Success. Four flights Thursday morning. All against 21-mile wind. Started from level with engine power alone. Average speed through air 31 miles. Longest 59 seconds. Inform press. Home Christmas.
So telegraphed Orville and Wilbur Wright in December 1903, and the formerly earthbound human race never looked back.
A continent away from Kitty Hawk, Seattle was living off the Klondike Gold Rush and timber, the latter attracting a young Yale dropout named William Boeing.
Today, a big part of the future of flight, especially for the airline industry, is encompassed in the 787 Dreamliner. This revolutionary airplane is built of carbon composites for greater strength and lighter weight, as well as including a host of other leading-edge technologies.
The Dreamliner’s wingspan is longer than the distance of Orville Wright’s first flight.
Boeing’s Washington employment of 87,000 ranks it the state’s largest private-sector employer and the crown jewel that makes the Puget Sound region one of the world’s leading aerospace centers.
Yet success rarely comes easy, and just when it seemed as if the Dreamliner was past its delayed and bungled-by-outsourcing birth, a few glitches in operating 787s culminated last Monday with what regulators called “severe fire damage” to the electrical bay in a parked Japan Airlines plane parked at the Boston airport.
No one was hurt. No one was injured. (When the 707 was undergoing training flights by airlines in the late 1950s, people died in two crashes. I don’t mention that as an excuse for Boeing, but only for context.)
It’s not only that Americans are more accustomed to safer flying today. The world — passengers, pilots, competitors, investors, innovators — is watching the Dreamliner with particular vigilance.
This is a hyper-complex airplane in an age that is growing fearful of hyper-complexity.
Precisely because it is such a transformative airplane, it will receive an extra measure of scrutiny for some time. How many times have you heard: “I’m not flying in a plastic airplane.”
The lithium-ion battery that caught fire in Boston is one of the airplane’s leaps forward, part of an advanced electrical system that saves weight and fuel costs.
So last week, Boeing definitely had a public-relations problem.
The serious battery fire was easily conflated with other, unrelated, incidents, including a 787 forced to make an emergency landing in New Orleans last month. The day after the battery fire, a fuel leak was found in a Dreamliner, also in Boston. Boeing shares fell in a mini-panic.
By Thursday, the stock had stabilized and Boeing’s leadership was giving confident and assuring statements.
“I’m 100 percent convinced the airplane is safe to fly,” 787 chief project engineer Mike Sinnett told reporters.
I’m 99 percent convinced Boeing didn’t expect 2013 to start this way. It surpassed Airbus in sales and deliveries last year.
Hiring is up, with more than 5,000 new jobs added in 2012, and growth expected to continue.
Challenges remained, such as moving swiftly on the 737 MAX and a potential strike by the engineering union.
But not Dreamliner trouble. Again.
The battery fire may well prove to be one of the glitches expected in a new airplane. (We don’t even read about most of the everyday problems in commercial aviation from seasoned airplanes.)
Yet last week reinforced the extraordinary pressure the Dreamliner exerts on the company. The company hopes to sell 5,000 of the jets over the next 20 years while leapfrogging Airbus technologically and addressing a future of unpredictable fuel costs.
Yet the many production delays kept pushing back the point at which the 787 becomes profitable.
More delays and too many canceled orders because of a loss of confidence could lead the Dreamliner to become the airplane that busted the company.
What if another issue causes the government to ground the plane or revoke its extended-operations certification that allows for valuable transoceanic flights?
The nightmare scenario would be that the battery fire is not isolated, but linked back to the extreme outsourcing and budgetary decisions made by Boeing executives. When the suits forgot the company’s competitive advantage lay with its engineering strength in the Seattle area, not with Jack Welch-style management in Chicago.
Another nightmare: A strike by the people Boeing will depend on now to find the cause of this battery fire incident and to find a fix to ensure it never happens again, its engineering professionals, are talking of a strike.
The prospect is so irrational and destructive that one is tempted to discount it.
Fortunately, these are unlikely.
Boeing is ramping up assembly and delivery of the jetliner at both Everett and its North Charleston, S.C. plant.
Last week’s Dreamliner episodes, and the international attention they generated, should be enough to give both sides pause.
This will be a pivotal year for Boeing, which is juggling many projects at once. It can’t afford to drop one.
The Wright measure remains the same, after nearly 110 years: Success.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org
About Jon Talton
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest