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In the Last Week Tonight with John Oliver episode for 2024-03-03 (timestamped to relevant section), a clip is played from the video The Boeing 787: Broken Dreams | Al Jazeera Investigations, in which a person billed as "Jon Ostrower, The Wall Street Journal", makes this claim.

I haven't been able to find any corroborating sources, or even any articles repeating the same story, with basic searches for things like "Boeing" "plywood" or "dreamliner" "plywood".

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    Looking at Wikipedia some milestones are: 2003: announced; 2007: crash test partial fuselages, engines ready; 2008: non-flyable static test airframe completed, electrical and pressure tests; 2009: maiden flight (start of flight testing); 2011: first delivery to an airline. Based on that, any aircraft in existence in 2007 would have to predate completion of the first test airframe. Having mock-ups made from plywood or similar is probably not unusual at that stage in development.
    – Jack B
    Mar 8 at 10:12
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    It's not a claim it flew like that. Only that the tarmac expo/debut was like that. Oliver adds that the 1st test flight was supposed to happen 2 months after that. And he also says that the 1st test flight was also delayed, although doesn't say by how much. Mar 8 at 16:11
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    For what it's worth, Jon Ostrower is a well-known aviation industry reporter. Unlike most of the people who report on aviation in mass media, he usually actually knows what he's talking about and has a reputation for being fair and accurate. He now runs the industry publication The Air Current.
    – reirab
    Mar 8 at 21:37
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    @Fattie yeah, still missing the point, this was supposed to be an aircraft that would fly in a couple of months. It should have had an interior - it didnt. Not a full passenger cabin, but a cockpit and interior bulkheads - it didnt. It should have had aviation grade fasteners for all its fasteners - it didnt. It should not have had gaps between body panels - it did. Small things like a plywood door, sure, we can accept that - but the rest of this roll out was a farce driven to arrive at the 7/8/07 date and nothing more. This was NOT a "pre-production" example, it was a production aircraft.
    – Moo
    Mar 11 at 20:02
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    @Fattie this article from September 2007 talks about how the flight test program was supposed to start in August and was now being pushed to November or December - that was this aircraft. nbcnews.com/id/wbna20603927 In fact, it didnt actually fly until December 2009. Two years later. Because of this roll out.
    – Moo
    Mar 11 at 20:05

2 Answers 2

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I can't confirm the plywood parts, but the story appears to be essentially true - the Dreamliner rolled out at the premier on 8 July, 2007 was incomplete, and this was known at the time.

Wikipedia says of the Dreamliner presented on July 8, 2007 "The major systems were not installed at the time..."

Boeing planned the first flight by the end of August 2007 and premiered the first 787 (registered N787BA) at a rollout ceremony on July 8, 2007.[62] The 787 had 677 orders at this time, which is more orders from launch to roll-out than any previous wide-body airliner.[63] The major systems were not installed at the time; many parts were attached with temporary non-aerospace fasteners requiring replacement with flight fasteners later.[64]

Al Jazeera has a written article on the same subject as the videos.

The article includes a link to an article in the Seattle Times from August 21, 2007. That article makes clear that it was known at the time that the 787 rolled out at the premier on 8 July 2007 was incomplete. Al Jazeera mentions having received the link from Boeing.

From the Seattle Times:

Executives had conceded in advance that the first Dreamliner would be unfinished at the time of the rollout.

According to trade magazine Aviation Week, even the flight deck was missing at rollout.

The missing flight deck accounts for the quote attributed to Jon Ostrower in the Al Jazeera article:

“What I realised walking around it is that you could look up in the wheel well and you could see daylight coming through the cabin,” says Jon Ostrower, now of the Wall Street Journal. “Studying photos later on, I realized the doors were made of plywood. The airplane just wasn’t finished.”

Normally, if you look up in the wheel well, you'd see the underside of the deck. With no deck installed, light from the cabin windows could be seen through the wheel well. The Seattle Times article mentions the missing flight deck, which explains how daylight could be seen through the wheel wells.

I haven't been able to find an article on the subject at the Aviation Week site. Many of the articles are behind a paywall.


To make it clear:

The Dreamliner presented on July 8, 2007 was not intended to fly on that date, and it did not fly. That was purely a public relations thing to present the Dreamliner to the world. The first flight was scheduled for sometime in August. That first flight was then delayed due to work that had to be done to replace the unapproved fasteners used to hold the plane together for the presentation and the work that had to be done to complete the assembly of the plane. There was also some trouble with the flight software which led to even more delays before the first flight some months later.

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First of all, it's not a claim it flew like that. Only that the tarmac expo/debut was like that. Oliver adds that the 1st test flight was supposed to happen 2 months after that. And he also says that the 1st test flight was also delayed, although doesn't say by how much.

Anyhow, Jon Ostrower is a real journalist who was later with the WSJ. As al-Jazeera detailed in 2014:

“What I realised walking around it is that you could look up in the wheel well and you could see daylight coming through the cabin,” says Jon Ostrower, now of the Wall Street Journal. “Studying photos later on, I realized the doors were made of plywood. The airplane just wasn’t finished.”

At the time, Ostrower was a young aviation blogger working for Flight International Magazine. He didn’t get the chance to attend with the rest of the media. He was there as the guest of a Boeing engineer who liked his blog. So while the other reporters were busy filing stories, Ostrower was spending time with the plane. “During that hour, I had a chance to really kind of study it. Without any chaperone or minder or anything, I just had a chance to really kind of just study the details. And it wasn’t done,” says Ostrower.

Anyhow, the tarmac expo was quote incomplete inside, as another witness said:

“Anybody, even a rank amateur, could have walked — well, they couldn’t have walked through the airplane because there weren’t even floorboards to stand on.” says Kevin Sanders, an employee at Boeing for 30 years. “But if they could have walked through it, they would have seen that there were no systems, there was no environmental control system, no wiring, no hydraulics, no plumbing. There was nothing.”

And story goes that they took it apart and put it back together:

Inside the factory, there was a scramble to salvage the situation. Hours after the rollout, the plane was in pieces. “Every panel came off the airplane. It got taken off its landing gear. The tail was taken off. It was a mad dash. It was an absolute mad dash to the first flight,” says Jon Ostrower.

Anyhow, details aside, a paper notes that:

In reality, the development of the Dreamliner was a disaster – the first flight was delayed by 26 months and the first delivery was delayed by 40 months. [...]

We shall start by examining the status of the first “assembled” Dreamliner (LN 1) rolled out for the 787 premiere in July 2007. Unknown to the public at the time, the plane was a hollow shell, even some of the outer structure is fake, e.g., the wing slats are painted wood (Turim and Gates 2009). [...]

  • LN1 primary structure is not completed by August 2008

Indeed a quick search shows that the 1st flight didn't happen until Dec 2009.

"Turim and Gates" refers to this timeline:

2007 January: A Wall Street analyst says the 787 program is running into delays and cost increases. CEO Jim McNerney says the plane is on target for its first test flight around the end of August 2007 and first delivery in May 2008.

May: Boeing shows media the first 787 starting to come together in Everett.

June: Boeing engineers assembling the forward section of Dreamliner No. 1 find a 0.3-inch gap at the joint between the nose-and-cockpit section and the fuselage section behind it, made by different suppliers. Engineers fix the distortion by disconnecting and reconnecting internal parts that brace the frame.

Reports surface at the Paris Air Show that the 787 is up to four months late. Boeing says the first test flight may slip to September 2007, with the jet still on schedule for first delivery in May 2008.

July: The first assembled 787 is rolled out in front of 15,000 employees and customers at Everett, with live global satellite feeds and much hoopla. But unknown to the worldwide audience, the plane is a hollow shell. And even some of the outer structure is fake: The wing slats are painted wood.

Once back in the factory, the airframe is partially disassembled. Extensive rework is required because the plane was put together with temporary fasteners in the airframe and major systems weren’t installed.

July 25: Boeing shares hit an all-time high of $107.80, boosted by strong 787 orders. The company admits the plane is running slightly behind in certain areas but holds to its schedule.

October: Boeing acknowledges a delay of up to six months — the worst delay to a jet program in the company’s history — due to problems in unfinished work passed along by its global partners and delays in finalizing the flight-control software. The new schedule puts the first flight in March 2008 and the first deliveries late that year. Mike Bair, 787 program head, is replaced by Pat Shanahan from Boeing’s defense unit.

November: Ousted program head Bair admits the 787 supplier partners let Boeing down, saying, “Some of these guys, we won’t use again.

2008 January: A further three-month delay is announced due to problems with unnamed 787 suppliers and slow assembly progress at the Everett plant. First flight is moved to June 2008 and first delivery to early 2009, putting the plane about nine months behind its original schedule.

April: Boeing confirms yet another six-month delay due to continuing problems with unfinished work from suppliers. The first delivery is pushed to the third quarter of 2009 — about 15 months behind the original schedule. Some of the largest 787 customers’ planes will be at least two years late.

September: A second Machinists strike begins at Boeing, lasting 57 days. The company struggles for a month afterward to get production back on track.

November: News emerges of a new, embarrassing and serious problem. About 3 percent of the fasteners put into the five test airplanes under construction in Everett were installed incorrectly and must be removed and reinstalled.

December: Boeing acknowledges another six-month delay for the 787 and reorganizes management again. Shanahan is put in charge of all commercial-airplane programs and brings in Scott Fancher from Boeing’s military side to take the day-to-day lead on the 787. The first Dreamliner is now scheduled to fly sometime between April and June of 2009, with first delivery to ANA sometime in the first three months of 2010.

2009 January-February: Facing a sharp industry downturn, Middle East leasing company LCAL and Russian airline S7 Group cancel orders for 37 Dreamliners. Many other customers push back their 787 delivery dates.

May: Dreamliner No. 1 moves out to the flight line, scheduled for first flight in June.

Late in the month, Boeing engineers working on the ground-test airplane find a structural defect at the wing-body joint. The problem is not made public during weeks of analysis that follow.

June: At the Paris Air Show on June 15, Boeing commercial-airplanes CEO Scott Carson says the plane is on schedule to fly by month’s end. The following week, Boeing engineers decide the structural flaw must be fixed before the plane flies. On June 23 Boeing stuns the industry by postponing the first flight indefinitely.

July: Engineers begin work on a fix for the wing-body joint flaw.

August: Boeing’s new schedule calls for first flight by year’s end, with first 787 delivery by the end of 2010.

Four days later, Scott Carson steps down as chief executive, replaced by Jim Albaugh, previously chief executive of Boeing’s defense and space division.

[...] November: Boeing breaks ground in Charleston, S.C., for a 750,000-square-foot complex.

Boeing mechanics complete the wing-body joint fix. Engineers repeat the wing stress test, and the Dreamliner gets the green light to fly.

December: After a repeat of engine and system tests and a series of taxi tests on the ground, the first flight is scheduled.

So yeah, this plane had serious delays, in part due to core structural problems. The mockup launch with some wood parts is not all that improbable given the other details, and that it only flew for the first time 2 years after that ground show.

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  • At least for the 2007 fitting gap there are some actual photos seattletimes.com/business/… Mar 8 at 17:10
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    Also, I've located the original Al-J documentary, if somebody cares. There are more interviews there youtu.be/rvkEpstd9os?t=850 Mar 8 at 17:17
  • The referenced paper by Yao Zhao, dated 2013-12-02, is very interesting indeed. "The wing and wing box were outsourced to companies from Japan, Korea and Australia. Many smaller parts are also outsourced, such as the landing gear, fairing and doors." This dowetails with a January 8, 2014 in "The American Conservative" bemoaning that Boeing has outsourced everything chasing shareholder value: Boeing Goes to Pieces: Aerospace execs sell their industry to Japan­ Mar 10 at 12:20
  • Also, while I agree with Yao Zhao's idea of distinguishing between "controllable" and "uncontrollable" risks, and penalizing subcontractors if they show delays caused by mishandling the former, I'm quite unconvinced by the approach of explaining delays using the "Prisoner's Dilemma" from game theory. In the setting of a Prisoner's Dilemma, players have no knowledge about the other player's move when they making their move. This is not the case here. If Company A has delays but Company B hasn't even started yet, there is knowledge available to B about how A has "moved". Mar 11 at 14:21
  • There will also be comms between contractors, allowing them to reliably settle on win-win, and help each other out to get there (a role that Boeing as master contractor should have taken in any case). Moreover, you cannot freely choose to "not delay". The paper tries to explain observed events by participants' "decision to delay", but management overreach and inability of subcontractors to technically deliver is an equally valid explanation. Work by the same authors is Incentives and Coordination in Project-Driven Supply Chains. Mar 11 at 14:22

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