Boeing Frontiers
December 2002/January 2003
Volume 01, Issue 08
Top Stories Inside Quick Takes Site Tools

Non-stop operation

T-45 flight test team always looks to 'get it right'


Boeing T-45 Goshawk When student pilots take off in a Boeing T-45 Goshawk, they know they are flying a solid airplane with an excellent performance and safety record. What they might not know is the time and effort Boeing Integrated Defense Systems has put into ensuring the T-45 will continue to serve as the premier tactical jet aircraft trainer long into the future.

A Boeing IDS team of engineers, maintainers and test pilots is constantly working on the T-45, investigating and addressing concerns the people who fly the plane voice, and developing upgrades to improve the aircraft's performance. Since the U.S. Navy first took delivery of the light jet in the early 1990s, Boeing has conducted about 100 test programs to investigate these concerns and provide operational improvements to make the jet better.

This work, which the flight test team at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., performs, is a complicated process that can take anywhere from a few weeks to years.

Fred Strickland, Boeing IDS test and evaluation manager, said the team "takes the time necessary" to make sure the upgrade is the best possible answer. One of the biggest challenges to finding solutions is limits on staffing and flight time. "We have so much to do on each test aircraft [for each test], and only so many hours available to support it," Strickland said.

For example, the flight test team was instrumental in developing "Cockpit 21," a digital upgrade to the original analog cockpit in the T-45. The digital cockpit closely resembles the type of cockpit aviators will see in their fleet aircraft, and it helps reduce the transition time for new pilots when they get to their first operational squadron.

The first step to putting the newly designed cockpit into production aircraft was to have flight-test pilots fly with the old cockpit for baseline tests. The team combined data from the baseline tests with engineering and human factors studies to determine the best solution to meet the Navy's need for a digital cockpit trainer within budget constraints.

Next, production-manufacturing employees in St. Louis built the original Cockpit 21 test aircraft, A037, without a cockpit installed. Once engineers had designed and built the digital cockpit, the team installed it in the aircraft in St. Louis and transported it to Patuxent River for testing.

This process was different from many test programs where the company must remove old hardware before it can install new equipment. This eliminated the need to change hardware on an existing aircraft, a process that can take several weeks.

After technicians had installed the modification and completed ground tests to make sure new hardware and software worked together correctly, Boeing IDS test pilots flew the aircraft. For the T-45 digital cockpit, initial flight tests took two years, encompassing 345 flights and 445 flight hours. The Navy's operational assessment took another month, with 28 flights and 38 flight hours. Follow-on tests, to verify correction of deficiencies and system improvements the team had identified during development testing, required several more months.

The final flight tests for the cockpit modification took place more than seven years after Boeing first presented its vision of the digital cockpit, said Bob Fleig, Boeing IDS crew systems team leader.

Why did it take so long? If a modification works perfectly, Strickland said, the team can propose the upgrade or solution to the Navy. If the team is not satisfied with the test results, "it's back to the drawing board," he said.

Any flight test program also faces limitations on available flight time due to weather, pilot availability, funding and other factors. Currently, the T-45 upgrade team has three aircraft available for testing: two aircraft are test flight assets and the third is a fleet asset temporarily assigned to the flight test team. The team instruments each aircraft for specific tests, so an aircraft it uses to test engine surge may not be practical for a test on ground handling.

The Boeing IDS team, both in St. Louis and in Patuxent River, is continuously working on ideas to make the aircraft better, Strickland said. As soon as the team completes one test, it moves to another. Some improvements, such as software updates, don't require much physical modification. Others, such as the digital cockpit, require significant changes.

If the team has a motto, however, it could be, "Get it right." That's because the work it performs helps reduce accidents and ultimately saves lives by better preparing new pilots to fly high-performance Navy fleet aircraft.


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