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NAS Whidbey’s new patrol plane takes shape in Renton

Perry Moore, P8-A director of manufacturing, fields questions about the new aircraft at a Tuesday media tour at Boeing’s Renton plant as Mo Yahyavi, Boeing vice president and P-8 program manager for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, listens. -
Perry Moore, P8-A director of manufacturing, fields questions about the new aircraft at a Tuesday media tour at Boeing’s Renton plant as Mo Yahyavi, Boeing vice president and P-8 program manager for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, listens.
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As Growler mania reaches a protracted crescendo at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and in the Oak Harbor community, a new frenzy is waiting in the “wings” to grab the limelight.

The Boeing Company, using an unprecedented assembly line process for military aircraft, is producing the P-8A Poseidon, a derivative of the next-generation 737-800 commercial airplanes.

Boeing’s Renton plant last week began using a moving assembly line for final assembly of the P-3C’s successor. The collective mirth down south also resonated at NAS Whidbey. Although the exact number of planes remains a question mark, at least four squadrons will be stationed at the local base.

“The ‘preferred alternative’ is four squadrons, but could go up to seven,” said NAS Whidbey Public Relations Officer Kim Martin on Thursday. “It’s too soon to speculate. Bottomline, we’re getting them. We just don’t know how many.”

The Navy plans to purchase 108 P-8As to replace its fleet of P-3Cs. The Poseidon has a curriculum vitae with an impressive list of marketable job skills. It will continue the P-3’s mission — albeit with the use of superior technology — as an anti-submarine, anti-surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft capable of broad-area, maritime and littoral operations.

The English language has yet to include a superlative capable of describing the magnitude of the “building” that houses assembly line 3, a replica of lines 1 and 2, both of which are used for the production of commercial 737s.

The Poseidon project has been a watershed for Boeing, partnering two departments — Integrated Defense Systems and Commercial Airplanes — that have historically worked separately. The symbiotic relationship that developed has yielded unprecedented results. With tight integration and efficiency, the Navy has thus far not suffered from cognitive dissonance.

“We’re on cost, on schedule, and the level of integration between the two Boeing departments has been amazing,” said Bob Feldmann, Boeing vice president and P-8 program manager for Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, at a Tuesday press briefing.

Poseidon

on the line

A full-size P8-A sat poised on the assembly line Tuesday, hamming it up for media gathered to document the historic day. Even with Boeing employees climbing through the fuselage — shipped to Renton by Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kan. — the Poseidon, named after the Greek god of the sea, remained proudly sedentary.

“It is now fully-implemented and fully ready to go,” said Mo Yahyavi, Boeing vice president and P-8 program manager for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

“The aircraft is really rolling on its own wheels,” added Feldmann.

By modifying an existing aircraft with a proven track record, Boeing has been able to focus its attention on exhaustive behind-the-scenes engineering, and a groundbreaking, streamlined production process for making a military aircraft. The revolutionary missions system is installed in Seattle by Boeing.

Perry Moore, P8-A director of manufacturing, beamed like a proud parent as he fielded questions from the media with the P-8 looming in the background. A Boeing veteran of 23 years, he said working on the P-8 program has been especially enjoyable and educational.

“This is by far the most fun I’ve had on a program,” he said. “We’ve learned so much. This is the first time we’ve taken a commercial airplane and converted it in sequence. There’s no second effort.”

Physically moving a 737 is an innovation in itself. During final assembly, Boeing uses a tug that attaches to the front landing gear of the airplane and pulls it to the next position. The tug uses an optical sensor following a white line along the floor to ensure precise movement.

“Open architecture” maximizes the Poseidon’s connectivity, and allows for the aircraft to grow with improved technology. The “Plug and Play” approach also refers to a simple action needed to get the aircraft’s system online.

“It’s very streamlined,” Moore said.

“It’s faster to build, the value and quality are there; it’s a win-win,” Yahyavi said.

The addition of de-icing wingtips equates to longer flying time during missions carried out in inclement weather.

“This airplane needs to be where it needs to be,” Feldmann said.

Torpedos on board

The P8-A, while not exactly a diminutive airplane, has limited passenger seats to accommodate a formidable bomb bay that five torpedoes will call home, as well as five consoles that are “tied to everything,” including the U.S. government and the global information grid. When tracking a submarine, the plane instantly receives information sent by acoustic sensors dropped into the water.

“It will be the most modern system the Navy has,” Feldmann said of the windowless aircraft. The bulk of the monitoring is performed internally by studying computer screens.

Bigger and faster than its commercial counterpart, and able to take a barrage of bullets without combusting, the P8-A can beeline to the mission destination.

“This airplane will get to the fight,” Feldmann said. And an aerial refueling receptacle keeps the aircraft flying.

While the end of the summer will see the Poseidon ready to take to the skies, the Navy has ordered extensive ground testing.

“That flight over the hill to Boeing field will be next spring,” Feldmann said.

The Boeing-led Poseidon industry team is currently under a System Development and Demonstration contract, which includes building five test vehicles: three flight-test and two ground-test aircraft. The first test aircraft will be delivered to the Navy and fly in 2009.

The Navy plans to purchase 108 P-8As to replace its fleet of P3s, a quarter of which are currently grounded. During the first three years, Boeing will build six, eight and 10 planes, respectively, and then 13 each year.

“The Navy is interested in accelerating it,” Feldmann said.

Initial operational capability, when the aircraft is first available in its minimum usefully deployable form, is slated for 2013. The Boeing-led Poseidon industry team includes CFM International, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Spirit AeroSystems and GE Aviation.

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