Boeing rolled out the first jetliner made in the American South on Friday amid fireworks and the cheers of thousands of blue-clad workers shouting "We build jets."
The white Boeing 787, which has been purchased by Air India, was slowly pulled onto the tarmac as machines poured smoke from behind the massive doors of the company's final assembly building. The aircraft is the first completed at the $750 million plant that opened last year.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham and James Albaugh, president and CEO of the company's commercial airplanes division were among the dignitaries on hand. So were plant workers. The company employs about 6,000 in North Charleston and it appeared most of them poured out of the buildings on the company's 240-acre campus to celebrate.
The plant should turn out four completed aircraft by year's end. By the end of 2013, the plant should be producing about three-and-a-half of the speedy, light aircraft made half of composite material of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic.
"It's the fastest-selling plane going into production that Boeing has ever had," Jack Jones, the vice president and general manager of the plant told reporters earlier Friday. He said the company already has 854 orders from 59 customers.
It took about 30 months from groundbreaking until the first 787 was rolled out. The engines still need to be tested and the plane needs to be flown. It will be two months before delivery.
The first four of the South Carolina aircraft are being sold to Air India, but Jones said it has nothing to do with Gov. Nikki Haley, who is of Indian descent and is a strong advocate of the industry and strong opponent of unions. "That was just the way it worked out," Jones said.
The plant was a source of political controversy after the National Labor Relations Board brought a complaint against the aircraft manufacturer alleging the nonunion South Carolina plant was built in retaliation for past union strikes in Washington state.
The complaint was dropped late last year after the Machinists Union approved a contract extension and Boeing promised to build a new version of the 787 in Washington.
Jones said the complaint had no effect on relations between Boeing staff in Washington State and in South Carolina.
"They are right there with us. They are our partners," Jones said.
"The NLRB could not be here with us today," Graham told the crowd to hoots and cheers. "That means a good decision on their part. The only one I can remember lately."
He told the workers: "You have made the state shine. You have put us on the map of the world economy."
"Let's make this very clear. It has been a long two and a half years," Haley told the crowd. "Everybody is going to be talking about Boeing. They are going to be talking about it across the country. They are going to be talking about it across the world. They are going to be talking about how we built the most efficient plane in the state of South Carolina."
Michael Hargrove, a fabrication specialist who works on the composites building the aft end of the 787s, was working with an automotive manufacturer when he got laid off and started working for Boeing. He went to school and got his associate's degree in aircraft technology at Trident Technical College.
The plant, he said, "is a great thing. It's good for our economy."