It’s unlikely that when Steven R. LeBaron (BS ’87) was studying mechanical engineering at BYU he imagined he would someday work on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner that resembled Star Wars R2-D2 and soared throughout the skies from Japan, the country where he served his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The jet airliner could make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. It can outrun Imperial starships, and while it may not make point five past light speed, the 787-9’s got it where it counts. While that description might be more fitting of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, All Nippon Airways (ANA) has modeled one of its newest Boeing 787-9s after Star Wars. The exterior livery is R2-D2, easily noticeable whenever the plane flies into town. The interior is themed with R2-D2 head rest covers, a special dynamic LED interior lighting scene set to music, and even Star Wars-napkins. ANA is the first airline ever that allows its passengers to watch all six episodes of Star Wars as part of the in-flight entertainment.
During the Star Wars Celebration in April 2015, ANA revealed the design of the R2-D2 ANA Jet for the first time. For his part, LeBaron, lead Boeing customer engineer for ANA, reacted with an excited, “It is so cool!”
The R2-D2 ANA Jet blasted off for the first time Sept. 12 revealing its new exterior livery for the first time via an online rollout broadcast by ANA from the Boeing factory in Washington to a world-wide audience with the assistance of Storm Troopers, C-3PO and of course R2-D2. After completing the customer acceptance testing it was delivered from Boeing’s South Carolina facility to ANA and then flew to its new home in Japan. Now, the plane flies all over the world. There are even celebrations awaiting the plane when it touches down for the first time in a new location.
The R2-D2 ANA Jet was born out of ANA’s goals to increase their brand recognition in the United States and other international markets. As Junichiro Kaya, a representative of ANA, explains, “Our brand is not known world-wide to the degree we would like. We want to leverage the Star Wars universe to increase awareness of ANA and build ANA as a global brand.”
So far, so good as the Star Wars-themed 787 Dreamliner has amassed extensive press coverage as people come out to see R2-D2 descend from the skies. “People like you, the media, are asking questions and increasing coverage. International airports have requested that we fly there with R2-D2,” Kaya says.
For Disney, the partnership with ANA is a great way to boost excitement for the upcoming Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens. From the announcement at the Star Wars celebration to the current flights, the plan seems to be effective, and LeBaron was pleased to be part of the team.
In 1980, LeBaron was just beginning his mission to Okayama, Japan. He arrived in Tokyo from the United States and then flew to Okayama on a small Japanese airline called All Nippon Airways. 35 years later, ANA’s R2-D2 flew to Tokyo from the United States. And LeBaron was a critical part to making that flight possible.
"There has been a tight schedule to get the plane ready. We discussed it frequently with Boeing, especially Steve LeBaron, and Teague [the industrial design firm working with Boeing]. They were doing a great effort for ANA,” Kaya says, who has been working with LeBaron since 2006.
LeBaron always wanted to be an inventor, but that was not a program offered at BYU. Instead, he became an engineer, the next best thing. When he graduated, he was named mechanical engineer of the year, and his fluency in Japanese helped open doors for a rapid career ascent.
One his most influential lessons at BYU came when a professor told LeBaron that “your ability to communicate will determine your success as an engineer.” Every day, LeBaron uses the communication and writing skills he learned at BYU to simplify complex information and bridge understanding between ANA and Boeing.
“As a mechanical engineer graduating from BYU back in 1987, I had great dreams of designing and inventing some great things. I also loved what I had learned and experienced from my two-year mission to Japan. I never imagined that the two would merge,” LeBaron says.
LeBaron works closely with the Japanese airline to develop 787s according to ANA’s specifications. In late 2014 ANA contacted LeBaron sharing with him that they had reached an agreement with Disney that would allow them to paint one of their 787s in a Star Wars theme. He was tasked with bringing together resources from Boeing and Teague for ANA to firm up the design and to make the dream happen.
Reflecting on his BYU experience, LeBaron knows that where he is today is because of BYU. “My BYU experience and education opened doors to my first position. . . . It further enhanced my engineering skills as well as my ability to communicate, integrate, and lead,” he says.
Two more Star Wars planes, a 767 and a 777, will join the ANA fleet, and they plan to fly for five years.