When the drums beat the loudest and the black curtain dropped to the hangar floor at Everett to reveal the last Boeing 747 passenger model this morning, the shock could be felt even here.
It was blood red and bright orange. Not your usual Boeing blue.
And Boeing’s vice-president and general manager, new aeroplanes, Pat Shanahan, made the reasons clear, launching in the slow waltzing and talking, evangelical style of salesmanship that was so characteristic of an America of half a century ago, to laud the association of red and orange with power and prosperity in the great cultures of the world.
Which is as strong a clue as any as to where Boeing sees it getting its last orders for the Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental, aka 748-I, which is a very late final incarnation of the original 747 that first flew just over 42 years ago, and became one of the great 20th century icons of American industrial supremacy.
From Turkey, through China to Japan, is where Boeing sees a chance to add to a rather pitiful total of 33 orders for the 748-I so far, from Lufthansa, Korean Air Lines and a few VIP sales including one to the state of Kuwait.
But is the red Boeing wearing the colours of dawn, or sunset?
There was a whole giant hangar full of emotion at Everett this morning. Joe Sutter, 88, the “father of the 747” stood up to wave briefly to the rapturous applause of the invited. Sutter is one of the greatest and most authoritative figures in airliner design, pressed by Boeing into a kitchen cabinet several years ago to sort out “the almighty mess” the company has made for itself with its plastic 787 Dreamliner and “last hurrah” 748 freighters and passenger liners.
And he hasn’t been all that restrained in its his criticism of the current situation either in his few public comments on these programs.
If a word cloud was made of those most used at the webcast ceremony “incredibles” and “legacy” would be among the largest. The “incredibles” are the Boeing word of the day for the designers and engineers it retained while much of its human resources in airliner excellence were sidelined in favour of risk-sharing deals with Japanese, Chinese and European firms, which saw Boeing lose control of design and construction quality and excellence.
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The company has recently been castigating itself publicly for “not thinking through” the issues involved. The 787 is at least three-and-a-half years late and overweight and underperforming, and the 748s, both freighters and passenger liners, are up to two years late, performance unconfirmed.
The wing of the 748 is beset with flutter and aileron control issues that Boeing is confident can be fixed with “software settings” because it is stuck with a cut-price wing that was largely designed in Russia for as little as 20% of the cost of US in-house design. Incredible savings totally obliterated by a massive multibillion dollar sales failure.
Boeing’s misfortunes also mesh in with the US paranoia over the threats to or even loss of financial and technological leadership to China in coming decades. The red dawn-or-sunset Boeing played to those concerns in the social media this morning, with nostalgia and alarm arising from a closer inspection of the prototype, which is decorated with exactly the same dominant colour as the original 747 and the same style of letterings and logos.
The Americans use the word “rooted” differently to us. But the claim that the 748-I is rooted in the past is true no matter how the word is used.