Boeing’s test-center group maintains a busy schedule

 - July 19, 2010, 10:58 PM
Many of the 718 flight tests executed out of Boeing’s Test & Evaluation Center during May were for the 787 Dreamliner program. (Photo by Matt Thurber)

Boeing’s Test and Evaluation (T&E) division is spread out over 78 locations, but testing is done at many more locations, including at suppliers and other areas when necessary. The OEM doesn’t own all 78 locations. One, for example, is at the U.S. Navy’s Patuxent River air station in Maryland. “We take our airplanes where they need to be tested in terms of some of the environmental conditions,” said Barbara Cosgrove, vice president of Flight Test Operations. T&E is responsible for testing all Boeing products, including airplanes, fighters, helicopters, UAVs and missiles.

T&E is not just for flight testing but also includes lab testing such as wind tunnel tests and other non-airborne functions throughout the product’s lifecycle. “[Boeing’s] business units are responsible for defining the product, designing it and building it,” Cosgrove explained. “We’re woven into that as they go through the process. It could be as simple as a component in a lab, a coupon–a piece of material that we’re testing–for our next-generation airplane or fighter. Or it could be as complex as a buildup of systems [in the lab] to see if, say, moving the flap system on the airplane is going to work.”

787 Testing
As an example of how busy T&E is, the division ran 718 flight tests during May. Many of those were for the 787 program. When Boeing engineers first began conceiving the 787 almost 10 years ago, T&E’s structures lab had the important task of figuring out how to build a safe, reliable and certifiable airliner out of composite materials.

Now that the 787 is well into its flight test program, T&E keeps close track of each airplane, its status and what it has accomplished. “In order to get an airplane up every day,” Cosgrove said, “we’re looking at our overnight maintenance cycles, how long it’s taking us to return the airplane, whether we’re releasing the airplane in the morning at the earliest possible time. We test during the daylight, so the earlier we can release that airplane in the morning, the more flight time we get.”

As of June 22, 787 ZA001 had flown more than 100 hours per month and ZA004 had logged more than 140 per month, flying long eight- to 12-hour trips to assess fuel efficiency. By the end of the summer, 10 airplanes will be in the commercial flight test fleet (six 787s and four 747-8s).

“When you put 10 of them in the air, you’ve got a real issue with logistics,” said the operations center’s Steve Blair, “not only trying to keep them in the air, but trying to keep straight where they are.” A fleet strategy team keeps track of how testing will be done, the sequence of testing and what the priorities are. And the team for a 787-type program involves about 200 people who need to be kept in the loop at all times.

The operations center has two big displays, one shows live flight tracking of every airplane, and the other reports on each airplane’s location, release time, departure time, arrival time and general status. Engineers can also view the same feeds through their computers. Calls come for parts, maintenance and logistics issues, chase and support aircraft scheduling and the twice-daily Dornier 328Jet logistics support flights up and down the U.S. West Coast carrying about 20 people and 200 to 300 pounds of cargo.

Both the 747-8 and 787 have dedicated telemetry rooms. Test directors monitor each aircraft, and a big flight visualization monitor shows a real-time top-down telemetry map view of the airplane in flight. Boeing captures flight test data at the rate of 15 megabits per second. The data link is line-of-sight VHF when flights are local, but for flights away from the VHF stream, the airplane sends data to a system that receives the data and sends them to a satellite, then to the operations center.