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Feature Story

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Need for speed

Flying a supersonic fighter jet down to only 500 feet above the ground is not for the faint-of-heart.

Boeing Quality Assurance/Aircraft Inspector David Wright

Randy Jackson/Boeing

Boeing Quality Assurance/Aircraft Inspector David Wright communicates to Boeing Experimental Test Pilot Mike “Sting” Wallace with hand signals as he goes through the pre-flight checks of an F/A-18F Super Hornet at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla. Both men will participate in demonstration flights at this year’s Farnborough International Airshow in the United Kingdom.

Boeing Experimental and Evaluation Test Pilot Steve “Bull” Schmidt stays cool under pressure while the green numbers on his head-up display whiz by due to him sending his jet into a controlled dive. Schmidt is all business as he works through the final F/A-18 Super Hornet demonstration routine that he’ll showcase at this year’s Farnborough International Air Show in Hampshire, England.

“Keep it tight…one thousand, one thousand…on the mark,” the experienced test pilot narrates to his ground crew listening on radios as he pulls the agile jet out of the steep dive.

While the air show routine Schmidt and fellow Boeing test pilots are rehearsing lasts only 6 minutes and 40 seconds, planning the routine has taken months.

International audience

“Farnborough is one of the main international air shows and attracts people from all over the world,” Schmidt said. “We’re here to showcase what the Super Hornet can do. Every maneuver we plan out, practice and execute is there to show the capabilities of the aircraft.”

Test Pilot Mike “Sting” Wallac in red helmet sitting in jet

Randy Jackson/Boeing

Boeing Experimental Test Pilot Mike “Sting” Wallace sits in the cockpit of a Boeing-built F/A-18F Super Hornet as his ground crew readies the jet for takeoff to practice an aerial demonstration routine for Farnborough International Airshow 2010.

Boeing has delivered 434 Super Hornets to customers around the globe. Since its inception, the Super Hornet program has remained on time, on weight and on budget.

For Farnborough 2010, Boeing will fly two recently delivered F/A-18F Super Hornets from its U.S. Navy customer in the demonstration.

The 14-member Boeing Super Hornet Demonstration Team pampers these aircraft, with mechanics at Cecil Field near Jacksonville, Fla., constantly evaluating and fine-tuning the performance jets for their four daily rehearsal flights.

Waving two fingers in the air to signal the running up of the jet’s engines, Boeing Quality Assurance/Aircraft Inspector David Wright carefully listens to the clean whine of two General Electric F414-GE-400 engines – each providing 22,000 pounds of thrust. Schmidt watches Wright closely from his vantage point in the Super Hornet’s cockpit, reading the hand signals as he prepares to begin another practice round of the demonstration routine.

“It would be nice if everyone could get a backseat ride in a Super Hornet, but that’s just not possible,” said Wright. “That’s why we put so much into these demonstration flights. The world is watching at a show like Farnborough – a lot of potential customers too.”

Down to business

Planning for the Farnborough aerial demonstration begins on the ground.

“We start practicing our demonstration routine in a simulator where all of the aerial maneuvers are decided and mapped out,” said Jim Roberts, a Boeing air show coach. “Then it’s out over the ocean at 20,000 feet to get the feel of it.”

F/A-18F in front of Boeing building

Randy Jackson/Boeing

A Boeing-built F/A-18F prepares to taxi at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

The Super Hornet demonstration team will fly the aircraft lower and lower until it gets to the show’s minimum altitude of just 500 feet, making safety an important factor.

“Communication is very important,” said Darryl Lyons, Boeing F/A-18 demonstration team aircraft maintenance foreman. “This can be a very dangerous evolution. At an air show, you’re at 500 feet pointed straight down at times, so we make sure everything is perfect on the airplane and in the plan.”

But beyond thrills for spectators, the demonstration flights are all about business.

“The Super Hornet has exceptional characteristics that we think stand out among all the competitors out there,” said Boeing Experimental Test Pilot Mike “Sting” Wallace. “We need to demonstrate that at these air shows.”

Historic airspace

Cecil Field sign with Jet

Randy Jackson/Boeing

A Boeing F/A-18 Hornet static display greets visitors to Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

At Farnborough this year, the Super Hornet will occupy the same airspace that the legendary Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX once covered to beat back threats over England during World War II. The 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – an air campaign in which the Spitfire played a major role in maintaining air superiority over the German air force – will be observed.  

“When you think of the sheer history of the place – and everyone who has been there before – it’s very humbling,” said Schmidt. “It’s an honor to be part of it and to bring the Super Hornet representing The Boeing Company.”