The enormity of the problems with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are only just starting to sink in.

Overnight in America Boeing described as “minor” some issues on the “side” of the airliner, which had caused it to defer its imminent first flight.

Boeing totally blind sided the reporters taking part in a conference call, although Wall Street wasn’t so easy to fool, slashing up to 9% off its stock price

The truth is that the tiny, really minor, easily patched issues that Boeing revealed had emerged on the side of the “plastic fantastic” were in fact on the section of the wing where it joins the fuselage, which started to break apart at 18 small spots when put under stress in April.

Wings are not supposed to fail until they reach 150% of maximum design load. The wings on the full sized static test 787 which is part of the sub fleet to be used in flight testing and certification procedures are confirmed by Boeing as having started to “delaminate”.

This means that the layers of reinforced carbon fibre glued together with resins and baked in a giant oven that replace aluminium in the 787 were breaking open. In flight such a rupture would precede the destruction of the jet by seconds at most.

Yet in Paris last week Boeing declared its complete confidence that the flight test 787 would fly by 30 June leading to deliveries to customers from next March. Those were outrageous claims, as much as the supposedly nearly flight ready prototype rolled out in July 2007 that turned out to be a near empty shell held together in part with hardware store bolts and which was towed around in front of invited guests with one of its doors actually made out of plywood.

Last night in the US, Boeing portrayed the decision to delay the first flight of the 787 as being one which would enable productive flight testing, rather than adhering to the schedule using internal reinforcing patches.

It is difficult to imagine any test pilot taking off in a jet with internal patches holding together a wing in areas where the static model had started to break apart far, far below certification standards.

Official guidance in Qantas is that a full review of the 787 order is underway. The only new design remotely similar to the 787 in proposed size and range is the slightly larger Airbus A350 family. It is also a high composite design, but significantly different in the manner in which it is constructed.

A quick order by Qantas for A350s is not a certainty. The jet won’t be ready until 2013, and perhaps not Qantas-ready in terms of an optimal version of the jet for some years after that.

Nor will there necessarily be a long queue of customers trying to buy it. If anything, there will be fewer airlines left flying after the GFC passes, and there is a view in some quarters in Qantas that it can sit on its cash, and wait until it sees if Boeing can come up with a totally revised 787 or if Airbus keeps to its promises in regard to the A350.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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