It flies!Boeing pilots praise 1st S.C. Dreamliner

Pilots Randy Neville and Tim Berg spent about five hours in the air in the maiden flight of the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner made in North Charleston.

To hear the Boeing pilots tell it, the first flight of the first 787 Dreamliner assembled in North Charleston could not have gone much better.

Wednesday afternoon’s skies were mostly sunny, the breeze was slight, and the plane flew for more than five hours over the Atlantic Ocean before returning to Charleston International Airport without any major incidents.

Randy Neville, the chief pilot for the 787 program, said “we basically flew the plan” that “worked out great.”

Describing the relatively trouble-free flight, he said, “This airplane was amazingly clean.”

Neville, who co-piloted the first 787 flight on Dec. 15, 2009, had no trouble contrasting Wednesday’s voyage with that three-hour journey through a cold, stormy day in the Puget Sound region of Washington state.

“The weather was much better today,” he said, prompting laughter among the Boeing officials and employees who gathered for the postflight news conference in a third-floor conference room overlooking the parked plane.

That said, it wasn’t perfect, Neville eventually conceded. There were a few thunderstorms he and co-pilot Tim Berg had to steer around. And there were a few issues with the plane that will prompt “squawks,” or requests for fixes, Neville said. He declined to detail those defects.

“But they’re minor things the team will be able to fix fairly expeditiously,” he said.

Mike Sinnett, chief project engineer for the 787 program, quickly interjected, noting that the Dreamliner contains 18 million lines of software code and 70 miles of wiring. Wednesday’s flight was “as clean as a lot of fourth-production flights,” he said.

After a week of predictions and rumors, Boeing announced Tuesday afternoon that the flight was scheduled to begin at “approximately 8 a.m.” Wednesday.

It didn’t end up flying until just after noon, but Neville deflected questions about the delay by saying the plane was ready for him and Berg when they arrived, and that ground tests are “time-consuming.”

Once it got into the air, Berg said the plane flew almost 2,000 miles. It lofted as high as 41,000 feet, and flew faster than 90 percent of the speed of sound, Neville said, or nearly 700 mph.

The flight crew, which also included two flight analysts and two systems-operations personnel, ran a “very steady stream of tests” while airborne, Berg said, “verifying the fundamentals of all the systems.”

One particularly dramatic test came when they turned off each of the jet’s two General Electric GEnx engines, separately, to see how the plane responded, Neville said.

As on other Dreamliner flights, Neville said, other pilots in the air radioed in to express their curiosity and excitement about a 787 in the neighborhood.

“People are excited just to know we’re out there flying,” he said.

After zigzagging over the Atlantic, from near the North Carolina border down to a couple hundred miles north of the Bahamas, the plane returned to the Lowcountry just after 4 p.m. to do a series of touch-and-goes.

The plane swooped in close to the ground, then rose back into the sky, before touching down for good at 5:11 p.m., according to Boeing South Carolina Vice President and General Manager Jack Jones.

It then taxied back to where its day began on the campus flight line.

Boeing employees encircled the plane, then crowded around Neville, Berg and Jones for what a company spokesman said was a quick post-flight debriefing.

Speaking to reporters and via streaming video to his employees, Jones’ take on the milestone afternoon was characteristically concise and direct.

“Let me sum up today’s events,” Jones said. “Mission accomplished.”

Recalling that he led Boeing employees in a “We build jets” chant at the plane’s rollout April 27, Jones said, “Well, today, we get to tell the world, ‘We fly jets.’?”