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Originally published June 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 11, 2008 at 10:11 AM

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Boeing expertise speeding up 787 partners

The two factories planted here to build big Boeing 787 Dreamliner fuselage sections began as a disastrous experience in outsourcing. Their incomplete work played...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The two factories planted here to build big Boeing 787 Dreamliner fuselage sections began as a disastrous experience in outsourcing. Their incomplete work played a large part in the snafus that snarled the final assembly line in Everett and has delayed the 787's first flight by 14 months.

But as mechanics at one of the Charleston factories put finishing touches Tuesday to the fuselage of Dreamliner No. 4, there was clear evidence the crucial jet program is recovering and can finally meet its much-revised assembly schedule.

Boeing and ex-Boeing managers are calling the shots and leading the turnaround at the twin Charleston plants.

And the local work force, with little or no prior aerospace experience and only a few months' training, is bolstered by many contract workers and by mechanics on loan from Boeing's aircraft-maintenance operation in San Antonio.

Until the local work force can learn all that these guys know, the Global Aeronautica factory here is what Dreamliner supply-chain chief Bob Noble called "the 787's United Nations" — a factory floor where the trash cans are labeled in Japanese and Italian as well as English.

Inside, a huddle of mechanics installed systems on the floor of the long central fuselage section of Dreamliner No. 4.

One was from Fuji in Japan, one from Alenia of Italy and four from Boeing San Antonio, said Mike Bunker, Boeing's on-site program manager.

Two wore T-shirts from PlaneTechs, a suburban Chicago contract aircraft-maintenance company.

Boeing is about to take over half-ownership of Global Aeronautica from Vought of Texas, with Italy's Alenia retaining the other half.

The recovery at Global Aeronautica is led on the shop floor by Wayne McCarty and Rich Hansen, a pair of retired Boeing Everett factory chiefs and close buddies.

And the Vought factory next door is run by Joy Romero, now a Vought vice president but with 25 years' experience at Boeing.

"I still feel like I work for Boeing," said Romero. "And there's a lot of emotion in that statement."

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The site is near Charleston's Air Force base and commercial airport, and two-thirds of the fuselage of Boeing's 787 comes together here.

The entire manufacturing site might as well be dubbed Boeing East Coast.

Catching up

Vought's Charleston operation has fixed the problems that marred early deliveries and is now approaching Boeing's original concept, said Romero.

The proof is this: Dreamliner No. 1's rear fuselage left the Charleston plant in May 2007 with only 16 percent of its structure completed and none of the systems installed.

But when the rear fuselage of Dreamliner No. 4 was delivered to Everett last week, it had 98 percent of the structure finished and 87 percent of the systems installed, Romero said.

The heavily automated factory, where carbon-fiber placement machines lay ¼-inch strands on a rotating mold to create the fuselage structure as a single piece, has worked fine.

Vought has begun work on the fuselage for Dreamliner No. 19. And the basic structural sections for 12, 13 and 14 are complete and stacked up waiting for systems installation — delayed only by Boeing's slowed-down production schedule.

Romero said Vought's earlier problems derived not from fabricating the fuselage sections but from all the systems expected from its sub-tier suppliers.

Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), for example, was supposed to supply the plane's floor grid as a single structure. "We got a lot of piece parts," said Romero.

Vought has now taken assembly of the floor grid away from IAI, which will in the future supply only the pieces.

Help from contractors

Romero's work force of 325 Vought employees is augmented by 300 contractors who focus on finishing the incomplete work.

The delay in Boeing's delivery schedule is helping Vought catch up. Overtime on the fuselage fabrication has stopped, and some workers have transferred to the systems installation.

Romero insisted that the local work force is as good as at any other new factory site.

Aerospace is new to this region, she said. "There's a lot of pressure. There's a lot for them to learn."

She conceded the plant has had "some turnover," but said that is normal for a startup manufacturing site.

Boeing's Noble backed her up.

The problem that arose in manufacturing here "isn't about a location," said Noble. "It's about bringing up a production system of a new advanced airplane that is an invention."

Leaning from a cherry-picker lift over a fuselage section just removed from the huge high-pressure oven that hardens it, Derek McCann supervised Pam Param as she clipped a few loose strands of fiber with scissors.

McCann, 25, is certified as a mechanical inspector and runs the fiber-placement machine. He joined Vought last July from rental-car company Hertz, where he was an auto detailer.

McCann and several others said his pay scale starts at $14 an hour. A typical Boeing machinist in the Puget Sound region earns $26 an hour and up after just a few years.

Next-door neighbor

Next door, the Global Aeronautica plant is more akin to Boeing's Everett factory.

Here, big fuselage sections that come in from Alenia in Italy and from Fuji and Kawasaki in Japan are joined to make an 84-foot-long slice of the center fuselage of the plane.

Inside that section of Dreamliner No. 4 — exactly as forecast a couple of weeks ago on a tour of final assembly in Everett by program chief Pat Shanahan — most systems and wiring are already installed.

The head of the plant is Mario Capitelli, a former Northrop Grumman executive who led the Northrop/EADS team that beat out Boeing for the Air Force refueling-tanker program

McCarty and Hansen, the two retired Boeing factory chiefs, originally came to Global Aeronautica last summer as consultants.

After three months of observation, they presented a plan to the company's board that was not appreciated by some in charge at the time, according to people familiar with what happened.

After a change in leadership, Capitelli arrived in November and called them back to take over the recovery.

"I wanted to get a couple of senior people to lead the folks," Capitelli said.

Global Aeronautica has about 365 direct employees supplemented by around 140 contractors and more than 300 others from partner companies in the Dreamliner program.

Michael Albright, 29, who joined Global last fall and works as a mechanic, said the mix is working to help him and the other new hires.

"The contractors are helping tremendously," said Albright.

Capitelli said his target is to deliver a "fully stuffed" fuselage section to Everett for Dreamliner No. 8.

Outside the plant, on the tarmac Tuesday afternoon, the giant Dreamlifter 787 cargo carrier — a 747 that had its top cut off and replaced with a bulbous dome so it can hold the big fuselage sections — sat ready to fly to Everett and on to Japan.

Outside, this ungainly beast made from old-fashioned metal seems in some patches to be entirely covered in rivets.

Inside, the enormous cargo space of this outsourcing vehicle rises cathedral-like to a vaulted ceiling, a testament to Boeing's faith and ambition.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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