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Inside mission control for flight testing

By Bernard Choi

When Boeing test pilots fly new airplanes during critical flight tests, at times near the speed of sound, they're the only ones on board. But they're not conducting the tests alone.

Boeing flight test engineers


Boeing flight test engineers monitor real-time measurements streaming into the telemetry room from a test airplane.

A team of specialized engineers is in constant contact with the pilots and tracking the plane's every move.

It all happens inside Boeing's telemetry room at Boeing Field in Seattle, a mission control for flight testing. About 30 engineers monitor computers and data recorders as real-time information streams in from the test airplane.

"They're the ones who know if we're approaching the limits of the airplane's design," said Boeing test pilot Doug Benjamin. "We know how the plane is flying qualitatively but we don't have all those strip charts in the flight deck."

The video above takes you inside the telemetry room when the first 787 Dreamliner, dubbed ZA001, conducted the all-important flutter testing in March.

The new 747-8 Freighter is now undergoing the same tests, flying out of Moses Lake, Wash. At times, the pilots will fly the plane at Mach 0.98, just shy of the speed of sound.

Boeing engineer at desk flutter testing


The goal of flutter testing is to make sure an airplane damps the natural aerodynamic vibrations of the structure.

During "flutter" testing, the pilots tap or pulse the airplane to make sure the structure can absorb routine aerodynamic vibrations so they do not escalate to the point of structural failure.

"You really need to take very small steps as you expand the [performance] envelope of the airplane," said Byron Billingsley, who leads the group that analyzes the data. "We have the ability to look at tens of thousands of measurements from the airplane. If we see something that deviates from our models, the engineers in the telemetry room can make a real-time assessment of whether to stop the testing."

For every test flight, there's a Test Director (TD) who oversees a detailed plan that lays out an exact sequence of events. The TD will coordinate with the pilots to pulse the plane at different speed and altitude combinations.

"The pulse excites the structure, and you want to move very carefully," said Boeing flight test engineer Anna Nystrom. "We basically move an inch, check that there's good damping, move another inch and check there is good damping."