This is not your typical trip report. I went on a flight test for a brand new Boeing 737 out of Boeing Field in Seattle WA
. This was to be the second flight of this airplane. The plane was in the shiny green protective coating with only the rudder and winglets painted. I had spent much of the previous week working around and on this plane. I took a physiology course in order to prepare for this flight since the plane did not meet FAA requirements for commercial flying as it was still considered a test aircraft even though it would be delivered to an airline later that month. I also got to go to the area where they pack all the emergency equipment for the airplanes. I got to see fully inflated life rafts, and put on a life vest, play with an oxygen mask and look through all the various equipment. I got to feel what oxygen was like. The craziest thing I noticed was that they put a Bible in the life rafts. I guess if you are adrift at sea then that might be a good thing.
The time had finally come to go fly on the plane, so I checked the call in number. The flight was delayed, which put a damper on my day’s plans. I called at the new time, and flight was delayed further. Finally after 4 hours, I find out that the flight is postponed to the next day due to some testing problems.
At the report time, I showed up to the briefing room. There is a mandatory preflight briefing for everyone going on a test flight. We started on time and went over the procedure for the flight. We would be running various tests. The plan involved taking off and flying over to Moses Lake in Eastern Washington, which is a common airport for Boeing to use for test flights since it has a 13,000ft runway and is usually pretty deserted. We would land there and do some long distance taxi tests at various speeds, then fly a pattern and land again, and then finally take off and do some in flight tests on our way back to Boeing Field. After our meeting, we all waited around the conference room while final release was being prepared for the flight. There would be about 14 people riding on this plane.
After waiting for clearance, we finally got it after about 45 minutes. I walk out from the conference room and through a hangar to get to the apron. I saw the plane, and went up to check in at the control room at the bottom of the air stairs. I get on board the plane. The first 6 rows of seats were removed from one side of the airplane. They were replaced with test monitoring equipment. I sat at a data monitoring terminal in a special flight test seat. It rotated and had a four point harness to hold me in place. But most of the other engineers and test personnel on the plane sat in normal airplane seats which did have special seat covers on them to protect the seats. It was really hot on board the airplane. There is no air to hook up to the plane at the stands at BFI
. I got my preflight safety briefing personally from the person who was in charge of the cabin. We had extra safety procedures in place for this flight since it was not certified. We went to the door and he showed us how to operate it, although I have opened a 737 door before. Also he showed us the extra emergency equipment on board including extra oxygen bottles.
Next we grabbed our lunches which were boxed on board. Most test flights include lunches, which are pretty nice. The airline that this plane was going to would never serve a meal on board, so it was a special opportunity to eat on board. I saved my lunch for later. I took my seat and strapped in with the data monitoring equipment in front of me. Afterall, I was working on this flight and it was not just another flight where you fly around. Everyone gets headsets on these flights. You can hear pilot communications to the cabin and between test personnel.
After about 20 minutes in the hot cabin, everyone goes to their seats and we are ready to go. This again is not your typical flight, because there are no flight attendants. The pilots are not dressed in uniforms either. Everyone on the plane was wearing jeans, so it is odd to walk to the flight deck and not see the typical formality of uniforms. The APU started up so we could get some air in the cabin. Next, the number 2 engine was started up first with bleed air from the APU. Next the number 1 engine is started. We start taxiing out to the runway. We do a longer than normal taxi to verify that the test equipment is working properly. We taxi to runway 13R. The plane holds short for a while before we are cleared for takeoff.
I am paying attention to the test equipment when we throttle up and zoom down the runway. With only 14 people on board and no cargo, this 737 is LIGHT. Our takeoff weight was far less than typical landing weights even though we had a lot o fuel on board as we anticipated 3 takeoffs. We rotate and leap into the air. Wow just wow. We were off like I have never ever been off a runway before. The plane jumped into the sky. This was not a derated takeoff, which is what you would normally get with a light load and long runway. We are headed south and then turn left and fly over Renton where I normally work. I could see the factory where this plane had been assembled just a week earlier. I did not have to monitor the data in flight, so I was able to just relax. The seatbelt sign went off at about 3,000ft. It is generally understood though that you remain seated unless necessary. For our short 26 minute flight we would be climbing up to 23,000ft. I started eating a bit of my lunch since I was hungry, but did not have that much time because we began our descent and I took my seat. I was looking at the data monitoring equipment. In addition to the test information, we had the ultimate in IFE. Many a.netters like airshow which shows altitude, temperature, airspeed, but this showed more than that. We got position of everything like flaps, spoilers, engine rpm and anything else we could want. It was interesting to see the throttle positions. I had never seen how the engines throttle up and down.
We make a normal approach but it was a bit turbulent. It was a 90 degree day and with the plane so light, it was really bouncing around in the turbulence. As we descend through 4,000ft I hear a weird noise. I turn around and see someone throwing up behind me. That made me feel a bit uneasy. Anyways, we continued a normal flaps 40 approach and land a little roughly on the runway. There were full spoilers and thrust reversers. We come to a stop at the end of the runway. We then begin taxi tests at various speeds along the main runway. We went up and down a few times.
After the taxi tests were done, we moved into place for our next takeoff. Again it was a full power takeoff, so we were off in a very short distance. The 737NG jumped into the air. We were only going to fly a pattern and come in for a landing immediately, so it was going to be about a 5 minute flight. Unfortunately as soon as we are off the ground, the guy behind me starts spewing again. The person next to him contacted the flight deck and we held straight and level for a few minutes so he could calm down. You do not get service like that on a normal flight! They pilots tried to help out. After a few minutes we come in for approach and land after an 8 minute flight. That was the shortest flight in a jet that I have ever been on . This was a flaps 15 landing, so we hit noticeably harder and were at a higher speed during landing.
We taxi to the ramp of the FBO (fixed based operator) and go to the terminal. We were just going to stay on the plane with the engines running so that the tires and brakes could cool adequately. You cannot just fly multiple takeoffs and landings without adequate cooling, especially when speeds are high because it is 90 degrees outside. At this point, the person who was getting very air sick asked to get off the plane. So we had the FBO bring air stairs to the plane since the airline we were flying did not have integrated air stairs. With the engines shut down, I took this opportunity to get off the plane. I walked around and looked at some of the different sensors on the plane. There were sensors on the nose and wing area. So I walked back there and could feel the heat radiating off of the brakes. It was kind of like a half time on our trip.
After about 10 minutes on the ground and on the ramp, we get on the plane and it is time for another takeoff. We decide to leave the person who was feeling sick on the ground and pick him up later on our way back, which would end up resulting in another takeoff and landing (which would be a really good thing for me!). We do another powerful takeoff and climb up to 10,000 and 15,000 feet and fly around with the gear down. At 300 knots with the gear down, the plane was seriously buffeting. It was very noisy in the plane. I had never been on a plane with the gear down at a higher altitude like that, so it was an interesting experience. We also had the spoilers deployed, which meant that the engines were at full power. After the testing we were originally going to fly back to Boeing Field, but instead headed back to Moses Lake to pick up the passenger that we left. We ended up flying really low for a while. It was rather turbulent since we were at 4,000 feet for about ten minutes. We finally do make a landing, which was flaps 30.
We taxi down to the terminal again and they bring the stairs up. I needed to use the restroom, and I was about to go into the lavatory when the captain said that we would be on the ground long enough so that I could just go into the terminal. So I get off the plane again into the 90 degree heat (which was nice since it had been 60 and rainy in Seattle all week, so it was nice to be in summer even if it was for only a few minutes). I walk into the terminal at Moses Lake through the FBO officer and see a very nice terminal. The airport does not have much service though. I walk through the office of the FBO and go back to the airplane. It is so nice to just walk to an airplane and not have to deal with any security. There was no security whatsoever for this flight in the traditional sense. Everyone had to be authorized to fly on the plane, so security was not needed. It was not a commercial flight. A few guys from the plane decided to get off and hang out in the lounge chairs and enjoy the sun. I hop back on board and decide to finish my lunch. Since my seat was at a data monitoring position, I could not eat there, so I decide to eat my food in the galley. I watched everyone get on and off the plane.
Just as I was headed back to my seat, the test director came up to me and invited me to the flight deck. It was my first ever test flight, and he invited me to sit in the flight deck for the return flight. I did not have to do more at the data acquisition position, so I jumped at the opportunity to sit in the observer seat in the flight deck. The door is closed and the test director shows me how to strap into the seat. I had sit in this seat many times during engine runs on the ground, but never during a flight. I have never seen a jet flight deck in flight before. I am a private pilot, but this was going to be a totally different experience. I strap into the 5 point harness and keep my notes on my lap. There were the two pilots and the test director in the flight deck, so it was pretty crowded up there with me in the observer seat. It was not comfortable at all with no legroom and being very high, but that did not matter at all.
The pilots run through checklists and first start the number two engine, while communicating with the one guy on the ground with hand signals. Engine one is started and we are off taxiing. The pilots were really friendly and in a good mood. We taxi onto the runway for about the 7th time today and the crew says goodbye to the tower and saying that they will be back the next day.
The captain uses the tiller to steer us onto the runway as the first officer speaks on the radio. The captain pushes the throttles forward as the engines come to life. After what seems like no time, the captain gently pulls back on the yoke and we jump off the ground. As we rotate the ground just falls down away from us. The pilots look very busy at rotation with the first officer bringing up the gear and communicating on the radio. Again at 3,000ft, the seat belt sign is turned off. The pilots continue the climb up to 16,000ft for the flight back. Originally the flight plan called for test to be done on the return trip, but we had already done those. It was sunny in Eastern Washington and I could see down outside the windows pretty easily. But eventually we flew over clouds so that the mountains were covered.
The pilots spent much of the short flight examining some of the specific features that this airline uses on its planes. There are a number of custom options available. I started speaking with the first officer and after he found out I was a private pilot, he changed the display unit over to look like a VOR and instruments more similar to a Cessna instead of the more sophisticated display used on a jetliner. We also started talking about how some of the smaller planes have even more advanced flight decks. Modern props and regional jets have very advanced flight decks. The 737 is still near the top, but it is 10 years old with 2300 737NGs in service. The captain did use a heads up display for this flight. Since I was sitting behind her, I could see some of the information displayed and it looked pretty cool. Like on most flight tests, the flight deck door was open during the flight. It is definitely a more casual operation than you get when these planes are in service.
We began the descent with the pilots first asking if there was anything that the other test personnel wanted to be performed. After everyone gave the all clear, we began our descent. Unlike the landings in Moses Lake where the airport is deserted, we had to deal with approach giving us specific vectors and speeds. The pilots get the ATIS information for Boeing Field. There were a lot of communications going on in a short period of time. We descend through 13,000 and then to 8,000. We start to see clearings in the clouds and I can see Issaquah, which means that we were getting pretty close to BFI
. We were given vectors out towards West Point. Right as we get to the water ATC warns us of VFR traffic. Jets into BFI
have to deal with VFR traffic using the airport. The flight path for arrival involves going outside of the Class Bravo airspace of SEA
, which is only about 5 miles from BFI
. It is pretty crowded airspace. All four people in the flight deck look for the traffic. We can not see it for a while and then TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) goes off warning of the traffic and ATC clears us to stop our descent since we are at 2200ft and the VFR traffic which was only about a mile away was at 1900. We finally spot the floatplane and are able to continue the descent. I did my private pilot training at BFI
, so I was used to seeing this approach, but it was far more interesting doing the approach in a jet. I got to watch the beautiful city of Seattle. It is one of the most beautiful regions to fly over in the country with the combination of lakes, bays, water and land.
We are cleared to land while on final approach into BFI
. We make a stabilized approach, but I could definitely see a bit of a crosswind as we were not perfectly aligned with the runway. We were incredibly light at this point after using all the fuel associated with 4 takeoffs and about 1.5 hours of flight. The captain makes a pretty good normal landing. From speaking with her, she said that it is a lot easier to make a nice soft landing when the plane is heavier. It just tends to float when it is lighter.
We stop nice and quick and turn off onto the alpha taxi way to head to the ramp. The pilots switch to APU power. We make a jerky stop on the taxi way and the captain tries to avoid a bird flying by before making our way to the stand. Boeing reverses its planes in, so we go and pull forward past the stand and then have the tug hook up to us and push us back into the gate. After a good flight I take off my safety belts and headset and head to the back to collect my carryon belongings which consists of notes and a briefcase.
After finishing the flight we head back to the conference room where everyone from the flight meets to go over the flight. We discuss the test and the extra flight before I am done for the day. All in all, it was a 6 hour work day. But what can be better than getting paid to sit on a plane all day! It just reminds me of how happy I am to work at one of the best companies in the world! All my coworkers were jealous of me getting to ride back in the flight deck. A flight test alone is pretty special and being able to see it from the flight deck is just all the more interesting. I thank everyone that let me partake in such an experience.
I hope you enjoyed me sharing one of the most fun parts of my job. Feel free to leave any comments that you may have.
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