CSeries Takes Shape - But Fast Enough?

Bombardier is cutting it close. Even if, as the company says, its focus is on delivering the first CSeries airliner to a customer by the end of 2013, that fact that major parts of the first flight-test aircraft will not arrive at the Mirabel, Quebec final-assembly line till late this month would not seem to give the company much time to meet its goal of flying by year-end.

Assembly of the complete static-test article (CAST) is already under way, and the fuselage (below) went together in half the time expected, says Bombardier. Production engineers were involved in joining the fuselage sections, and tooling-proofing is under way in parallel with test-article assembly. As a result, the company is predicting the first flight-test vehicle (FTV-1) will go together even faster, with assembly expected to be almost complete by the end of October.

Photo: Bombardier

Even if that feat is accomplished, it leaves just two months to get an all-new airframe-engine combination, with fly-by-wire flight controls and highly integrated flightdeck, ready for flight. Bombardier has played down the impact of any slip, saying its focus is on entry into service. But if the first flight slides into 2013 it will compress the time available to ensure the initial 110-seat CS100 version of the CSeries is ready for use.

Those amongst us with long memories will remember the service-introduction problems Bombardier had with the Q400 and CRJ700 regional aircraft. From first flight to service entry was 25 months for the Q400 and 21 months for the CRJ700 - around twice the test time Bombardier has planned for the CSeries - and early dispatch-reliability problems showed neither was quite ready for prime time when delivered.

Bombardier rejigged its development procedures after the issues with the Q400 and CRJ700, but a look at its all-new business jets - the Global Express, Learjet 45 and Challenger 300 - shows even they took between 21 and 23 months to go from first flight to certification. And they did not have fly-by-wire controls and composite wings. Even Boeing and Gulfstream, gold standards in this industry, have struggled to bring all-new, high-tech products to market; the 787 taking 22 months from first flight to certification, the G650 34 months.

Bombardier has always prided itself in being first to market, but with the Airbus A320NEO not coming till late 2015, the Boeing 737 MAX in 2017 and the Embraer E-Jet EV by 2018 no-one is exactly breathing down its neck. And if a lack of customer confidence has played in part in the low tally of orders for the CSeries (138 so far), then holding the program at risk of missing its schedule - or of delivering an immature product - will hardly help.

I wish Bombardier success with the CSeries, as it builds great aircraft, but having seen Boeing repeatedly frustrate its 787 customers with airy denials of delays followed by forced admissions of slippages, I hope the company's leadership is carefully weighing the desire to maintain an aggressive schedule against the need to deliver a service-ready aircraft.

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