SEATTLE - At the end of a painful year for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner program and for aerospace workers in Washington - a year of costly delays and a decision to build a second assembly line in North Charleston - the new airplane is set to fly.
If all goes according to plan, the jet will take off today from Everett, Wash., swing out over the ocean, then turn inland. It is expected to land at Boeing Field in Seattle about five and a half hours later.
The flight will kick off about nine months of intense aerial testing intended to map the boundaries of the jet's performance.
If all goes well, the Federal Aviation Administration will certify the 787 to fly and Boeing will deliver the first to Japan's All Nippon Airways in late 2010, with scheduled passenger flights starting probably in early 2011 - about 2 1/2 years behind Boeing's original schedule.
During testing, five more Dreamliners will join the first plane, to be stress-tested far beyond the limits that passenger jets would normally encounter.
The test pilots will take them up and do airframe-rattling dives.
Moving at full tilt down a runway, they'll slam on the brakes.
In the middle of takeoff, they'll deliberately cut an engine and keep going. Later, they'll fly for 5 1/2 hours on one engine.
They'll park overnight in 55-below-zero cold, then turn on the engines the next morning.
And they're almost guaranteed that one of the jets will be hit by lightning.
At the controls of a jet still officially classified as experimental, the test pilots will go looking for trouble.
"Finding a problem is what we do," said John Cashman, 777 project pilot, who flew the maiden flight of Boeing's last new airplane 15 years ago. "Those are good things to find. We'd rather find them than our customers (find them)."
Most Boeing test pilots have engineering degrees as well as a license to fly, which might account for their matter-of-fact approach to the work.
Their job calls on them to be steady as they land in a vicious crosswind or momentarily free fall after a deliberate stall in midair. And they must keep their cool through unexpected incidents such as the loss of cabin pressure on a 777 test flight in 1995, or a runway fire on a 747 test flight in 1974.
Yet make no mistake, these are the jocks, not the nerds, of the company.
"We've had experiences most people would dream about," Cashman said. "We had a great time doing it."
In the early weeks of the Dreamliner test-flight program, just five test pilots - led by chief 787 pilot Mike Carriker - will do most of the flying out of Boeing Field.
Eight additional test pilots will be assigned specifically to the 787. And a team of 24 more will be shared with the concurrent 747-8 flight-test program, to be available as needed.
That flight-test team will be backed up by an additional 50 or so Boeing test pilots, those who usually do the more routine work of evaluating new features on airplanes or commanding the service test flights on every aircraft that leaves the factory.
The 787 flight-test program is a round-the-clock operation that will cost tens of millions of dollars.
On the ground at the north end of Boeing Field, an operations center will monitor every flight, instantly receiving detailed data from the airplane's many systems.
About 600 engineers will analyze the data, with thousands more specialists available to troubleshoot any issue. Some 400 mechanics will do maintenance on the airplanes at night to ensure they are ready to fly every morning.
Boeing faces a tight schedule to complete the flight tests in time to deliver the airplane to its first customer late next year. Yet executives insist the tightly choreographed test plan will leave time to deal with whatever problems crop up.
Boeing said last month it would build a second assembly line for the Dreamliner in North Charleston. The decision came after the state Legislature moved to offer Boeing an estimated $450 million tax incentive package to lure the Chicago-based manufacturer. The company broke ground on the site last month.
The second assembly line in North Charleston is expected to create 3,800 new jobs.