Hundreds of Boeing employees left their work stations midday Monday and headed to the blazing concrete outside, where they stood for an hour, gladly, for a chance to meet the plane they’re building.
The telltale navy and aqua blues of the 787 Dreamliner cut a swath across the skyline late morning, marking the giant passenger jet’s first visit here but only one stop on an international parade route. The plane flew from its home base in Seattle to the Paris Air Show, then on to wow clients in Warsaw, Poland, and then again in Berlin.
Outside the North Charleston factory, speakers blasted R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” and Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me,” as the plane made a slow roll on the ground from the Charleston International Airport. Like everyone else, the Dreamliner first had to clear an inspection from customs agents before making its grand entrance.
The crowd, mostly workers wearing T-shirts that said “Made with pride in South Carolina” on their sleeves, cheered as it finally approached. Water cannons showered the Dreamliner, and local political and business leader walked up for a peek.
“Look at that airplane, and probably all of you recognize a section of the airplane you work on,” said Jack Jones, vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina. “... Is that the most beautiful airplane, the most technologically-advanced airplane you’ve ever seen?”
Jones took the opportunity to emphasize the importance of the work taking place in the cavernous factory beside him.
Pointing at the shiny Dreamliner, he said, “That’s exactly what it’s going to look like when we give it to our customers.”
Boeing picked North Charleston as the site of a $750 million assembly plant for the long-delayed Dreamliner in October 2009, and the company plans to start making the lightweight jets at its local campus in the coming weeks.
All 787s built to date rolled off the assembly line near Seattle.
Jones climbed up stairs to welcome the plane’s two pilots, who emerged from a nine-hour flight from Berlin to clapping and cheers.
Captains Mike Carriker and Randy Neville flew this plane for the first time on Dec. 15, 2009. They took off in spotty weather from Seattle and then climbed past the clouds.
“Sometimes my English lacks the words to explain the thrill of flying that airplane,” Carriker said.
This Dreamliner serves as a test model, with no passenger seats inside but all the bells and whistles on the planes Boeing plans for its customers: fuel efficiency, a quiet presence and a cabin that keeps the plane more comfortable and humid.
“Well, not as humid as out here,” Carriker added.
He said extra oxygen, along with larger, light-sensitive windows make for a less fatiguing flight for passengers. Plus, the size of the jet means travelers can fly more places without layovers and refueling stops.
The Dreamliner holds the record as the fastest-selling aircraft in history, with 800 existing orders for the new jet. Boeing hopes to deliver the first 787 to customer All Nippon Airways of Japan as early as August, officials said at the Paris Air Show.
Neville, Carriker’s copilot, said another flight out of Berlin early Monday wanted to pull closer to their plane so the pilots could see it.
“It seems it’s the entire aviation community that’s excited about this plane,” Neville said.
Carriker and Neville plan to give lectures and tours of the Dreamliner to local Boeing employees before flying out Wednesday afternoon. That departure could include a Cooper River Bridge fly-over, if both Boeing officials and the Federal Aviation Administration grant approval.
From there, the plane heads back to Seattle.
After the pageantry and picture-taking Monday, the crowd around the Dreamliner thinned and the local general manager, Jack Jones, stepped back to the microphone. He asked the factory workers to keep pushing to stay on their production schedule during the Dreamliner’s quick visit, saying, “Remember this vision. We’re going to do this for the next 30 years right here.”