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Boeing Photo by Marian Lockhart
It was only fitting Tom Imrich co-piloted the first flight of Boeing's newest jumbo jet, the 747-8.
BOEING PHOTO BY Gail Hanusa
He flew on the very first Boeing 747 and co-piloted the final test flight of the last 747-400, the 747-8's predecessor. Before he joined Boeing, Imrich issued the first type rating for the 747-400 while working for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
"It was a unique opportunity to have been able to serve as a pilot spanning all the generations of the 747," said Imrich. "I never dreamed I'd also have the chance to do the very first flight of the latest generation 747. It has been a truly remarkable lifetime experience."
Imrich is one of the 45 Boeing test pilots who will put the company's two new commercial jetliners -- the 747-8 and 787 -- through their paces, making sure they meet performance standards and safety regulations.
"As a test pilot testing an all-new airplane model, we're still defining how it can fly and what it can do," said Heather Ross, a former U.S. Air Force and United Airlines pilot now assigned to the fourth of six 787 test airplanes.
"The image that will be in my mind for the rest of my life is when we popped over the top of the clouds and there were the snow-capped Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, all framed in the front left window of a 787 at 10,000 feet." -- Test pilot Mike Carriker
"We want to get more data each time we fly," said Mike Carriker, chief test pilot for the 787 program. In his nearly three decades of flying, Carriker has racked up many memorable moments. The freshest one on his mind happened early on in the maiden voyage of the Dreamliner last December.
"The image that will be in my mind for the rest of my life is when we popped over the top of the clouds and there were the snow-capped Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, all framed in the front left window of a 787 at 10,000 feet," said Carriker.
The fantastic views and exotic locations make for a great work environment. During the testing period, a "day at the office" can take a test pilot from the deserts of California to the mountains of South America.
BOEING PHOTO BY JOE PARKE
At times, pilots will fly with an engine idled. Some pilots will perform repeated stall maneuvers. Still other pilots will focus on minute details and specific systems. Those details are as interesting as the bigger items.
"For example, the 787 has a new windshield, the first new windshield we've designed since 1979," said Carriker.
Carriker and his colleagues are more than just pilots. They're also engineers. They're involved from the earliest design stages, shaping decisions about the finest details -- from how the flight deck is laid out to the positioning of the exterior lights. It's why they must have broad technical experience.
"We're dealing with and speaking with engineers through the development process. So we need to speak with a knowledge and vocabulary we both can understand," said Kirk Vining, who will captain the third 747-8. Vining earned a degree in aeronautical engineering and spent 14 years as a test pilot for Bombardier before joining Boeing.
"It's been very satisfying to get our hands on the airplane and start testing it out," said Vining.
How thoroughly will the new 787 be tested? Consider that the flight-testing program for the Boeing 707 six decades ago totaled about 600 hours. The six Dreamliner test planes will undergo about 5,000 hours of testing, or more than 200 days, according to Carriker, who helped test the Boeing 777 when it was introduced.
Boeing photo by JIM ANDERSON
Some of that increase in testing hours is due to the growing technological sophistication of Boeing's jetliners over the years, explained Frank Santoni, the chief test pilot for the commercial division. Also, federal safety regulations for airplanes are more detailed and stringent than in decades past.
It all translates to a lot of work for these aviators. But, every now and then, they do get a chance to just take in the experience, as 787 pilot Randy Neville recounted after the Dreamliner's first flight.
"From the technical viewpoint, there must be a hundred different things we're looking at constantly in terms of the response and all the systems. But you do occasionally get a moment to sit back and enjoy and reflect on how far we've come," said Neville.
"I was thinking I must have the best job in The Boeing Company."