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Originally published February 8, 2010 at 12:46 PM | Page modified March 9, 2010 at 2:24 PM

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Corrected version

747-8 soars smoothly on first outing

The mammoth 747-8 plane earned an enthusiastic thumbs-up from its chief test pilot, who said the stretched new version of the iconic plane could easily be flown by "any 747 crew in the world."

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Bigger than ever

The 747-8 is the largest U.S. commercial plane ever built. Some highlights:

Size: 250 feet long; 225-foot wingspan

Rival: Nearly 11 feet longer, though not bigger, than Airbus superjumbo A380

Cargo capacity: 16 percent more than current 747-400

Improvements: More efficient wings; new engines similar to 787 Dreamliner; updated flight deck; advanced flight controls

Sources: Boeing, Airbus

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Boeing's chief pilot on the 747 disembarked from the newest and largest Boeing jet after its maiden flight Monday and immediately gave it the thumbs-up.

"It worked great, it really did," Mark Feuerstein reassured the engineers and managers who crowded around to pump his hand.

The new 747-8, a long, graceful giant in the sky, returned to Paine Field after a trouble-free flight of 3 hours, 39 minutes. The pilots said they accomplished all the tests planned for the flight.

"Toward the end, we did the obligatory photo around Mount Rainier — things were going so well," Feuerstein said at a postflight news conference.

Like the program itself, which is running a year behind the original schedule, the first flight began with a delay as low clouds held back the takeoff.

But after the sun broke through, only good omens were apparent. Shortly before the 12:39 p.m. takeoff, an eagle spiraled in the updraft above one of the helicopters hovering in place to observe the departure.

Several thousand Boeing workers cheered on the takeoff, with shouts of "Yeah!" and "Come on, big bird!"

"That was gorgeous!" said Richard Herald, a 747-8 avionics engineer who stood with colleagues on the tarmac at Paine Field.

Some relished the historical symmetry that the flight came almost 41 years to the day after Boeing's original 747 made its inaugural voyage on Feb. 9, 1969.

"The 747 still reigns as queen of the skies," said Steve Huard, the 747-8 senior project manager, who called the plane a "graceful monster."

As the massive plane disappeared from view into a small cloud bank, the swirls of air turbulence at the tip of its wings left twin, counter-rotating spirals of vapor that lingered a few seconds to mark the jet's passage.

The plane, as planned, flew only at low speed, about 230 knots, and low altitude, no higher than 17,000 feet.

It flew north toward Bellingham, then wheeled west out to Sequim and south over the Olympic Peninsula. The crew cycled the landing gear several times during the flight, shut down and reignited the engines, and did "extensive system testing," Feuerstein said.

Afterward, Feuerstein stressed that the plane handled like a regular 747. That's an important selling point, because it means customers won't have to train pilots already certified on the 747-400s to fly this jet — a plane that's not only 18 feet longer and 13 feet wider, but also has a new wing and a modernized flight deck and flight-control systems.

"Any 747 crew in the world could have flown the flight Tom and I just did," Feuerstein said.

With its new engines based on the Dreamliner GEnx engines, the 747-8 was noticeably quieter on takeoff than the smaller 777 that departed just before it at Paine Field.

On hand to greet Feuerstein after he landed were Joe Sutter, lead engineer on the original 747, and Jim Albaugh, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief.

Albaugh expressed confidence Boeing can get a return on the investment it has made in the airplane, despite a paucity of current orders due to the economic downturn.

He noted in particular the appealing economics of the airplane as a cargo freighter.

"When the freighter market comes back, this is going to be a freighter people are going to have to have," Albaugh said. "We'll sell a lot of airplanes."

Pat Shanahan, head of all commercial-airplane programs at Boeing, suggested the company's travails of 2009 may finally be overcome. He noted that Dreamliners No. 1 and No. 2 also had flight tests Monday.

"Things are coming together," Shanahan said.

Brian Johnson, deputy test program manager for the 747, said Monday's flight sets up something of a healthy rivalry between the Dreamliner under flight test at Boeing Field and the 747-8, which will be based first at Moses Lake and later in Palmdale, Calif.

Both jets are due to complete tests and deliver their first planes to customers by the end of the year.

"It's been a long haul to get these two airplanes together and in the air," Johnson said. "Now we have a little horse race going on."

Feuerstein said the plane will remain in Everett for a couple of weeks before flying to Moses Lake as it is readied with instrumentation for further tests.

Many Boeing workers watching the flight spoke of their rivalry with Airbus, particularly the European plane-maker's superjumbo A380, which is bigger. It has no freighter version, so the 747-8 will be the largest freighter in production.

"We take some bragging rights today," said Jelani Gowdy, a flight-test engineer who will be helping to analyze data from the jumbo jet's initial flights.

The launch was a family affair for Scott Pelton, director of airplane systems for the 747-8.

His wife, Suzie Ness, works with flight computers. His son, David Pelton, works on the telemetry.

"It's an incredible thrill to finally see it fly," he said. "We've been working on it, sharing stories. It becomes a part of you, and now we see all our efforts come to fruition."

Seattle Times Snohomish County reporter Lynn Thompson contributed to this story.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963

or dgates@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published February 8, 2010, was corrected February 19, 2010. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the A380 doesn't have as large a cargo capacity; that's because it doesn't have a freighter version like the 747-8 does.

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