Boeing Co.‘s first South Carolina-made 787 Dreamliner lifted off the ground at about 12:04 p.m. today, a soaring achievement for the company's North Charleston campus and for the state's aviation ambitions.
The maiden flight will last about five hours, but the work leading up to it goes back years.
Once the load stairs were pulled away and the hatches secured, the flight crew cranked the two engines around 11:30, eliciting cheers from a throng of Boeing employees.
Then the big bird began to roll forward toward the final assembly building and workers 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 Airport, Joint Base Charleston and Boeing.
While Boeing employees watched on big screens inside the final assembly building, the plane performed two taxi tests, with pauses before and after.
Then it was time for the real thing. It accelerated down the runway, and in a matter of 10 seconds, the Dreamliner was airborne, seemingly without incident. 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 the past 15 months, shared the moment with his wife over the phone. She had been following the lead-up to take-off 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.
Boeing had been shooting for an 8 a.m. takeoff from North Charleston, but late Tuesday night it pushed the timetable back for undisclosed reasons.
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 ten days later.
Randy Neville, Boeing's chief pilot for the 787 program, and Tim Berg will be at the controls this afternoon, during which time various systems tests will be performed. The exact duration of the flight will be determined on board by the crew, which also includes two flight analysts and two systems operations personnel from Boeing's test unit.
According to Flight Aware, a live flight-tracking service, the plane flew up the coast to North Carolina and then headed due South before looping back a couple hundred miles short of the Bahamas. You can follow the flight online here.
The B-1 flight, as such Boeing flights are known, was not a public event, but there was no shortage of of witnesses to the dramatic lift-off.
All of Boeing South Carolina's more than 6,000 employees were invited to witness the historic moment from a remote screen inside the final assembly building. It's unclear what percentage were in attendance, but there was representation from off-duty shifts.
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.
Media crews were also invited to watch from the plant and from an outdoor spot off South Aviation Avenue that offers a view of the runway.
The Boeing pilots and other company officials are scheduled to host a press conference at the Aviation Avenue delivery center upon the plane's return this afternoon.
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.
If the B-1 flight goes according to plan, the plane next will fly to Texas to be painted before returning to North Charleston for another battery of tests, including another flight, this time directed by its eventual owner, Air India.
Delivery to Air India, which ordered the plane and 26 other Dreamliners in 2005 but has endured financial and labor strife since merging with Indian Airlines in 2007, is expected as early as next month.