June 2005 
Volume 04, Issue 2 
Special Features

High-flying engineers

Boeing test pilots are more than aviators. Most of them carry
engineering degrees along with their flying papers.


C-17 Test Pilot Mike StevensF-15E Strike Eagle chief test pilot Joe “Flood” Felock regularly puts his Mach 2 muscle plane through 9g maneuvers that take it to the outer edges of its performance envelope.

Commercial Airplanes test pilot Dennis “Irish” O’Donoghue sometimes pulls back the throttle on one of the 777 airplane’s two engines during maximum- weight takeoffs or landings to validate the jetliner’s performance in an emergency. Similarly, 737 lead production test pilot Christine Walsh will run through every backup system on every first flight out of the factory, which includes shutting down each engine and relighting it during flight.

And when he’s putting a new C-17 heavy lifter through its paces, test pilot Mike Stevens scours the world for something a recreational flyer might dread: the worst 30- to 40-knot crosswinds he can find.

Such dramatic images tend to fuel the landlubber’s perception of test pilots as “The Right Stuff”–kind of heroes with nerves of steel. And so they are. But there’s a lesser-known side to this glamorous but highly disciplined group of professionals. Whether they are taking their airplanes to the limit or doing a simple systems check, Boeing test pilots are also serving as qualified engineers, technologists and scientists. During flight test, they are as involved with the workings of the aircraft and its systems as they are with flying the plane.

f-15 test pilot Joe Felock

Test pilots perform many roles

A test pilot is a test pilot, right? Well, not quite. Many pilots in the company serve different roles in different assignments. Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief production test pilot Dennis O’Donoghue is one of the few pilots who’s performed all four roles during his career. Here, he describes each of them:

Production Test Pilot

Flies each airplane coming off the production line prior to its delivery to the customer; verifies the airplane meets the design specification and that all onboard systems are functioning correctly. Conducts customer demonstration flights prior to customer delivery.

Engineering Test Pilot

Conducts flight test of new aircraft designs and major modifications to existing aircraft. Establishes the basic airworthiness of the aircraft, evaluates its stability and controllability, and measures its performance characteristics. Verifies that the aircraft functions as designed and validates the functionality of the design. Works extensively with engineers throughout the design, development and testing of the aircraft. Example: The follow-on flight certification program of the Boeing 777.

Experimental Test Pilot

Conducts experimental flight test of unconventional aircraft, which feature leading-edge technologies intended to expand the capabilities of future aircraft; explores the feasibility of new technologies for application in future aircraft designs. Validates new design concepts; works closely with engineers during the design phase as well as during the exploratory phase of the flight program. Examples: The X-32 and Bird of Prey demonstrators.

Research Test Pilot

Flies operational aircraft that have been modified to perform research missions for aeronautical or space science. Examples: the NASA Boeing 747SP, which is being modified to carry a large airborne space telescope; the NASA Gulfstream II, a business jet modified to explore the space shuttle approach-to-landing profile; and the Boeing 757, which featured a modified flight control system to evaluate fly-by-wire flight controls for future Boeing commercial airplanes, such as the 777.


“We know a lot more now than when pilots had silk scarves,” jokes Joe MacDonald, Commercial Airplanes’ 747 chief engineering test pilot, who has an engineering degree and a master’s in systems management. “Through computational fluid dynamics, wind tunnel analysis and simulators, we know how an airplane will perform before a first flight is ever made. The idea is to surface potential problems as early in the development of the program as possible.”

Test pilots are crucial to “human factors” development, particularly on just how much information supplied by a variety of electronic systems a pilot can safely absorb and use. On the ground, pilots describe and document test-flight data, participate in technical discussions and reviews, and, most important, make crucial, often life-saving, recommendations that can come only from experience flying an aircraft.

When some early model F-15Es experienced “departures”—flying vernacular for a stall or tumble that is not responding to flight-control input—former fighter pilot Joe Felock helped come up with the answer.

“We discovered that the additional weight of the E-model, compared with earlier, smaller F-15 models, had in some cases affected the flight control laws, software codes for onboard sensors that manage the motions of the plane,” says Felock, an experimental F-15, F/A-18 and Phantom Works test pilot who holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. “We changed the flight control laws and conducted more than 100 test flights until we were satisfied that we could recover controlled flight in any situation. As a pilot, you have a special interest in safety for aviators in the field. Helping to come up with that solution was the proudest accomplishment of my career.”


Trailblazing pilots of yesteryear, who may not have had a degree, nevertheless had a powerful influence on aircraft and rocket design. As systems have grown increasingly more sophisticated, increasingly more knowledge is being expected of test pilots.

“You’d have a tough time getting into test-pilot school without a degree in engineering, mathematics or physics,” Felock says. “Fly-by-wire aircraft that use electronic instead of mechanical controls are so complicated that you really need to understand how the aircraft works and the forces that act upon it.”

Still, it’s the practical side of their business that frequently gives pilots the inside track.

“We’re not unlike the automotive engineers who test drive a car and then brief the manufacturer on what needs to be done,” says Mike Stevens, an experimental test pilot on the C-17 program and a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy with a bachelor’s in marine engineering. As a U.S. Marines pilot, he flew A-4 Skyhawks, A-6 Intruders, F-4 Phantoms and F/A-18 Hornets.

“As pilots, we can see and feel what’s going on. But it helps to have that engineering background,” says Stevens, who works with C-17 engineers to incorporate commercial, Federal Aviation Administration and Joint Aviation Authorities navigation systems requirements in the C-17. “We can talk to the mechanics and the other engineers in their language. And we can act as translators for the operational pilots. There’s mutual respect and we are totally accepted as members of the team. Our input can and often does really make a difference.”


Pilot contributions, for instance, have ranged from such small modifications as the removal of “eyebrow” upper windows on the 717 and 737 flight decks to the revision of C-17 operational procedures to accommodate the safer exit of parachuting troops. And the successful implementation of the high-tech Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, which projects flight and weapons information on the inside of a pilot’s visor, would scarcely have been possible without the direct input of pilots.

Christine Walsh“Every profession has its unique language,” says Christine Walsh, who has a bachelor’s of science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado-Boulder, “but in flight test you have to be fluent in two languages—engineering and aviation. That is especially crucial for us because we are the final quality checkpoint for airplanes that are being delivered to the customer and the commercial world. If we see, smell or hear something that needs to be addressed, we have to be able to clearly relay the information to the other members of the engineering team. We also need to be able to speak to the customer pilots at a very technical detail system level.”

A design engineer with expertise in human factors before she became a pilot, Walsh is able influence the creation and of building of airplanes ranging from the 777 to military test-bed aircraft.

“We’re always learning, studying, looking for improvements,” she says. “This job is so much fun.”

Dennis O’Donoghue achieved star status as one of the test pilots on the Boeing Joint Strike Fighter program (“Pilot, you are my hero,” said one awestruck mechanic after O’Donoghue successfully flew the first hovering flight of the X-32B JSF). But he has always considered himself part of a larger, integrated team.

“I get to work with a highly talented engineering team in overcoming significant technical challenges,” he says. “That’s what makes this so satisfying.”

777 test pilot Dennis O'DonoghueAs chief test pilot for production aircraft in Puget Sound, O’Donoghue has flown every Boeing commercial airplane and has the unusual status of having military, NASA and commercial test flight experience. He also holds the distinction of having flown just about every military aircraft made by Boeing, including the F-15, F/A-18, AV-8B Harrier, and C-17. An engineering test pilot with the U.S. Marine Corps, he also flew AV-8B Harrier IIs and A-4 Skyhawks. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in mechanical engineering, he went on to earn two master’s degrees in aeronautical systems and business administration.

He agrees that while tests in the lab can take systems so far, there is nothing quite like the view from the cockpit.

“We have a particular advantage in that we see how all of the airplane’s systems come together in the flight deck,” he says. “We can offer a perspective that individual engineers working on separate systems may not have. We also represent the customer and provide practical input from their point of view.”

However, there is one disadvantage to being a test pilot, engineer or not, says a smiling Felock.

“We can’t complain about anything because nobody has any real sympathy for guys who get to fly jet fighters, commercial airplanes, helicopters or military transports,” he says. “Let’s face it: We have the perfect job.”


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