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Feature Story

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BOEING/Bernard Choi

A team of maintenance technicians approaches a 747-8 to start post-flight inspections and maintenance.

The pit crew of flight testing

By Bernard Choi

Men and women in bright-orange and bright-green safety vests converge on a big white jumbo jet. The latest model of the venerable Boeing 747 line has just taxied in from a five-hour test flight.

Pit crew working on 747-8

BOEING/Bernard Choi

Paperwork airplane: Every major maintenance change on the flight test airplane is documented.

Valorie Rutan, a Boeing maintenance technician, opens a small door on one of four wing-mounted engines on the new Boeing 747-8. She peers in briefly, then shouts: "We need oil on 1!"

She's one of about 20 people swarming the plane for post-flight inspection and routine maintenance. It is just the beginning of a lengthy but little-noticed aspect of testing a new airplane. The glamorous flying portion happens largely in daylight, but the airplane is under 24-hour care and scrutiny.

Besides routine maintenance that any airplane requires, Rutan's team -- and a like-sized overnight shift -- are tasked with making mechanical and payload changes to prepare for the next day's test flights.

The 747-8 has a familiar profile, but the wings are new, the flight deck is new, it's bigger than anything in Boeing's commercial fleet.

"There are new engines, new components, flight controls that we're always looking at to make sure that they're working like they're supposed to."
George Allison, Boeing maintenance manager

"It's a pretty big airplane," said George Allison, a Boeing maintenance manager. "It's a lot of new systems, a lot of new learning. There are new engines, new components, flight controls that we're always looking at to make sure that they're working like they're supposed to."

747 spare tires

BOEING/Bernard Choi

Tools of flight testing: the crew brings along spare tires and other equipment to maintain the 747-8 while it's testing at remote locations.

The pace is fast. The mechanics compare the work to a race-car pit crew's.

"Like the night that we had to change all 16 brakes," said Rutan. "We had a group on the left side of the aircraft, and a group on the right side of the aircraft."

On this day, the teams are working at the airport in Moses Lake, Wash. But flight test requires a lot of travel -- a variety of weather and airport conditions are needed. It's a road show requiring a lot of tools and spare parts, big and small and huge.

"We'll take a set of tires, maybe two sets of tires with us, just in case we get a blowout," said Leroy Houston, an operations leader in Boeing's Test and Evaluation unit. "You've got to remember: There are 16 tires on the main gear of a '47." Each is slightly more than 4 feet in diameter.

"Everything we do on the airplane has a piece of paper associated with it."
Raymond Hayes, Boeing maintenance manager

Meanwhile, there's work to be done on board. This 747-8 is configured for freight, and a variety of cargo loads and arrangements must be tried in flight to see how the airplane handles. Somebody has to rearrange the "ballast" - pallets that are loaded with building materials weighing up to 5 tons apiece.

Flight test luggage

BOEING/Bernard Choi

Flight test luggage: To record thousands of measurements during flight, engineers bring boxes of instrumentation equipment.

"All these are set up for different conditions, different sections of the aircraft, and different weight loads on the aircraft, depending on the condition that they're going to test for that day," Houston said.

Meanwhile, in a building nearby, another team is meticulously documenting all this activity. "Everything we do on the airplane has a piece of paper associated with it," said Raymond Hayes, a keeper of databases and a shelf full of spiral-bound notebooks.

"We keep track of what we did, who did it, the time it was done, how much time it took to do that job," Hayes said. "Common saying is when the paper weighs as much as the airplane, then we're done and we can sell it to the customer. That's probably not a true statement but it seems like it sometimes."