SEATTLE — Boeing breathed a sigh of relief today as its first 787-9 Dreamliner took to the skies over Washington state this morning. The successful flight brings some welcome good news to the oft-beleaguered Dreamliner program, setting high hopes that the worst is now behind.

Captains Mike Bryan and Randy Neville effortlessly guided the airplane aloft at just past 11:00 AM local time to the cheers of throngs of employees gathered to watch. Making a steep and confident bank to the west, the pilots guided the plane out over Puget Sound before turning eastbound to locate suitable weather over eastern Washington. The airplane returned several hours later, after taking the airplane through a number of flight tests, to Boeing Field under cloudy skies. It touched down at 4:17 PM local time.

In a press conference following the flight, Capt Neville said that the airplane “does everything we envisioned the Dreamliner could do” and that it “did exactly as we expected.”  The pilots noted that the airplane would be ready to fly again as soon as Thursday, following data review and post-flight debrief. The statement underscored Boeing’s confident approach to the 787-9 thus far, and strongly buoyed rumors that the airplane has come out of the factory fairly clean. Neville predicted several months of testing were still ahead, however, before an anticipated delivery to launch customer Air New Zealand in mid-2014.

(Credits: Boeing)
PHOTO: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren.

The new airplane is the second version to take flight in the Dreamliner family, a stretched derivative of the Boeing 787-8. The new model seeks to increase capacity and range while continuing to decrease operating costs. The -9 is twenty feet longer than the -8, enabling it to seat up to an additional forty passengers. Capitalizing on the type’s already highly efficient design and fuel consumption, further changes to the plane will see it gain an additional 300 nautical miles of range over -8 along with an increased max takeoff weight of 50,000lbs more than the -8.

Yet the new -9 can’t help but be judged under the shadow of its troubled sibling. The original 787-8s suffered years of delays tied to enormous manufacturing snafus. Then, once entered into service, the airplane encountered numerous setbacks, now well known, culminating in the worldwide grounding of the Dreamliner fleet earlier this year. While the planes have largely been without issue over the past few months, the problems have left the program with a black eye.

As such, hopes are high both within Boeing and without that lessons learned from the -8 debacles will prevent the -9 from experiencing a similar fate. And already those hopes seem well founded: following a quiet rollout on August 24, the airplane spent only three weeks on the flight line before Boeing announced a window for first flight. The short timeline suggests an aircraft that is pretty clean and not likely to face many problems. Gauntlet testing was completed over the weekend, while taxi testing was completed in just a few hours last night.

The first Boeing 787-9 widebody aircraft is towed out of the factory in preparation for first flight on July 17, 2013. (Credits: Boeing)
The first Boeing 787-9 widebody aircraft is towed out of the factory in preparation for first flight on July 17, 2013. PHOTO: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren.

Boeing has also incorporated a number of lessons learned from the -8 in the design and manufacturing process. Changes reportedly add up to around 30% of the design, specifically in the wing box, wing sections, and the tail. The -9 also incorporates the new system custom-made to deal with the problematic lithium-ion batteries along with some electronics systems.

The plane has already become quite popular with airlines: the type represents approximately 40% of the Dreamliner program’s current orders. If the program continues on schedule as it has thus far, and if the airplane meets performance expectations even more carriers may flock to the more promising -9. The Boeing order books have already seen a handful of defections from the -8 to the -9, and if the airplane performs as well as predicted we can expect to see even more.