The wing and the prayer

News of Boeing’s decision to postpone the first flight of the 787-8 zipped around today, and I was struck initially by a profound sense of sadness. I am by no means any kind of stakeholder in the whole composite airplane adventure, nor does the timing of the 787’s entry into service affect me in any meaningful way. (My airline of choice is a customer, and the routes I fly most are likely to be the ones served by the 787, but that’s years in the future anyway.) But I’ve been following the 787’s development closely, I was lucky enough to be in the cabin mock-up in Everett last year, and I think it’s quite possibly the sexiest commercial airplane I’ve ever seen.

Here’s the thing I’m seeing only sporadically, though. This is serious bleeding edge work Boeing’s doing. We’re used to aircraft development cycles looking a certain way, but the normal rules of the game don’t apply because everything is different this time. Boeing said that about the 777, too, and Airbus said the same thing about the A380, but when you’re not building the airframe out of aluminum anymore all bets are off. And so the research and development (heavy emphasis on “development”) are going to take time. I’m not sure a lot of aviation enthusiasts (read: blog commenters, who seem to take the politics/team sports approach to building aircraft) or investment advisers get this.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the stories from the early part of the space race, when the Americans kept having problems with their rockets blowing up — and this was evidence of American weakness in space, or deficiencies in science education, or a failure of political leadership, or incompetence, or whatever. It’s not. It’s totally normal. It’s a well understood and accepted part of aircraft development. When you’re doing engineering, it takes time to get the thing right. Major advances in aerospace technology do not come easily, cheaply, or on schedule. We didn’t understand this back in the 1950s and 1960s, and we clearly don’t understand this now. It’s probably a good thing that Orion and Constellation are happening mostly out of sight (really, when was the last time you saw a public story about the performance of either without having to go looking for it), because otherwise we’d be hearing about the slow pace of development and whether or not the whole thing was worth it in the end. (That’s a debatable point, and probably a debate we should have, obviously, but you know what I mean.)

Boeing has understood this from the beginning. For all the hype, for all of the scheduling, I’ve never actually heard them say “the thing will fly on this date.” No, it’s been, “it will fly when it’s ready to fly.” And good for them. That isn’t satisfying to the kids with the keyboards (of which I am one) or the bankers who live and die by the quarterly profit projections, but it is how the real airplane nerds do things.

Still, I was thinking of how I might sneak down to Everett next weekend, and I got a little silly smile on my face trying to figure out how to make it down and back in a day, and now I guess those plans can go on hold. For the moment, anyway.