Thinking Tech

Boeing's Candor on 787 Delay

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Boeing did the smart thing in taking its lumps this morning disclosing another delay in the hotly anticipated first flight of the 787 Dreamliner. I w...

Boeing did the smart thing in taking its lumps this morning disclosing another delay in the hotly anticipated first flight of the 787 Dreamliner.

I was anxiously expecting going to Seattle and see it take off before month's end. Not now. Disappointment reigns, but the delay means that many fewer dry eyes on the airstrip when it does take off for the first time.  First wheels up will be all the sweeter. Boeing said it'll be a few weeks at the outside before the new first flight schedule will be announced, but indications are delivery delays could be minimal as production remains largely unaffected.

You can argue about when Boeing knew about the overly stressed areas in "the joins" in the wingbox/wing area and when it should have disclosed them. Boeing execs said they were discovered late last month, but didn't have a handle on them until last week. Investors will fret about the impact on Boeing's bottom line as will Boeing execs.  And what about customers which had worked the 787 into their flight lines?

Regardless, Boeing did the right thing.

And I believe former 787 boss and Commercial Airplanes GM Pat Shanahan when he said the plane was perfectly capable of flying limited flight tests on June 30 or before as planned. Boeing could have risked not disclosing the latest problem, flown the plane before June 30 and very well no would have been the worse for not knowing as they rectified the problem in secret.

Boeing did the right thing. You know why?

Boeing at least with respect to the 787 is run by engineers and in their minds, the schedule NEVER dictates when a new planes flies. Airworthiness does. Two of the top three decision 787 makers are engineers with advanced degrees.

Another interesting point that spilled out of this latest glitch was the difference between what computer models predicted and what static tests actually yielded. Static testing is where they physically beat the hell out of a non-moving airframe and put "extreme" loads on the wings "to confirm" computer models. This time, the models failed to predict the stresses produced in static testing.

"We do [static] testing because models are not perfect. When that occurs, we stand back and understand and re-anchor the models. That’s where we find ourselves. The timing is unfortunate," said 787 GM Scott Fancher.

So now the question now becomes what other things did computer models fail to predict that will be found in more static testing and soon to be, I suspect, flight testing. I hope Boeing despite what are becoming unbearable pressures to get this plane flying remains as candid as it has since the delays started piling up two years ago.

The moral of that story: don't always believe what you're computer is telling you.

One final nugget in the call this morning was a reference to the carbon fiber composites that make up 50 percent of the 787. Defending the design and workmanship of the vessel, Boeing commercial planes GM Pat Shanahan added this comment at the end: "The composites are sound,” a veiled reference to one point of focus in the investigation of the crash of Air France 447.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure