After 101 years of history, the choreography of a first flight event for a Boeing commercial aircraft seems rather routine. The telemetry truck is stationed at an appropriate location, the Boeing-owned Lockheed T-33 chase plane taxies by and takes off and then the new model or sub-model completes pre-flight checks and rotates into a typically cloudy Pacific Northwest sky.
But something was different on 31 March. The 787-10 – the third, largest and perhaps most fully realised of the Dreamliner family – took off not from the familiar environs of Paine Field in Everett, Washington, but from Charleston International airport, South Carolina, on a narrow neck of Lowcountry marshland between the Ashley and Cooper rivers.
It is true that the 787-10 is not technically the first Boeing-made commercial aircraft to make a debut flight outside the Seattle area. That honour belongs to the 717, née MD-95, which first flew from Long Beach airport in California in August 1998, one year after Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas.
But still a page has been turned. Boeing will fly new versions of the 737 and 777 out of Renton and Everett, Washington, including the imminent maiden take-off of the 737 Max 9, almost exactly 50 years after the 737-100 did the same in April 1967. But it remains an open question where Boeing will build any other model or sub-variant, and that very ambiguity signifies how much has changed, nearly a decade after a famously incomplete 787-8 staged a public debut on 8 July, 2007.
In that decade, the US southeast has become a major global hub for commercial aircraft assembly, including Boeing’s 7,000-strong workforce in South Carolina. Airbus delivers A320-family jets from Mobile, Alabama, and Spirit AeroSystems builds the centre fuselage for the A350 in Kinston, North Carolina. Other states and countries are vying for highly valued aerospace assembly work, and that pressure will only continue to grow. When Boeing says it will consider other options for final assembly in the future, North Charleston is living proof that the company means it.
It is hasty to rule out Washington’s chances. The state and labour groups must continue efforts to make the region more competitive, but the aerospace cluster in the Pacific Northwest remains stronger and more resilient than any of the regional newcomers. Workers there have seen and survived far darker moments in the industry’s past, and they will most likely play a critical role in its future.
Source: Flight International