EVERETT, Wash. - Boeing Co.'s new 787 jetliner finally took to the skies Tuesday, more than two years later than the company had planned.
Pilots Michael Carriker and Randall Neville lifted off in the big blue and white jet shortly after 1 p.m. Eastern time from Everett's Paine Field on a three-hour flight over Washington state, beginning the extensive flight test program needed to obtain the plane's Federal Aviation Administration certification.
Before landing at Seattle's Boeing Field later - a trip cut short slightly by deteriorating weather in the area - the two-member crew performed a variety of tests of the landing gear, flaps and other equipment, said Boeing spokeswoman Lori Gunter.
Before takeoff, the huge blue and white aircraft paused for several minutes at the end of the runway, adding to the tension for the several thousand Boeing employees, customers and airline executives standing on the tarmac to watch.
About 25,000 people braved the cold and damp to watch the 787 take off. Paine Field operations director Bruce Goetz says most of the crowd were Boeing employees or members of the general public. Also in the crowd were executives from the airlines that plan to buy the new plane.
Joe Bierce, a flight instructor for Delta Connection traveled from Jacksonville, Fla., for the event.
"It's very historical," said Bierce, noting the plane's many innovations. "I can't think of a thing about it that I'm not impressed with."
Although the runway was lined with firetrucks and other emergency vehicles with lights flashing, the first flight looked like a normal takeoff for an airliner as the huge engines kicked up clouds of mist.
The plane is the first of six 787s Boeing will use in the flight test program, expected to last about nine months, that will subject the planes to conditions well beyond those found in normal airline service.
Chicago-based Boeing, which has orders for 840 787s, plans to make the first delivery to Japan's All Nippon Airways late next year.
The 787 is a radical departure for Boeing: About 50 percent of the plane is made of lightweight composite materials, with large sections produced by suppliers around the globe and assembled by Boeing at Everett.
The plane, Boeing says, will be quieter, produce fewer emissions and use 20 percent less fuel than comparable aircraft, while passengers will enjoy a more comfortable cabin with better air quality and larger windows.
The program has been plagued by ill-fitting parts and other problems. The first flight was supposed to be in 2007 with deliveries the following year, but Boeing has been forced to push that back five times - delays that have cost the company credibility, sales and billions of dollars.
Most recently, Boeing said it needed to reinforce the area where the wings join the fuselage, with tests completed on that fix just two weeks ago.
An eight-week strike last year by Seattle-area production workers also hampered the program and was a factor in Boeing choosing North Charleston in October as the site for a second 787 assembly line.
The 787 remains Boeing's best-selling new plane to date, though some airlines have been forced to cancel or postpone purchase plans due to the weak global economy.
The version being tested will be able to fly up to 250 passengers about 9,000 miles. A stretch version will be capable of carrying 290 passengers, and a short-range model, up to 330.