In Wichita, the 787 Dreamliner gets its head start

Every month, Spirit Aerosystems turns out ten Dreamliner forward sections, complete with electronics and other systems. CNET Road Trip 2014 checked out the production line.

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At Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kan., the cockpit on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner still has a lot of work that needs to be completed. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

WICHITA, Kan.--When technicians at Spirit Aerosystems are done with their assembly work on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, they power it up. The aircraft's computers thinks it's ready to fly, and it would be -- but for one thing: the plane has no wings or tail, and is missing most of its body.

Still, a Dreamliner wouldn't be a Dreamliner without Spirit, which since 787s were first being built in 2007 has been the company that makes the next-generation composite plane's forward section.

Although the Dreamliner has caused Boeing no end of headaches, given its long history of mechanical problems, on-board fires, worker strikes, supply chain interruptions, and other issues, it is still considered a leap forward in aviation, largely because it's made with lighter composite materials instead of aluminum, and as a result is as much as 20 percent more fuel-efficient than similar-sized planes.

These are important times for the Dreamliner program. Just last week, Boeing showed off the newest version of the Dreamliner, the longer 787-9, at the Farnborough Air Show in England, hoping to drum up more customers. Already, Boeing has customer orders for 409 of the 787-9 jets but only delivered its first on Friday to Air New Zealand.

As for the original 787-8, which first flew in 2009, Boeing said that to date, 60 customers have made orders for more than 1,000 of the planes, for a total value of more than $240 billion. Despite the many problems the program has dealt with, including having the entire fleet grounded by the US Federal Aviation Administration in January 2013, the Dreamliner is "the most successful twin-aisle launch of a new commercial airplane in Boeing's history."

According to Boeing, both the 787-8 and 787-9 have a range of 7,850 nautical miles. The 787-8 carries up to 242 passengers, while the 787-9 holds up to 280 passengers. By comparison, Airbus' direct competitor to the 787 line, the A350, can fly maximums of between 276 and 369 passengers a total of between 7,750 and 8,250 nautical miles, depending on the model. Airbus has received a total of 742 orders for A350s, though it has yet to deliver the plane to customers. The A350 made its first flight a year ago.

As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I visited Spirit in this south-central Kansas city of 386,000 to see how the Dreamliner -- both versions -- first takes shape. Having previously visited Boeing's massive manufacturing facility in Everett, Wash., to see 787 final assembly, I've long been eager to see this part of the process. As an aviation nut, I was not disappointed.

Boeing until 2005

For 75 years, Boeing had a major presence in Wichita, long a hotbed for airplane manufacturing thanks to its proximity to the oil and gas industries in Oklahoma and Texas. But in 2005, the aviation giant decided to spin off its Kansas operations as a stand-alone company. The result was Spirit Aerosystems. Where previously, it had done 100 percent of its work as part of Boeing, it now does 85 percent of its work for Boeing, yet also works on elements of airplanes made by Airbus, Boeing's arch-rival, among others.

Spirit's operations are global, and it manufactures the forward sections of Boeing's 747, 767, 777, and of course, the 787 Dreamliner -- though the 787 is the only plane in which it also installs all the forward section's on-board systems. It also builds the entire fuselage for Boeing's 737 -- which I will write about in part two of my Spirit coverage. In addition, it does work on the Airbus A320, A380, A350, as well as various elements of planes built by Gulfstream, Mitsubishi, and Bombardier.

Recently, Spirit was in the news when a train carrying 737 fuselages to Boeing in Washington State derailed in Montana, causing several of the airplane bodies to end up in a river.

But Spirit has a long history with the 787 program, having been involved in the airplane's inception when it was still part of Boeing. And today, it turns out about 10 Dreamliner front sections a month, a number that could rise when and if Boeing asks Spirit to ramp up production. That seems likely, said Ken Evans, my host at Spirit, because Boeing recently updated its 20-year market forecast, "and it looks really, really good."

It begins with barrels

To see a Dreamliner in its earliest stages is to look at something that reminds you of an airplane but yet doesn't seem quite like one.

It all begins in Spirit's "clean room," where technicians assemble what's called a "barrel," essentially a cylinder made from a set of tools known as mandrels that form the shape of the Dreamliner's front section.

Once the mandrels are put together, a giant machine methodically winds a couple thousand pounds of composite "slit tape" around the barrel, explained Terry George, the head of the 787 program at Spirit, gradually forming the shape of the forward section. When that's finished, and the shell of the section is complete, the mandrels are removed. Then it's on to the autoclave.

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A 787 Dreamliner 'barrel' is 'cooked' in an autoclave at Sprit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kan. Spirit Aerosystems

For years, Spirit had the world's largest autoclave, explained technician Scott Stauffer. But it was eventually eclipsed -- by a few inches. Still, the 30-foot-wide, 70-foot-long pressure cooker is an impressive sight. Though Spirit won't divulge the temperature or pressure Dreamliner sections experience, Stauffer said that they stay in the autoclave for 10 hours when "I'm cooking a barrel."

The results are striking: The forward sections enter the autoclave all black and come out as one silver cylindrical piece. Still not recognizable as something you'd want to fly on, they are then moved slowly through a series of "trim and drill" stations where windows and doors are cut from the cylinder, and a wide variety of other components are installed. Although the exterior of the fuselage of the Dreamliner is composite, many of the additional strengthening components that go on the inside are made from aluminum or titanium.

Painting and final assembly

When a silver-colored Dreamliner forward section has had all its windows, doors, and landing gear compartments cut out, and its interior structure elements added, it heads to the paint shop. There, it is bathed in coats of shiny white paint. Airlines' liveries will only be added at Boeing's facilities in Everett, Wash., and North Charleston, S.C., where final assembly of 787s, including fastening the forward section to the rest of the fuselage, takes place.

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More adventures from Road Trip 2014

Check out the latest from Daniel's trip to the best tech spots in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and more.

    Spirit has its own Dreamliner final assembly facility, however. That's where the company completes its work on the 787. Lined up side by side, eight in a row, the forward sections have a wide variety of systems installed, both on the plane's upper -- passenger -- level, and on its lower, cargo level. Looking at these partial airplanes, it's hard to believe that they will soon be plying the skies, full of passengers jetting around the world.

    The final stop in Wichita for the Dreamliner is a power-on station, where workers fire up the plane's computers and put them through a simulated flying test. The computers, unaware that the wings, tail, and rest of the fuselage have yet to be added, run through their tasks, and when the technicians are satisfied, Spirit's work is done.

    All that's left is for the now all-white sections, their windows covered in white tape, to be loaded onto Boeing's special Dreamlifter -- a plane built just to carry Dreamliner components -- and flown to either Everett or North Charleston for true final assembly.

    Without a doubt, the Dreamliner has over the years earned more than its share of bad publicity. But when you're able to see the plane -- or at least its front section -- go from narrow black pieces to smooth and shiny cylinder, complete with windows and a working cockpit, it's easy to forget all the problems and just imagine the 787 in the air, full of passengers, cutting across the skies.

    Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out most interesting technology, military, aviation, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From U.S. Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 will take you along with me.

     

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