It was the showiest debutante ball Charleston had ever seen.
A year ago this weekend, Boeing Co. rolled out its first South Carolina-made 787 Dreamliner, an eagerly waited arrival that cemented once and for all the Palmetto State’s place in the commercial airplane business.
Fireworks went off. Speeches were made.
Boeing executive Jack Jones led the memorable chant in North Charleston: “We build jets. We build jets.”
It was, by all accounts, a day of triumph.
“I think that given the global options Boeing had, the people of South Carolina really rose to the challenge,” veteran aviation industry analyst Howard Rubel said after the event.
But the year that followed the rollout has been marked more by setbacks than celebrations for the 787 program.
Suddenly, though, the black clouds are parting.
And the outlook couldn’t be much brighter for Boeing South Carolina.
Decade to debut
Boeing’s glide path into Charleston International Airport has been a long one, nearly 10 years as the crow flies, in fact.
In mid-2003, South Carolina joined dozens of states and regions that were chasing after a $500 million, 1,200-worker assembly plant that the Chicago-based aerospace giant was looking to build. In an unusual move, Boeing publicly solicited “requests for proposal” in seeking a place to manufacture a new passenger jet that later would become the 787.
The S.C. Commerce Department offered up Charleston International.
The investment and jobs ended up in the Seattle area, but the seeds had been sown. When a couple of 787 suppliers conducted a similar site search in 2004, the Lowcountry got the nod.
Boeing wound up buying both of those problem-riddled businesses before deciding in late 2009 to build a full-blown Dreamliner assembly line in North Charleston to supplement the main factory near Seattle.
The $750 million East Coast expansion paid its first dividend about 18 month later. The first Boeing South Carolina-made 787 emerged from a dark, smoke-shrouded hangar to raucous applause around noon on April 27, 2012.
The cheers quickly gave way to challenges.
In July, a General Electric engine failed during a high-speed taxi run at Charleston International, causing a small fire and triggering a federal safety investigation.
Then, batteries mysteriously smoldered and overheated on two working 787s in January, grounding the entire Dreamliner fleet for three months. The Federal Aviation Administration approved the fix just last week.
Viewed one way, South Carolinians could look back on the past year as a drumbeat of dour developments and delays, of problems upon problems at the Boeing site.
Viewed another way, South Carolinians can claim a front-row seat to history: They are witnessing the birth, start-up warts and all, of a hot-selling revolutionary new jetliner that also happens to be reshaping the state’s economy.
‘We see potential’
The history is still being written.
Looking ahead, a key milestone will be whether the North Charleston plant will hit its goal of boosting the production rate to three 787s a month by the end of 2013, up from about two a month now.
The broader horizon for the company in South Carolina seems almost limitless based on recent developments.
In a move that’s sending shock waves throughout Boeing’s Puget Sound stronghold, the planemaker is negotiating to buy an additional 320 acres across from its North Charleston campus. It’s interested in acquiring even more real estate in the area.
The land ambitions tie directly into Boeing’s April 9 announcement that it will invest $1.1 billion and hire 2,000 workers South Carolina over the next eight years in exchange for a $120 million state subsidy and other incentives.
Boeing CEO Jim McNerney predicted as much in October 2011, when he spoke with The Post and Courier during a visit to Columbia.
“Depending on the performance, it could be the basis for significant new business,” McNerney said of the fledgling North Charleston manufacturing outpost. “It’s our judgment that all the ingredients are in place for this to become a very competitive plant. ... But like every plant we have, there’s an element of earning its way after it’s been stood up and is producing what we initially asked it to produce. Obviously, we’re placing a number of chips on the table here, so we see potential.”
The plant passed its first major test a year ago this weekend.
“We build jets.”
Kinda has a nice ring to it.
Contact John McDermott at jmcdermott@postand courier.com or 937-5572.