MIKE: It has the largest wingspan of any bird on earth.
Its thermal efficiency, its soaring efficiency is almost supernatural.
It can remain airborne for months at a time.
Quite simply, I think it's the most perfect flying machine ever created.
NARRATOR: Boeing's final assembly line at Everett, Washington.
He's flown gliders, fighters, biplanes, helicopters, airliners.
Eight thousand hours in more than 130 different aircraft types.
He's an aeronautical engineer, a flight instructor, a navy test pilot with 300 plus carrier landings.
Mike Carriker is a legend in the industry and a Boeing chief test pilot.
MIKE: The best part of this job is that I have a voice in how our airplanes are designed and operated.
For a pilot, it doesn't get much better than that.
It's a better place for the flight gear, to touch it if it's up there.
If you're willing to go back.
NARRATOR: Here in the largest building on earth, 30,000 people work to assemble 10 new aircraft a month.
The newest in Boeing's family of airliners is the 777, an aircraft designed over 20 years ago.
MIKE: In the spring of 2001, we had a very successful lineup of aircrafts still in production.
But we really needed a new generation to stay competitive.
We wanted to build something radical, something exciting.
Something that could bring back some of the romance and the joy of flying.
(MAN ON PA)
NARRATOR: Perhaps more money changes hands at the Paris Air Show than any other place on earth.
Gambling in this market can make or break global corporations.
At every show, there is a central attraction.
This year, it's the first entirely new airliner of the 21st century.
The largest ever built, the Airbus A380.
With a maximum seating of 853, the A380 will be the world's most energy efficient airliner when it enters service.
MIKE: So Airbus had played their hand building an enormous but efficient airplane.
Frankly, we thought it was too big.
So we knew we would have to match or improve on that energy efficiency in a smaller airplane.
All ideas start off as a scribble on a napkin, if you will.
Or on a blackboard.
Or nowadays, in thin air.
It's the most fun stage of an aircraft design, in my view, and maybe the most important.
If you get the basic concept wrong, then whatever follows could be a real dog.
I was chief test pilot on a scribble we called the Sonic Cruiser.
The concept was to build a very fast subsonic airliner, and we all loved the idea.
But it needed enormously powerful and thirsty engines that we didn't have, and it's a good thing, because it might have ruined the company.
A very important lesson in what not to build.
By the way, some of the best flying requires no power at all.
You watch how the snow blows off the rocks.
You watch what the birds are doing, how they handle the updrafts.
You try to use every possible advantage.
But once you get the hang of it, it's magical.
It's as close as you can come to flying like a bird.
Gliders have much to teach us about efficiency.
Very lightweight composite materials, smooth, polished skins, long, thin wings that bend upwards that give them low drag and high lift.
In hindsight, a lot of the clues as to the airplane we were about to build.
NARRATOR: In December of 2002, Boeing held internal discussions around the most critical decision the company would make in its entire history.
The creation of a radically new 21st century aircraft.
Just keep working on it all the time.
MIKE: We spend a lot of time at meetings.
And we love to talk about airplanes.
To me, that's the issue that we got to work. We've got to understand that.
And if we're gonna be afraid of every little decision...
Who's gonna add this all up?
Who's gonna add up all these positives and all the negatives...
We were all over the place at first.
I get lost in all these conversations about this little bit over here, and this little bit over here, and this little bit over here, and then they add 'em all up and it's like, how do we even add them up at the end of the day...
Do all that kind of thing.
You know, in retrospect, the clue we were missing could be traced back to the first powered flight.
NARRATOR: Early piston engines were a marvel of ingenuity and simplicity.
They made possible an enormous variety of flying machines.
A few of them, magnificent.
MIKE: The power was limited, but multiple wings, good aerodynamics, very lightweight fabric, wooden construction enabled early aircraft to get airborne.
One of my all-time favorites is the legendary Stearman biplane.
The carbon bonds in the cellulose of the wood make possible very strong and fatigue resistant structures.
After all, a tree can stand blowing in the wind for thousands of years without breaking.
Amazingly, here was another clue.
NARRATOR: Carbon has been called the enchanted element.
The carbon atom, with four electrons in its outer shell, forms a huge variety of chemicals, including those that make possible all life on earth.
Under intense heat, carbon forms bonds only with itself, creating crystalline chains of thin graphite sheets.
Twisted into threads and then woven together, carbon fiber can be made into among the strongest, lightest materials on earth, stronger for its weight than any metal.
MIKE: What started as a few squiggles began slowly to evolve into the big idea we were all hoping for.
A radical new way to build airplanes.
It was one scary idea floating in that room.
Do you know any way to put the fault in there to see if we can catch the fault?
Well, yeah. I can introduce the fault here all day long.
The problem is that it came in upstream of it, we don't know how.
MIKE: But, you know, there was something even scarier, and that was resting on our laurels just a bit too long.
So, second order impacts. I mean, think about it.
Okay. Brakes and hydraulic system.
Beacon lights. On.
Radios. They're on.
MIKE: I remember when I was a kid, the hot plane, (CHUCKLES)
Or should I say the cool plane, was the Super Constellation, no question about it.
(SLOW MUSIC PLAYING)
I never turn down an offer to fly one of these old airplanes, because once you get up in the air, there's nothing to say that you haven't gone back in time 40, 50, 60 years.
I've flown several of these piston airliners, and the Super Connie would be my favorite.
There are no computers flying this plane.
You are connected by pulley and by cable to all the control surfaces.
So you can really feel the plane, and it will do exactly what you tell it to do.
Good or bad, it doesn't care.
NARRATOR: The Super Constellation caught the imagination of the flying public and became a big seller for Lockheed, but success didn't last.
Lockheed was not prepared for the coming revolution in aviation technology.
It just had all these moving parts.
It had these pistons going this way, and then pistons going that way, and counterbalances and...
NARRATOR: Piston engines with 18 cylinders and supercharges had become extremely complex, difficult to maintain, and neared the limits of their power output.
The new technology jet engines were dramatically simpler with much greater power to weight output.
MIKE: The amount of power the relatively simple turbine can produce is almost unlimited, and with enough power, you can fly a brick.
This pretty much describes another one of my favorites.
One of the most challenging and dangerous airplanes to fly.
The Harrier uses a great deal of lightweight carbon fiber to accomplish the opposite of what the glider does.
It can come off the ground on engine thrust alone, without the help of its wing and aerodynamics.
No other plane could do that.
Oh, what a great day.
Sir, did we get the brake accumulator all pressurized?
NARRATOR: The British designed Hawker Siddeley Harrier manages something once thought impossible, a fighter that can fly both fast and very slow.
Man, what a great day to go flying.
Hovering one moment, accelerating to 700 miles an hour the next.
Fighter jets are great flying machines, but they use enormous amounts of fuel and make ear-splitting noise.
Not something you want in an airliner.
NARRATOR: Engine builders Rolls-Royce, GE and Pratt-Whitney were already at work on new engines for a future generation of quieter and considerably more efficient aircraft.
In order to reduce stress on a much longer, thinner wing, engineers envisioned something they called the "smart wing."
Sensors will read air currents, sending data via a series of computers to wing surfaces that will react continuously to dampen turbulence.
In effect, the wing would act as if alive.
MIKE: It got more and more interesting.
With carbon fiber, the wing could be longer, thinner, more efficient like a glider.
We also had a massive increase in computer power.
We were looking at something entirely new, an airplane with a huge brain.
With long, thin wings, the new plane was starting to look like one of the most intriguing birds on earth.
And it's no coincidence.
We are looking for some of the same things the albatross does better than any other bird, unbelievable range and extraordinary energy efficiency.
But we were also hoping to give it just a bit of the genius of other living flyers.
Advanced navigation capability.
Collision avoidance. Improved aerodynamics.
All things that nature has been doing masterfully for millions of years.
It has been calculated that a bumblebee could fly around the world 200 times, nearly five million miles, on a gallon of honey.
The monarch butterfly navigates by a circadian clock and arrives at exactly the same spot as its grandparents once did.
Talk about software!
Geese and ducks fly in formation to benefit from each others' wings, improving aerodynamics and reducing fatigue over long flights.
A lot of what nature does is still a mystery, and I find that wonderful.
So everyone got pumped up, and we decided to join the world of carbon flyers.
...and lose the larger bus, you've got...
When the going got tough...
NARRATOR: In the fall of 2003, Boeing made the momentous decision to go ahead with the 787.
It is the point beyond which there is no turning back.
The entire future of the company will now ride on the wings of a radical new aircraft.
MAN: But I really appreciate it.
In one of the largest industrial gambles in history, the company and hundreds of subcontractors will undertake to construct a series of entirely new manufacturing facilities, transitioning from aluminum to a new age of carbon fiber.
First, the carbon fiber threads are woven into long strands and impregnated with epoxy resins.
This tape is then laid into a wing pattern by computer-controlled machines.
Woven fabric subassemblies of various parts are next covered by plastic, then baked under vacuum pressure, thus curing the epoxy resins and bonding the carbon fiber.
MIKE: The bottom line is we had our bird in the incubator, while the other guys were getting ready to spread their wings.
(MAN SPEAKING IN FRENCH ON PA)
NARRATOR: As the new Airbus A380 prepares for its first flight at the Paris Air Show, it has caught the imagination of the industry and public like no other plane in recent memory.
Boeing sought manufacturing partners from around the world among more than
40 countries and hundreds of subcontractors.
Using four specially modified 747s named Dreamlifters, major assemblies will be flown from Japan, Italy and locations around the US.
New handling systems were designed and built just to get subassemblies on and off the transport aircraft.
All part of a vast industrial strategy to build aircraft on a global scale in an entirely new way.
MAN: You're almost there.
Ready to turn.
Designers first assemble the aircraft's millions of parts using computer-generated graphics long before the real aircraft begins to take shape.
MIKE: The carbon fiber design has all kinds of advantages.
It doesn't corrode like aluminum, so the cabin can be more humid.
And higher pressure for passenger comfort.
The windows can be much bigger.
Electronic systems will replace pneumatic, all intended to make a more energy efficient, longer lasting airplane.
Here we come. Here we come. There we go.
That'll work. I'm ready to pit down, if that's what you like.
MAN: Pick it up.
Watch the fuselage.
Good. All right.
MAN: Come in. Come in. Good.
Marketing is always in a rush to get the plane rolled out.
And so, we are never quite as far along as we would like to be.
Yeah. That's good, I like that.
Yeah, I can get up there.
I can't hardly decide if I want to come here early or not.
Is your whole family coming out with you? No.
Okay, take her up.
NARRATOR: The company is under intense pressure to get its first aircraft completed and rolled out to customers before the competition gets too far ahead.
MAN: There. Moving. To the left.
MAN 1: And good morning from the management and the employees of KHI in Nagoya, Japan.
The working together spirit of the 770 in Seattle and all the global partners.
For all of you that have made this dream a reality, I am proud to premiere the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Thank you, all.
NARRATOR: As of rollout, nearly 700 Dreamliners have been sold, worth over $100 billion.
On the shop floor, there are rumors circulating that the first aircraft is an illusion, an empty shell, months, if not years away from the end of the runway.
MIKE: There are two sides to this business.
The glamour and the theater of a gleaming new aircraft, and then a few feet away, behind the curtain, behind the wall, are the airplanes not so lucky.
They get poked, prodded, almost tortured.
NARRATOR: Before the first aircraft can fly, several others are taken off the line and sacrificed in static and fatigue testing.
MAN: And make sure that we put that in the logbook tonight.
Okay, you got it.
NARRATOR: These tests subject the airframe wing and fuselage to repetitive bending and pressurizing cycles equivalent to 165,000 flights.
Just make sure it's off straight and everything's tight.
NARRATOR: By the spring of 2008, the program began to fall months behind schedule.
Here on the production line, engineers and technicians surround the first 787s.
MIKE: Once you fall behind on the production line and have trouble assembling, say an electronic or ventilation system, you gotta tear things apart, redesign the system and reinstall it, on not just one, but six or seven planes.
In the end, it hits everything.
It doesn't matter what path you're on.
Well, we haven't seen that fault yet, though. He's right.
MIKE: Most of the problems were pretty routine at this stage.
But then, almost out of nowhere, we had a much bigger issue.
NARRATOR: On the static test rig, engineers discovered a number of deformities in the wing that indicated unpredicted weakness.
NARRATOR: Titanium brackets will have to be added to the aircraft already assembled in order to strengthen their wings.
It will delay the first flight of the 787 by another six months.
You know, I'm not really sure, I think...
MIKE: We have kept many of the original test birds out behind the plant.
A lot of the younger folks don't remember the problems we had on the 747, the 767 and even the 777.
They all had issues to work through, but every one of them went on to have great careers.
Look at this cockpit. Up here. Come up. Oh, look. Look at that.
MIKE: In the middle of trying to do something difficult, you can forget how hard it was in the past.
That's why it's called a gamble, because it is a gamble.
This business is not for the fainthearted.
The program has huge potential, but we're not there yet.
NARRATOR: As airlines prepare their new A380s for service, they are anxious to capitalize on the public's fascination with the largest airliner ever.
At the same time, hoping to rekindle some of the romance and glamour long absent from air travel.
But as the A380 enters service, it too is years behind schedule.
The stakes in this gamble to reinvent the airliner are vastly higher than first envisioned by either Airbus or Boeing.
It has now been six years since the go ahead of the 787 program.
The project has fallen two and a half years behind schedule.
But the first six aircraft rolling off the production line are now ready to begin a long and intensive test flight program.
Well, it's the first time I've actually seen the PECs pump.
MIKE: There was a silver lining to all the delays, at least from a test pilot's perspective.
We had two extra years to develop the aircraft and its software, the brains of the airplane.
It was like the airplane was as anxious to get airborne as we were.
Stick it up. Left.
Okay. We're clear to go.
NARRATOR: In a tradition as old as aviation itself, the first flight of a new aircraft is a milestone for the builder and its employees.
(ALL CHEERING LOUDLY)
This feels good.
Okay, camp, I'm setting up. Okay, I'm rolling left 10.
Okay, right 10.
(MAN ON RADIO)
MIKE: People often ask, "What makes a plane great?"
Well, responsive controls, good balance, lots of power for safety, but there's that intangible, too.
Great planes seem to enjoy flying.
(MAN TALKING INDISTINCTLY ON RADIO)
Rarely has there been a first flight with so few problems. It flew perfectly.
NARRATOR: It is but the first step in a long test flight program, but a triumph nonetheless.
MIKE: This morning, we executed the test plan, we flew a great jet, and we came back in here and landed.
I thought the landing was pretty good, I don't know about you guys.
NARRATOR: The journey has only just begun.
The real test of the 787 will come as it endures the daily rigors of airline service.
But perhaps one day, 40 or 50 years from now, it too will have an honored place among the legends of flight.
MIKE: I love to see airplanes filled with people.
I imagine those little kids on their first flight, like me those many years ago.
Kids often say to me, "You're so lucky to have flown everything
"and worked on so many planes, "but now everything has been invented, everything is done."
I tell them, "Not at all, not at all.
"We are only just getting started."