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Boeing's next-gen 747 takes first flight

The 747-8 Freighter, whose passenger version is slated to come a year later, is getting tested alongside the 787 Dreamliner in Washington state.

Boeing's 747-8F takes to the air for the very first time on Monday, from Paine Field in Everett, Wash. This is the first time Boeing has conducted two major flight test regimens at the same time. The company is also flight-testing the 787 Dreamliner.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Updated at 4:28 p.m. PST with additional details about the 747-8F.

EVERETT, Wash.--With all the recent hoopla about the first flight of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, true aviation buffs may be the only ones aware that the most iconic jumbo jet of all time was also preparing for a crucial step forward.

And on Monday, it happened: the 747-8 Freighter, the next generation of Boeing's 40-year-old flagship jet, took off from Paine Field here, the first flight of the cargo version of what will be the longest commercial plane in the company's history, a very important advancement for the venerable 747 program.

The 747-8 is considered an essential airplane for Boeing, even as it proceeds with the 787 Dreamliner, because the former will be the aviation giant's entry in the more energy-efficient roster of planes that airlines and freight carriers are demanding for long-haul flights with high capacity for passengers and cargo. (The passenger version of the plane is set to arrive about a year after the cargo model.)

And while the passenger version of the 747-8 is perhaps sexier than the freighter that took off at 12:39 p.m. PST on Monday, the 747-8F's first flight is vital evidence that the 747 program is alive and well, and ready to move solidly into the 21st century.

Boeing says that the 747-8 will be quieter and far more fuel-efficient than the existing 747-400 series. It is thought that the passenger version will hold as many as 467 passengers, 51 more than on a current 747-400. The freighter version will offer 21 percent more lower-hold revenue cargo volume than the 747-400 and cost about 8 percent less per seat mile to operate, the company says.

A big part of the plane's improved efficiency comes from an innovative wing design which features double-slotted flaps inboard, and single-slotted flaps outboard, fly-by-wire spoilers and outboard ailerons. The plane also features GEnx-2B67 engines, similar to the GEnx engines that will power the 787 Dreamliner. The engine features a high-pressure compressor that is the most efficient and compact GE has yet produced, Boeing says. The result is said to be high fuel efficiency and low noise.

Boeing said the 747-8F will offer the lowest cargo cost-per-mile in the business. It weighs 154 tons, has a range of 4,390 nautical miles, a height of 63 feet, 6 inches, a wing span of 224 feet, 7 inches, and a length of 250 feet, 2 inches. It can reach Mach 0.85

The Monday takeoff was delayed by nearly three hours by low cloud cover, and the flight was scheduled for about four hours in the air, with a series of initial tests intended to demonstrate the plane's airworthiness.

But as Boeing deputy test program manager Brian Johnson said, Monday's flight was much more "a chief pilot time," as it marked the first opportunity for Capt. Mark Feuerstein, the man in that role in the 747 program, to have "four hours in the cockpit to just get comfortable with" the plane.

Feuerstein was joined on the flight by 747 senior test pilot Tom Imrich.

Johnson said that after takeoff, the pilots would choose their direction--either head toward eastern Washington state, or fly west out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca, north and west of Seattle, depending on weather conditions.

The plane will be limited to to an altitude of between 10,000 feet and 20,000 feet and a top speed of 220 knots (about 253 mph), Johnson said. And while the 747-8F will eventually be put through a full battery of tests--approximately 3,700 hours worth, including those for stability and control, airspeed, stalling, flight flutter, and ground vibration--on Monday, "they'll just evaluate the landing gear and flaps...and come home."

For Monday's flight, the plan is to land the 747-8F here at Paine Field rather than touch down at Boeing Field in Seattle, about 30 miles south, as the 787 Dreamliner did at the end of its initial flight. That's because the 787 program is based at Boeing Field, while the 747-8 program will be moving down to Palmdale, Calif., northeast of Los Angeles. But Paine Field is adjacent to Boeing's mammoth Everett production facility, where all 747s are manufactured.

Totally unique
According to Bob Saling, Boeing's communications manager for cargo airplanes, it is totally "unique" for the company to simultaneously have two separate major test flight regimens. While the 787 Dreamliner has gotten the lion's share of the attention in the last couple of years, Boeing considers the 747-8, both the freighter and the passenger versions, to be important in making it possible to fly the largest amount of cargo or people between major hubs around the world.

In other words, Saling said, the 747-8 will be intended for routes such as Hong Kong to Los Angeles or Hong Kong to San Francisco, while the Dreamliner--with its smaller capacity but similar range--might fly fewer people out of smaller cities, such as Seattle.

That's why Boeing is committed to pursuing the 747 and 787 programs at the same time. The 747-8 program is "important in perspective, in that it continues a legacy program, although with a lot more capability," Saling said.

The 747-8F disappears into the clouds after takeoff. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The initial customers for the 747-8F will be Cargolux and NCA, while the big customer for the passenger version, Saling said, will be Lufthansa.

Meanwhile, Boeing spokeswoman Jennifer Hawton said the company has all the resources it needs to move forward with the 747-8 and 787 programs, despite some reports suggesting that delays in the Dreamliner program necessitated moving personnel away from the 747-8, leading to delays for that initiative.

Either way, with the 747-8F now in the air, two more test planes ready to follow suit, and six 787s involved in that plane's test program, it's clear that Boeing is moving forward full-throttle with the next two elements of its plan to stay on top of the commercial aviation heap and--it hopes--a step ahead of its archrival, the European consortium Airbus.