It was a scene right out of the Spirit of St Louis movie with the press scanning the horizon through the drizzle to spot the 787 coming in from its maiden flight.
To the north, the 787 appeared in the gloom, landing lights lit, and touched down at 1:33 PT at the fabled Boeing Field in Seattle. The abbreviated test lasted for three hours and five minutes, far shorter than the five and a half hour test flight Boeing had planned. The plane, according to 787 chief test pilot Mike Carriker and co-pilot Randy Neville, performed as expected, but turbulence and winds forced a change in the route and abandonment of half the scheduled tests.
Carriker revealed that a Boeing chase airplane sampled the weather on the planned route over eastern Washington and reported heavy turbulence. Another chase plane ventured west out over Port Angeles and the Straits of San Juan de Fuca where the weather was better.
"We got clearance to climb, popped out of the tops of the clouds at 7,000 feet and there were the Olympics and the Straits of San Juan. That image will be in my mind for the rest of my life," said Carriker. Boeing's last test flight of a major passenger jetliner was the 777 fifteen years ago.
With only 10-15 miles of visibility at best, Carriker added that the weather prevented them from flying straight for any length of time. "We had to turn around. [We never had] a 160-200 mile straight leg to fly."
Carriker said the plane got up as high as 12,000 feet, but the Boeing press release said 15,000 feet with hit speeds of 207 MPH ("customary on a first flight.") While the Boeing press release makes no mention of the weather, the test pilots brought it up in the post first-flight press conference several times.
"We would have like to have flown last week when there was 100 miles visibility. We did a functional test of the windshield wipers," said Neville.
Were the test pilots nervous even after hours in a simulator and taxiing the 787 on the ground? Actually, it sounded a bit like they were.
"There's always a bit of risk, but five minutes after being airborne, we retired a lot of risk," he said, acknowledging relief that the first flight is done. "We learned more about this airplane in the first hour than we did in the last 100 days. I'd like to get 80,000 pounds of fuel and go [right] back - in nice weather."
Co-pilot Randy Neville said he was able to take in the uniqueness of the moment even though the pair were furiously busy communicating with the ground, conducting tests and flying the plane. "I was able to sit back and reflect on the moment and see how far we've come. I have the best job at Boeing. [The 787] will bring back the joy of flying and aviation. The airplane flew great."
General manager of the 787 program Scott Fancher said Boeing still anticipates delivering the first planes to customers late next year even though today's test were preempted by the bad Seattle weather. For example, icing tests that were to be performed this month are now postponed until next July and will probably in South America, according to Carriker, who also waxed a bit poetic. "I felt like I flew into the future of Boeing. We smoked it."
There was some doubt whether the plane would even go today, but that would have disappointed the 12,000 Boeing claimed who showed at Paine Field in Everett, Wash. In the end and even in a test flight, it's the pilot's decision to go or scratch the flight.
I can only imagine the pressure on them was enormous given two years delays in the first flight.
A second test flight will be in about a week and when the first six test planes are finished, about two dozen 787 test pilots will flying the planes around the clock.
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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com