Boeing Co.'s much-anticipated 787 jet, though months from taking flight, has passed through turbulence and is near cruising speed, according to the three companies crafting and connecting huge pieces of its fuselage in North Charleston.
Executives from Boeing, Dallas-based Vought Aircraft Industries Inc. and Alenia Aeronautica of Italy showed reporters their active assembly lines for the first time Tuesday, stressing that the supply chain had weathered some early setbacks and is now humming along nicely.
The summit drew aviation reporters from all over the country and sparked at-times contentious question-and-answer sessions.
"The situation here ... has always been relatively good and is, in fact, better," said Bob Noble, a Boeing vice president in charge of 787 contractors. "It's not perfect yet, but it is a whole bunch better."
With roughly 900 orders on the books, the 787 is the most-coveted plane in the history of commercial aviation. Because much of it is being built from composite fibers, rather than metal, it will purportedly be lighter and up to 20 percent more fuel efficient than a similar-sized plane.
However, the global supply chain for the revolutionary craft has not taken off smoothly.
The eyes of the world's aviation industry have been focused for about a year on the Lowcountry, where about 60 percent of the plane's fuselage is made and pieced together in separate factories by Vought and Global Aeronautica, a Vought-Alenia joint venture.
Vought's top executive in North Charleston left in June 2007, and the company would not say if he resigned or was fired.
A few months later, Boeing pushed back its delivery date for the 787 from May 2008. At the time, the North Charleston operation was described as a bottle-neck in the supply chain.
Vought and Alenia were having trouble getting finished parts and assembly work from sub-contractors that they had hired around the world.
In April, Boeing knocked back the commercial launch of the 787 by another six months, to the third quarter of 2009.
All three companies have pushed the throttles up and tried to mitigate public relations damage.
Vought's 300 mechanics in North Charleston were put on mandatory six-day, 60-hour work weeks, and the company asked them to voluntarily work the seventh day as well. And in March, Boeing said that it would buy Vought's 50 percent stake in Global Aeronautica.
The changes have paid off, according to Joy Romero, vice president of Vought's 787 division.
"We fixed all those problems and are now delivering something that I think we can be very proud of," Romero said.
Vought's giant assembly building, called "the clean room," smells like pressure-treated wood and shines like a new car. A number of fuselage "barrels" line the facility. To date, Vought has "cooked" 40 fuselage tubes in a giant oven called an autoclave.
"Look down that bay and you can see that Vought Aircraft does not have an issue producing barrels," said Tom Mann, director of Vought's North Charleston operations.
Work also was humming along in the nearby Global Aeronautica building, where workers piece fuselage
pieces by Vought next door with other sections from Italy and Japan. Global Aeronautica has shipped five tubes to Washington state, each more complete than the previous.
Noble, of Boeing, said the local workers should be commended.
"Breakdowns in our production system occurred in a variety or places and for a variety of reasons and should absolutely not impugn the reputation of South Carolinians," Noble said. "The people of South Carolina should be extremely proud of this facility."
Reach Kyle Stock at 937-5763 or firstname.lastname@example.org.