Dreamliner takes to the skies

More than two years late, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner jet has successfully completed its first test flight, in a critical milestone for the problem-plagued aircraft seen as key to the future of the US aerospace giant.

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Under dreary skies, the Dreamliner took off at 10.27am local time to loud applause from those gathered at Paine Field near Boeing’s plant in the western state of Washington.

The first flight of the revolutionary new “green” passenger jet came after more than two years of production problems that pushed back delivery of the first plane to Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways to late 2010.

Boeing is hanging its future hopes on the plane – its first new model in over a decade – which draws on huge advances in aviation technology and is capable of flying long-haul routes with up to 20 percent less fuel.

The fuel efficiency is largely down to the fact that up to half the mid-size, twin-aisle 787 Dreamliner is made of lightweight composite materials, such as carbon fibre-reinforced resin, the company said.

By contrast, its predecessor, the Boeing 777, which made its first flight in 1994, was composed of 12 percent composite material.

Flight tests

The Dreamliner, wearing the Boeing test-flight blue livery with 787 emblazoned on its tail, passed its final functional tests on Saturday to be cleared for Tuesday’s flight over Puget Sound and Washington state.

Over more than five-and-a-half hours, captains Mike Carriker and Randy Neville tested key systems, such as the environmental control systems, hydraulics, structures and engines, and stability.

Onboard equipment recorded and transmitted real-time data to a test team, the company said.

Boeing are looking to schedule the first test flight of a second 787 on December 22nd, a senior Boeing official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

During the final taxi testing on Saturday, the airplane reached a top speed of about 130 knots (240 kilometres per hour), and the pilots lifted the nose gear from the pavement, Boeing said.

“Our pilots told me the airplane performed beautifully,” said Mike Delaney, vice president and chief project engineer for the 787.

Commercial supremacy

Chicago-based Boeing, vying with European rival Airbus for commercial supremacy, is betting its cutting-edge Dreamliner is the winning vision for the future of global commercial aviation.

The promise of lower fuel costs in a sector where profit margins are already razor-thin has whet the appetites of several key players in the airline industry.

“Today’s maiden flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a game changer,” said US Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state.

“It marks a new level of technological excellence by combining the world’s best jet fuel efficiency with lower emissions, a more comfortable passenger experience and a quieter environment for airport communities.”

But the new international production model that relies on Asian and European manufacturers to supply some of the key parts has been dogged by a series of delays.

Boeing launched the program in April 2004 and initially had planned to deliver the first airplane to ANA in the first half of 2008, a delivery now set for late 2010.

Airbus competition

It faces stiff competition in the commercial aviation market from Airbus, a unit of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company.

Airbus is working on a new long-haul A350 plane aimed at competing with the Dreamliner and expected to fly in mid-2013.

Boeing says it has 840 orders on its books from 55 customers for the cutting-edge plane, which it claims is the “fastest-selling all-new jetliner in aviation history.”

United Airlines announced last week it would buy 25 Dreamliners, as well as 25 A350s, with the option to buy 50 more of each aircraft.

But the delays in the 787 program contributed to a $US1.6 billion ($A1.8 billion) loss in the third quarter and Boeing has slashed this year’s earnings guidance by more than a third.

Airline companies that have cancelled orders for the delay-plagued 787 include Russian carrier S7, Dubai-based aircraft leasing company LCAL and Australia’s Qantas.

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