Want to get your plane serviced fast? Check out Boeing's flight test pit crew




Posted on April 19, 2010 at 7:23 PM

Updated Monday, Apr 19 at 9:32 PM

MOSES LAKE, Wash. - They come from towns like Puyallup, and Renton. But they've been staying in hotels in Moses Lake for months. They are flight test mechanics, and their job is to take the 747-8 and get it ready to hit the skies again the next day.

Grant County International Airport is one of the biggest in the U.S., covering 4,700 acres and has five runways. Once the former Larson Air Force Base, one of its runways is 13,500 feet long and 200 feet wide. It's an alternate landing site for NASA's Space Shuttle and that gives you a sense of scale. But Grant County isn't very busy, and that makes it perfect for test flying.

Leroy Houston is Boeing's operations leader for the 747-8 testing there. He says a plane can take off and be in test mode in just minutes.

Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner is frequently in and out of there as well, but the 747-8, the biggest jet Boeing has ever built, practically calls it home. But Boeing will conduct tests around the world, depending on the type of test and required conditions - from hot to cold, to an extremely quiet place to check on the plane's noise footprint.

We were there after a day of flutter testing, and watched as a line of mechanics poised like race horses in the gate ran toward the plane armed with ladders, hoists, tugs and other equipment to service 747-8F number one as it taxied to the former Japan Airlines flight training hangar and shut down its engines.

One of the people we met was Valerie Rutan, a quality assurance inspector.

"It's like this every night when this plane comes back," she said.

One night, the crew had to change out all sixteen tires and brakes on the main landing gear in a 12-hour shift. The plane was ready for another day of flight testing the next morning.

The 747 first hit the skies 40 years ago, but while the 747-8 has a long legacy, it is a very new airplane. It's about 20 feet longer and has a new, longer wing and new engines. That means, like the first 747, it has to be flight-tested all over again in order to obtain FAA certification.

Flutter testing is considered one of the most strenuous types of tests. It's also one of the more dangerous tests. In it, pilots fly at high speed, using certain maneuvers to try and get the plane to vibrate. Flutter testing has been known to break parts off airplanes. That didn't happen to the 747-8.

"It's actually like a trip to Disneyland in some cases," said test pilot Tom Imrich. "You actually try and cause vibration. And a good test is when no vibration results. And that's what happened today."

Most flights typically have 12 to 14 people on board the plane, strapped into seats behind electronic consoles that monitor thousands of data points on the plane. But during flutter, only the pilots are on board and the plane sends information back to the ground via radio and satellite, and the data is also retrieved from removable computer drives, downloaded and then shipped to Seattle for further analysis.

But Rutan and others monitor the 747-8 for any cracks, leaks or other exceptions. When something is found, it can be re-designed by engineers and monitored. This way, the plane you fly on as a passenger won't strand you at the gate in the future. Testing is all about safety and reliability.