NORTH CHARLESTON — South Carolina’s first 787 Dreamliner emerged from Boeing Co.’s final assembly building amid a haze of manufactured fog at 2:30 p.m. today.
“Ladies and gentlemen, here it comes, your 787!”
Pulsating music poured out of loudspeaders, as the gigantic doors of the assembly plant began to open. The crowd counted down, from 10 to 1.
Boeing employees had been given foam rubber wands and were encouraged to act as if they were airport workers, guiding the plane into place.
The 787 turned 45 degrees, and parked behind the stage directly in front of the crowd. The jet, purchased by Air India, has not yet been flown or given a final paint job, but bears the Air India logo in red paint on the white aircraft. Also, the front of the fuselage sports a large painted Palmetto and crescent, as on the South Carolina flag. It says, “Made with pride in South Carolina.”
Gov. Nikki Haley walked the podium to “Dream On” by Aerosmith and called it a “great day in South Carolina.” It was noted during the governor’s introduction that Haley’s parents are from India - the destination of the newly built Dreamliner.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh recalls pitching the idea of setting up an assembly line in South Carolina, to the company’s board of directors.
“You have reinforced that we made a good decision two and a half years ago,” he said.
It is a historic day, Albaugh said.
“Today marks the first large commercial airplane to be built in the South,” he said.
Boeing plans to ramp up and make three 787 airplanes a month in North Charleston, but Albaugh urged the local workers to go beyond that.
“If we can build more, we can sell them,” Albaugh said around 2:15 p.m. “Please do that.”
Minutes earlier, Boeing South Carolina general manager Jack Jones rallied the crowd, chanting: “We build jets. We build jets.”
The procession making the start of the Dreamliner rollout began shortly after 1 p.m., led by the marching band from Charleston’s Burke High School playing “Celebrate” by Kool and the Gang. By 1:30, the crowd was in place and ready — a sea of Boeing blue and white shirts.
Boeing final assembly and delivery executive Marco Cavazzoni warmed up the crowd. This isn’t just about rolling out an airplane, he said, it’s about introducing the best team in commercial aviation since the Wright brothers; the Boeing employees in North Charleston.
Following a break for the “Star Spangled Banner,” belted out by a plant employee, Cavazzoni recounted the history of the Boeing campus.
Then it was time for the speeches.
During his turn at the podium, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham made a poke at the National Labor Relations Board, which sued Boeing for union busting last year and sought to have the 787 line in North Charleston plant moved to Washington state. Graham said the NLRB couldn’t make couldn’t make it to today’s event,
S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell says the Charleston area will be known for building the most advanced aircraft in the world, just as Silicon Valley is known for computers and New York is known for stock trading.
“You are sending a loud and clear message to the global business community,” he told Boeing workers.
Cavazzoni said the mood at the local plane-making campus is one of excitement and accomplishment.
“It’s a big event for everybody,” he said.
The ceremony was over by 3 p.m.
Earlier in the day, Cavazzoni, Jones and other company executives led dozens of journalists on a whirlwind tour of the campus adjacent to Charleston International Airport. It was a combination primer and update on all the manufacturing and assembly that has gone on at the site since the final assembly plant opened in June.
The discussion ranged from the shimming problem in the aft-body factory that surfaced earlier this year to the plans for Boeing South Carolina to deliver four 787 Dreamliners to Air India by the end of this year.
The first stop was the aft-body building, where rear fuselage composite pieces 47 and 48 are constructed and cooked to form in a giant oven called an autoclave. The operation was humming along, with one team meeting around a flat screen displaying a graph while others moved around inside the big, round fuselage sections.
Matthew Borland, director of that unit since shortly after Boeing bought it from Vought Aircraft Industries, said his team of 650 is turning out a new plane’s sections once every six days, with the composite fabrication group on a four-day schedule, typical of their gradual rate increase strategy. Building 88-19 supplies both the North Charleston final assembly line and its older sibling in Everett, Wash.
Of the shimming problem, Borland argued “it’s a story of how far Boeing will go to make the integrity of the product.”
He explained how very narrow fly-away shims, or spacers, filled the top and bottom of gaps near the edge of the fuselage pieces but not the middle. When that was discovered, Boeing decided to reexamine all the affected planes. Boeing CEO Jim McNerney said this week that 14 or 15 planes have since been fixed, and Borland said he’ll continue to keep his eye on the issue.
“It’s a big watch item,” he said.
Just northwest of aft-body in the mid-body building, Willy Geary, that unit’s director, walked the flock of notebook- and gadget-toting media between his three long assembly lines. He said his unit is also producing at a six days per plane rate, a major improvement from when it was a joint venture between Vought Aircraft and Alenia Aeronautica.
“This building was the number one problem on the program,” he said. Now, according to Geary, it’s “a model of what can be done.”
Asked what it was like to lead a non-union workforce as opposed to the unionized teams at other Boeing sites, Geary said his South Carolina group “has more spirit” than any he’s been a part of.
The mid-section of Dreamliner 80 was moving along one line and the mid-section for jet number 67 will fly to Washington state tonight in the belly of the 747 Dreamlifter freighter.
If all goes according to plan, the mid-body plant will make fuselage sections for the 787-9, the extended version of the Dreamliner, starting this time next year. But Geary seems focused on what he’s got on his plate right now.
The bus tour then made a pit stop at the campus delivery center, which opened in December, before moving to the centerpiece of the campus, the 1.2 million square-foot final assembly building.
Besides the mostly completed plane facing northwest just at the end of the U-shaped assembly line, three Dreamliners in various stages of completion sat in a line facing International Boulevard. Elaborate scaffolding with assembly machines fit around the partially put together trio of jets. A haze hung in the air as workers and forklifts moved around the massive space.
Jones said called the plant a world-class operation that’s “infused” with the best ideas from other assembly lines.
The final assembly plant went from “dirt” to rollout in 2.5 years, he said.
Jones also noted that while the 787 launch was delayed by three years, Boeing kept 59 global airline customers, underscoring their faith in lightweight passenger jet.
Up in the balcony overlooking the assembly line, he said that in his decades at the aerospace giant, this afternoon’s rollout will rank “right at the top.”
“It’s history,” he said.
Today’s long-awaited debut isn’t lost on other Boeing employees like Don Craig.
Craig, a 787 aft-body senior manager who hails from Oregon, sized up the milestone while grabbing a bite to eat in the company’s cafeteria,
“This is big,” he said.Boeing will deliver the jet that was unveiled today to Air India within six weeks, The next plane will roll off the line two to three months later. likely to less fanfare than today’s carefully planned festivities.
And by this time next year, the mid-body plant in North Charleston will be making fuselage structures for a longer version of the Dreamliner called the 787-9.
David Slade, John McDermott and Schuyler Kropf of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.