For the last 12 months I've been giving a monthly update on the 787 flight test progress with the exception of last month. With the one year anniversary of ZA001's first flight and the suspension of 787 flight activities, it seems an appropriate time to review the 787 program and try and take a look ahead to see what awaits the 787. It has been a year of triumphs and heartache within the program and the current forecast for the program is, at best, overcast.
787 - December 15, 2009 to December 14, 2010
December 15, 2009 was a day that Boeing hoped that see the start of putting the troubles of the 787 program in the rear view mirror. It was a day that cloudy and rainy (typical Pacific Northwest weather). The first 787, ZA001, made an on time takeoff and flew for a little over 3 hours. ZA002 flew one week later in a flight that was shortened by issues with the main landing gear door and the nose gear. Nevertheless these initial flights started Boeing on the path of initial airworthiness flight trials. The 787 achieved IAT in mid January 2010 which allowed Boeing to conduct test with the other test flight airplanes as well as with engineers on board. This allowed for the expansion of the787 flight test envelope which would include stability and control testings, flutter testing and functionality and reliability testing of the airplane.
Boeing added airplanes to the test flight fleet with ZA004 flying in late February, 2010 and ZA003 flying in mid March 2010. The near term goal of the program was to achieve Type Inspection Authorization for the 787. This is the point that would formally kick off the certification program for the 787. This point of the program was expected to be achieved by mid to late February, 2010 but was not granted until April 20, 2010. This was a major indicator that the program may suffer delays to the delivery schedule yet again. During this period Boeing had successfully test the 787 wing to the ultimate load limit test on ZY997, the static test airframe. This was a major certification test point that Boeing needed to accomplish given the issues that Boeing had found almost a year earlier with the side of body join and the weakness that was discovered.
Boeing continued testing throughout the spring and summer of 2010. They seemingly hit a very good flight test pace during late May/early June only to see the number of flight and flight hours flown to drop off a month later and then recover later in the summer. Progress was made in September through the early part of November with significant flight hours being posted especially with the GEnx powered 787s that had finally joined the flight test program. However there were set back to flight testing (and production) due to the time needed to inspect the horizontal stabilizers on all 787s due to Alenia's workmanship issues. Boeing needed to spend precious time and resources to inspect and conduct any repairs on the aircraft that were built and/or flying. Still despite the Alenia debacle, Boeing was still on track to deliver the 787 by end of 2010 until an early August Trent 1000 engine test in Derby, UK took a bad turn and the engine had an uncontained failure of it intermediate pressure turbine.
This was a major setback for Rolls and Boeing as it threw the entire schedule into doubt. Indeed, the engine that failed was due to be installed on ZA102 (LN 9) which was to be used for flight tests of production standard aircraft. Boeing had to delay delivery to mid February because of the unavailability of an engine for ZA102 within the needed time frame to start flight tests on this aircraft.
Still Boeing said they were confident in Rolls Royce's hardware and software fixes to prevent a recurrence of the failure and Boeing continued with flight and ground testing of the 787 through early fall until Nov. 9th.
ZA002 was flying a long duration test flight with FAA personnel aboard testing the nitrogen generating system (part of the fuel inerting system) and was on final approach to an airport in Laredo Texas when a fire erupted in the lower electronics bay near the left wing. The fire was out after about 30 seconds but the power panel where the fire originated was destroyed and the aircraft had experienced power distribution problems while in the process of landing. An emergency was declared (apparently after landing) and the crew and test personnel evacuated the aircraft using the emergency slides.
The problems that lead to the fire in the P100 power distribution panel are now well known but now at this point, one year after the first 787 flew the 787 schedule is in shambles. The aviation world is waiting for Boeing's revised schedule. The 787 has had more than its fair share of problems and delays since it was launched in 2004 and there's nothing to say that there won't be any more issues when Boeing and the FAA resumes flight testing.
Boeing is still encountering supplier and production issues and probably will continue to see sporadic halts to part deliveries into Everett. Clearly there is still plenty of issues that need to be cleaned up so that Boeing can start deliveries of the 787 and ramp up production. However, the aviation world is now waking up to the fact in light of problems in various aircraft programs (A380, 787, A400M, F-35, and the A350) that the old model that aircraft manufacturers used to develop, design, test and produce high technology aircraft is out the door. Robert Wall of Aviation Week summed it nicely in a blog post a week ago: "Skeptics quip that Airbus is effectively fighting the last war, and that the only thing it is assuring is that it will invent a whole new series of missteps. If that turns out to be true, then perhaps it is time to put to bed the idea of accelerating development cycles on major products and just learn to live with the fact that the gestation period for a major civil aircraft program is eight years or longer."