Flight-Testing the Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Chief Pilot Mike Carriker details the process.

Carriker suited up during the filming of Harrier jets for the 3-D IMAX film Legends of Flight. (Michel Chauvin)
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Since joining Boeing in 1990, Michael Carriker has been chief project pilot for the 737, the 777, and the 787. He was also a U.S. Navy test pilot and instructor, flying the A7-E and F-18 Hornet. He has more than 8,000 flight hours. Carriker spoke with Air & Space intern Mary McKillop in August.

Air & Space: When you’re test-flying the 787, what sort of things are you hoping to learn?

Carriker: In any sort of flight-testing, obviously you start very small. So on the first flight, we just wanted to make sure this airplane flew. That, in and of itself, is a huge comfort factor. It’s a proof of your concept. The very first flight, you live in this little tiny room, right in the middle, where you think your predictions are the best. Then, once you’ve flown the airplane several times within a very small portion of its flight envelope, you can start expanding out to more corners of the box. I think the biggest thing people don’t realize is that we investigate not only speed and weight and altitude, but system failures in the airplane.

A & S: Have any of the things you’ve turned up so far resulted in the 787 being modified?

Carriker: In several cases we gave ourselves options at the start of the flight-test program. You could select option A, B, or C, so to speak. We tested A, and we tested B, and we tested C, and we ended up with B. So is that a change? No, that’s a pre-planned guess, or pre-planned option, that we selected. We did make one small change to the way the leading-edge slats come out of the airplane. But we thought we might have to do that, so we actually had the engineering ready to go.

A & S: How is test-flying an airliner different from test-flying a military aircraft?

Carriker: Well, there’s no ejection seat. [Laughs] I’ve gotten to do both in my career. I did Hornet F-18 test-flying. We both test for the mission of the airplane, so in that way we’re similar. The F-18, obviously, is a weapons-carrying platform, and it has to carry the weapons to the target, whereas we’re very blissfully not a weapons-carrying platform; we’re a passenger-carrying platform. So in our realm, we want to make an airplane that efficiently gets to cruise altitude, because the airplane makes its money at 35,000 to 39,000 feet. We want to get every pound of cargo—be it passengers or flowers—to altitude, and we want to very efficiently take it to its destination. And we want to land in all weather conditions at both ends, and get those passengers to the gate, and we want to get them there on time with the minimal amount of cost.

A & S: Are you supposed to “push the envelope” with the Dreamliner like you would in, say, the F-18?

Carriker: We do the same thing, except for maybe the envelope is a little bit smaller. In a commercial airliner, you have a big variation in weight and center of gravity in the airplane. We have customers that like to have very large aft galleys, so they want the airplane to be loaded very far to the back. So that’s pushing the envelope. We really have tried to make the airplane as energy efficient as possible, because that means less fuel burned, and less fuel burned is a great thing for many reasons—a lighter airplane, less carbon emissions, you carry less gas, which means you burn less gas.

A & S: That sounds like it could be really beneficial for the future of airplane design.

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