First local Dreamliner is ready for the world

Boeing Co. employees were on hand on Dec. 15, 2009, when a Boeing 787 Dreamliner took off on its first flight, Paine Field in Everett, Wash. Pilots Michael Carriker and Randall Neville lifted off in the big blue and white jet at for a four-hour flight over Washington state, beginning the extensive flight-test program needed to obtain the plane’s Federal Aviation Administration certification.

Made in South Carolina. There may be no explicit label on the first Dreamliner that rolls out of Boeing’s North Charleston final assembly building Friday, but everyone knows that’s the point.

Parts of the plane came from all over the world, but thanks to thousands of South Carolinians, both natives and recent imports, the final product came together here.

There was the politically charged National Labor Relations Board litigation that clouded the plant’s future. There were engineering and workforce integration challenges aplenty. There was doubt, and there were hiccups.

But if all goes according to plan, Friday afternoon will be the physical demonstration that, for the first time since World War II, Boeing has built a jet outside the Puget Sound region of Washington state.

Jack Jones, Boeing South Carolina’s vice president and general manager, wasn’t shy about the accomplishment in a recent interview.

“Many weren’t sure we could,” he said. “We removed the doubt.”

The moment of the occasion can scarcely be overstated.

“That day is guaranteed to be a great day in South Carolina,” Gov. Nikki Haley said in an interview this month.

Boeing has revealed few details about the invitation-only ceremony, but expectations are sky-high based on the aerospace company’s previous treatment of comparable milestones.

Bryan Corliss covered Boeing as a journalist before becoming a spokesman for the Seattle-area district of the International Association of Machinists union, and has attended several such events, including the first Dreamliner rollout in July 2007. “It’s always quite a production and it’s usually pretty good,” he said, noting that a recent celebration had Chinese dragon dancers.

In addition to Boeing executives and employees, the guest list includes a who’s-who of South Carolina politics, representatives from some of the planemaker’s suppliers and the local operation’s first customer, Air India, and plenty of out-of-town media.

The main event, when the jet is rolled out of the northwest-facing back doors of the final assembly building, will be accompanied by community partner performances, commemorative videos and executive presentations, according to Boeing.

Asked if he knew whether a big-name musician such as local favorite Darius Rucker or Bruce Springsteen, whose rock played at the opening of the Delivery Center on Veterans Day, might be on hand, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said simply, “The plane is bigger than The Boss.”

If a recent survey of the elected officials most likely to speak at the event is any indication, Friday should be an homage to Boeing’s workers as much as it is about their work product.

“To see this plane out on the runway will be a real tribute to the people who put themselves into it,” Haley said this month, speaking by phone from the RBC Heritage golf tournament, which was sponsored partly by Boeing.

“It tells the entire country and the world that we build things. And we’re going to continue to build things.”

Graham called the rollout “a validation of Boeing’s bet on South Carolina.”

Boeing’s “bet” here dates back more than seven years to when two major suppliers, Vought Aircraft Industries of Texas and Alenia of Italy, picked the swampy woods across from Charleston International Airport as the site for their Dreamliner fuselage factories.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford still remembers an early morning flight from Alabama over the Atlantic coast into Charleston that sold the Alenia higher-ups on the Lowcountry. He credits the keen foresight of his first secretary of commerce, Bob Faith, for getting the Boeing ball rolling here.

“What tends to get highlighted in these things is the last chapter, and as is always the case, there is a lot of spadework that goes on before the last chapter,” said Sanford, Haley’s predecessor.

The first two factories were built along International Boulevard over the course of 2005 and 2006, and over the next two years, Vought wound and cooked two major composite aft-body pieces, while Global Aeronautica, a joint venture between Vought and Alenia, assembled imported mid-body sections next door.

But as with much of the hyped Dreamliner program, problems with overseas parts shortages and the efficiency of the Vought and Alenia workforces led to delays.

So Boeing incrementally bought out Vought and Alenia as part of a strategy to regain control of its sprawling supply chain, while simultaneously weighing the pros and cons of placing a final assembly facility on the site.

Boeing chose North Charleston, a nonunion counterbalance to Puget Sound, in late October 2009 and broke ground on the massive building less than a month later. It opened last June, a few months after Jones arrived to oversee the overall operation.

Jones, an imposing man with silver hair, wore a neon yellow vest over a blue company polo as he arrived at his campus’ Welcome Center Monday. Fresh off the flight line, the 32-year Boeing veteran seemed focused and not a little tense as the big day approached. A television screen in the lobby read, “10 Days to Rollout.”

Asked about his first year on the job, Jones dispensed with his usual talk about the warmth of the weather or people in Charleston, simply saying it had gone by “fast.”

Last year, Jones acknowledged, there was “quite a bit of challenge that we were dealing with.” And things needed to be fixed quickly, as the program was already years late and in the midst of an ambitious production-rate increase.

The aft- and mid-body operations were behind schedule, Jones said. Part shortages, for example, continued to be a major problem. Boeing’s 787 program headquarters in Everett had to take over certain process issues from the old Vought facility.

“A lot of that has really cleared up,” Jones said.

Speaking of the legacy of Vought and Global Aeronautica workers and the new local Boeing hires, Jones said, “It was hard for those guys to integrate.” But, he said, they have “really rallied together.”

The rate has gone from 12 days per plane down to six days per plane. But Jones conceded that he is “one of those guys hard to please,” and said the aft- and mid-body units will need to get down to two days per plane for Boeing to reach its projected building rate.

By the end of next year, Boeing plans to deliver 10 Dreamliners a month — seven from Everett, three from North Charleston.

Jones said the NLRB case, which began a year ago and was finally dismissed in December, was something everyone was aware of but that it didn’t become a distraction.

Perhaps the next most public issue with the local operation came in February when it was revealed that workers in the aft-body building had performed incorrect shimming, or spacer placement, on their fuselage parts.

Jones reiterated previous company statements that the issue has been contained and is being addressed. He also declined to talk about a pair of pending federal lawsuits alleging discrimination at the plant or a contractor who was injured there in December.

But he did note that the final assembly building has gone more than 2 million man-hours without a lost-time injury.

Haley said any new plant, particularly one building something as complex as the 787, will encounter bumps in the road.

“That will happen,” she said. “It’s trying to have the least amount that you can.”

The Boeing site has steadily ramped up its workforce as its responsibilities have increased. There were about 5,000 employees and contractors on site in August. Now there are more than 6,000, which Jones said represents a stable staffing level.

Hiring for the foreseeable future will be only to replace retirees or other attrition.

Jones noted that 85 percent of the nonmanagement Boeing employees on site were hired from within 100 miles of the plant and trained through the state’s ReadySC program.

Suppliers haven’t flocked to the Lowcountry in quite the same way yet.

Jones said he doesn’t know of any that have opened up since he’s been here. He said it’s up to them, not Boeing, but like outside observers, he expects to see many more in the years to come.

Boeing supplier TigHitco is building a composites manufacturing facility along Palmetto Commerce Parkway in North Charleston, and several other companies, including Carbures and Cargo Composites, have mentioned Boeing’s presence as a reason for opening up shop here.

South Carolina Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said “it takes time” for a supplier base to grow up around an original equipment manufacturer like Boeing.

“Companies come to South Carolina when their business plan will work,” he said. “But they’re coming. We’re in conversation with numerous companies.

“You got to get a critical mass and the same thing was true in the car business,” Hitt said. “Everything takes critical mass to start to produce the side effects that you want.”

Longtime aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia also sees Boeing’s big South Carolina experiment, and Friday’s rollout, through a long-term lens. He called it a source of “understandable pride” for South Carolina and a “significant” step in Boeing’s strategy to spread out its production network.

“It’s a real test case for building in a legacy location versus a greenfield location,” said Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group. “The question is, ‘Can you do it in an economically efficient way?’ and we still don’t know. There’s certainly grounds for optimism.”

Meanwhile, back on campus, site preparations were ongoing last week — a crew was doing groundwork on a Boeing history wall next to the company’s Welcome Center, and several young palmetto trees remain supported by braces around the campus.

The parking lot was near full, and Boeing’s workforce is putting in extra hours.

Inside final assembly, Jones said just “several hundred jobs” remain left to be done on the first airplane, out of an original total of almost 12,000. Three more planes-in-progress sit behind LN 46 in the U-shaped assembly line.

Jones said everyone is excited for the big rollout, but it’s not yet time to celebrate.

“Don’t start spiking the football,” he said he’s told his team.