. More than 12,000 Boeing employees and guests watched that plane take off for its three-hour flight.
Philip Harris, a quality assurance investigator in the mid-body assembly building in North Charleston, remembers that milestone but said it doesn’t compare, for him, to Wednesday’s flight.
“This one means more to me than the last one,” he said.
The B-1 flight, as such Boeing flights are known, was not a public event, but there was no shortage of witnesses to the dramatic lift-off.
All of Boeing South Carolina’s more than 6,000 employees were invited, and several thousand showed up, including representation from off-duty shifts on site before and after the flight.
Antwann Gamble, a 25-year-old North Charleston resident who works nights in the neighboring aft-body building, said he only began working at Boeing in November, but that Wednesday he witnessed the “making of history.”
“Basically a lot of man-hours went into that,” Gamble said.
Assembly of the plane, known as LN 46 internally, began late last summer. It moved through the U-shaped assembly line over the next several months before rolling out of the factory late last month.
It now is in the hands of the delivery center team to make the final hand-off to Air India, expected late next month.
Eileen Riccio, a 25-year Boeing veteran and IT specialist in the delivery center, said Wednesday’s event completes the project from the plane’s carbon fiber ingredients to a plane in the air.
“As people keep saying, it’s now gone from freezer to flight,” she said.
Erin Carey, another Puget Sound transplant who now works with Boeing’s customers out of the North Charleston delivery center, remarked on the collective “feeling of accomplishment.”
“Can’t have asked for a better day,” she said.