10:00 PM PST on Thursday, December 23, 2010

By KIMBERLY PIERCEALL
The Press-Enterprise

Boeing needed space for its massive 747-8 freighter plane. And even though San Bernardino International Airport could offer less than six inches of air between the plane’s nose and a hangar wall, it was just enough room for the aviation company to store its planes.

Now hundreds of workers from the aviation company’s Washington state headquarters buzz around a former military hangar at the airport past signs taped to walls and doors that say “test briefing room” or “restricted access,” some wearing black ball-caps commemorating the cargo plane’s first flight.

Elected Inland officials have lauded it as a success in stimulating the community’s economy.

Inside the hull of the 250-footlong cargo plane that landed at the airport a week ago, wires lined the floor and workers stood in front of laptops readying the aircraft for tests. The plane’s wingspan stretches 225 feet.

The first of three of the planes, which can carry 154 tons and fit 467 seats in three classes if converted to a passenger airplane, landed in October.

While 500 or so Boeing employees have been working on the two planes at the Inland airport, a maintenance staff of 40 has been attached to the plane permanently, having traveled with it to Yuma, Ariz., and Victorville, among others. The crew had lived in Palmdale since April and plans to return in about two months. At San Bernardino, as they have elsewhere, they’ll work 12-hour days, seven days a week, said John A. Fennel, aircraft maintenance supervisor and one of the permanent crew of 40.

Crews have tested the plane’s limits.

It’s been loaded down to weigh a total of 880,000 pounds, or about 400 metric tons. One test measures any engine draining by using colored dyes. Mechanisms attached to the wing will monitor icing. Pilots have flown it at a mach speed of 0.94, almost the speed of sound, he said.

“We’re basically writing the book on what the customers will deal with,” Fennel said.

A sense of humor among the staff was also evident.

Where there would normally be windows inside the plane’s cabin there were paper printouts of what the view might be like from the scenic to the silly — a tropical island, a levitating Mary Poppins, an infant with its hands and face playfully pressed against the window.

Basing some of their testing at the airport offered other incentives for the company, including high-speed Internet lines needed for the computer-intensive testing work and little-to-no direct costs for Boeing to use the space.

The airport itself hasn’t directly earned any revenue from the aircraft company’s arrival besides a six-cents-per-gallon fuel-pumping fee and it has covered the cost of having the Fire Department on site around the clock.

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