What a difference a year can make. On a bleak, wet and windy day in Everett, Wash, on Dec 15, 2009, I was one of several thousand who braved the weather to watch the long-delayed Boeing 787 make its successful first flight.
The talk then was full of optimism, with Boeing’s 787 flight test team raring to go. Brimming with pent-up energy after five months of frustrating delays waiting for the resolution of the side-of-body structural issue, they were hopeful of making first deliveries to ANA by the end of 2010.
Despite minor flight test hiccups, such as the landing gear and brake heating issue on first flight of ZA002, the initial test pace was impressive. By April, the 787 had been granted an expanded FAA type inspection authorization (TIA), and notched up its 500th flight test hour.
Although plagued behind the scenes with irritating manufacturing and supply chain issues, such as the re-design of shear ties in the aft fuselage and more inspections of the horizontal stabilizer, flight test continued to go relatively smoothly. Stall and flutter tests came and went, and the third 787 even made its international debut at the Farnborough air show during the summer.
But signs of strain were starting to show, and by early July just under 1,100 flight test hours had been accumulated – significantly less than the hoped-for test rate and increasingly below the required curve. Inspections to the tail, plus the shear ties, interrupted flight testing while additional delays were caused by difficulties fitting the correct instrumentation to ZA004, the flight loads survey aircraft.
A slow start to loads tests on ZA004 helped delay the program in 2010, but could ZA004 be about to lead the charge back into flight tests?
The final straw, it seemed, was the uncontained failure of a Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine on a testbed in Derby, U.K. on Aug 2.
Given the build-up of issues in other areas of the test schedule, the new uncertainty over the engine pushed the program into new territory. In late August, Boeing conceded to the inevitable and announced first deliveries would be in February 2011.
In September came more bad news when an engine surged on ZA001 during tests at Roswell, New Mexico, forcing the aircraft to be grounded for several days while a new engine was shipped out.
Frustrating though the engine issues were, the causes appeared to be isolated events and well understood. The re-shuffle of available engines also impacted the schedule downstream, particularly as it delayed the completion of ZA102, one of the initial production aircraft earmarked for the task of augmenting the original test fleet.
However, the 787 test team were getting used to juggling and all seemed relatively do-able within the newly extended schedule. The successful completion of maximum brake energy rejected take-off tests and, later in September, the addition of the second GE-powered 787 to the flight test effort again revived hopes that the certification finish line was almost in sight.
Then came the Nov 9 in-flight electrical fire at Laredo, Texas and the subsequent grounding of the fleet – still in force as the first anniversary of ZA001’s maiden flight comes around. Instead of delivery celebrations or nostalgic flashbacks to first flight, today’s 787 headlines are unfortunately dominated by confirmation that the long-anticipated cancellation of the 787-3 version appears to be finalized.
Overshadowing everything is the continuing uncertainty over how long the latest delay will be. Judging by the latest reports these appear to be anywhere from four to six months – but only Boeing’s beleaguered 787 program chiefs know the real answer to that yet.
But I cannot sign-off without at least one hint of optimism. It seems APU ground tests planned for later this week on ZA004 have been postponed owing to a decision taken to focus instead on preparations for a “return to flight.” No news yet on when that might be, but watch this space.