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Originally published Monday, February 8, 2010 at 3:28 PM

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Boeing workers cheer first flight of a 'graceful monster'

To shouts of "Come on big bird!" and "Yeah!" from several thousand Boeing workers, the 747-8 soared into the sky on its first flight from Everett's Paine Field Monday.

Times Snohomish County reporter

To shouts of "Come on big bird!" and "Yeah!" the Boeing 747-8 soared into the sky on its first flight from Everett's Paine Field Airport Monday.

The plane returned after nearly four hours of flying east-west and north-south loops over the Olympic Peninsula, with one swing southeast around Mt. Rainier.

Several thousand Boeing workers cheered on the take-off of the jumbo jet's latest update.

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

And like the first takeoff of the 787 in mid-December, he said, "It was over way too fast."

Low clouds delayed the first flight by more than two hours, and by the time the jumbo jet finally taxied out to the runway, many of the employees who'd gathered for the planned 10 a.m. launch had returned to work — or at least retreated indoors to warm up.

The crowds were smaller than those that gathered for the 787 launch, which heralded a new generation of composite-plastic planes. The 747, by contrast, is a workhorse of the Boeing fleet, still largely aluminum in construction and with the same distinctive bubble profile — though it sports new engines and avionics and an updated wing.

But there was plenty of pride and competitive spirit among those watching the redesigned jumbo jet's first flight. Many workers spoke of Boeing's rivalry with Airbus, particularly the European airplane manufacturer's super-jumbo A380, which is bigger overall but doesn't have the cargo carrying capability of the new 747-8.

"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. "This plane surpasses the A380."

Roger Dang, another flight test engineer, said the successive flights of the 787 and the 747-8 less than two months apart showed Boeing's depth and capability.

"To get two planes certified at the same time shows a lot of technical expertise," Dang said.

Left unsaid was the fact that had the two planes been delivered on time, the 787 would have been airborne about two-and-a-half years ago, and the 747-8 a year ago.

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Many of those watching the takeoff from Paine Field were conscious of the historical symmetry. Boeing's first 747 took off Feb. 9, 1969, 41 years ago Tuesday.

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

Although the delays and supply chain problems were fewer and much less well publicized than those on the 787, Huard said the project team withstood a lot of pressure and long hours to deliver the plane Monday.

"We're seeing the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of good people," he said.

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."

While orders have been sluggish, some workers looked forward to a potential high-profile sale — one to the President. Air Force One is either of two aging 747s, and there was hope on the tarmac that the government would be ordering a few VIP versions of the redesigned jet.

"We expect them to buy a few Air Force Ones," said John Weber, who works on the 747-8's electrical power generations. "It's a great airplane. It's wonderfully huge."

As the overcast Everett skies gave way to brilliant sunshine, Boeing workers scanned the horizon for a last glimpse of the big new plane as it started its test flight.

"We've got to get back and get another one of these out," said Fred Clement, a manufacturing engineer for the new jumbo jet. "It will be amazing when the customers actually get it."

Mukilteo real estate broker Bruce McKinnon returned to Paine Field to watch the inagural flight's landing at 4:18.

With the afternoon sun lighting up a backdrop of clouds, the 747-8 plane approached the runway, its landing lights ablaze.

"That," said McKinnon, "is a big plane."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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