In spite of clouds, rain, ice and turbulence that would
normally scrub a First Flight, Boeing
decided to make a statement about their confidence in the 787 - a statement
designed to defuse the perception that the Dreamliner program is in trouble and
likely to stay that way.
Pending a thorough review of the engineering data, it
appears they were successful and then some.
From the moment of lift
off from Paine Field, the airport adjacent to the sprawling Boeing factory
in Everett, WA, until the picture perfect landing three
hours and four minutes later, the flight was anomaly free.
"We encountered icing and turbulence - which weren't on the
task list - but there were no problems," according to Randy Neville,
Pilot for the 787 program.†
Mike Carriker, chief pilot for the program, said "The
engineers said we'd have a great airplane and we do."
The first Dreamliner
to fly has three names: ZA001, the inventory designator, AP1 - short for
Airplane Number 1, and N787BA, the FAA registration number. It will never be
delivered to a customer and is one of six aircraft dedicated to the testing
AP1 has no passenger seats or any interior finishing.
Instead, the payload consists of rack after rack of test equipment interfaced
to provide over 1,000 telemetry channels of data. At the other end of the data-link,
engineers watch in real time and archive all data for later examination.
The telemetry system, extensive though it may be, was only
operating at 1/10th capacity during the First Flight. Later flights
will see more channels of data collected as the Dreamliner goes through a nine
month certification process that culminates with the Federal Aviation
Administration's (FAA) permission to build and sell the airliner.
With two T-33 military jet trainers flying chase, Boeing 1,
the Dreamliner's Air Traffic Control call-sign, lifted off Paine Field's runway
34 Left at 10:29 PST on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009. And for the next three hours,
it flew a zigzag path above the Straits of Juan de Fuca at altitudes ranging
from 2,500 to 13,000 ft as the First Flight objectives were ticked off the task
list one by one.
Seen on a radar screen, the path resembled the flight of a
Honeybee foraging for nectar but it was data that Carriker and Neville were
The most critical data were validations of the aerodynamic
qualities the designer's equations had predicted. Especially important were
tests for any sign of flutter. (Aerodynamic flutter is a harmonic condition
that appears at specific speeds and/or flight control settings. It can destroy
the surface in question and result in the loss of the aircraft.)
Also important were the low speed stability tests since
demons lurking there can cause all sorts of handling problems. For instance, an
airplane that's unstable at low speeds will be a handful to take off and land.
It would also be an aircraft that few test pilots would want to be in when the
high speed stability predictions are validated.
For most of the flight, the landing gear was extended and
the flaps were left set at the 20 degree take-off position. Later, the gear was
cycled and the flaps were extended to 30 degrees which more closely
approximated the landing position.
Airspeed was kept intentionally slow at approximately 160
knots and rates of climb and descent were both kept at or below 1,000 ft/min.
In addition, bank angles and pitch changes were held to low values to provide a
base line of stress levels for later testing.
Engine operation, flight instrumentation and critical
systems all performed as predicted according to the flight crew who said that the
airplane appeared to have no bad habits.
Flight control harmony - the way that various controls work
together - particularly impressed Carriker. "I told the engineering folks back
at flight ops that they had gotten it just right," he said.
Since the 787 is a Fly-by-Wire
airplane, his accolades also meant that artificially generated force
feedback present in the controls provided the "feel" of a conventional airplane
but with the precision of computer assisted flight controls.
Neville echoed Carriker's assessment: "It brings back the
joy of aviation because the airplane flies beautifully. It became second nature
(to hand fly) very quickly," he said. Both Neville and Carriker think the
airplane flies better then the simulator.
A neutral observer expects company test pilots to not dwell
on any shortcomings but reporters asked more then once if there were any
surprises or problems and both pilots gave straight forward answers that left
very little wiggle room.†
Neville said, "No surprises - in spite of very high
benchmarks. It responded just as we expected."
"We've shown that the airplane flies today and in the next
nine months we'll show it meets all the design goals. We had a great day."
The Path to
Now the tedious work of testing the airplane begins.
Exploration of the entire flight envelope will require most of 2010 and the
majority of that work will be done by test pilots who are also engineers. Along
the way they'll be required to fly precisely, holding airspeeds and altitudes
within limits far tighter than an airline pilot is required to exhibit.
Being engineers, the public will view them as automatons
programmed by the great engineer in the sky to do a job without emotion. But
once and awhile, an engineer will break free and experience something like what
Mike Carriker did shortly after taking off on the First Flight:
"We climbed to 2500 feet initially and stayed below the
clouds until we were out over The Straits of Juan de Fuca and then we started
climbing. At 7,000 we popped out and there was the snow capped Olympics framed
in the left window. I'll never forget that sight the rest of my life."
John Loughmiller is an electrical engineer, commercial pilot, flight instructor and a lead safety team representative for the FAA.