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

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.

Carriker: I sat in the original design philosophy meetings in the early 2000s, and just sitting in the various laboratories around the world and seeing these parts work on a benchtop, then watching them work in an aggregated simulation, then to watch them actually work in the airplane has been a great ride.

A & S: From a piloting perspective, how does the 787 differ from the 777?

Carriker: The best thing we could do from a piloting standpoint was to make it fly exactly like the 777. One of the biggest things airlines have to do is train their pilots to fly one airplane, then train them again to fly another. Once you demonstrate a skill, let’s say handling an engine failure or some kind of crosswind landing, you don’t have to demonstrate that skill again in the 787. That cuts down on cost.

A & S: What’s the most fun part of flying the 787?

Carriker: Besides the first flight, which is all excitement, the most fun we’ve had so far was taking our ANA [Japan’s All Nippon Airways] launch customer on board the airplane. I’ve worked with those two pilots now for years, on and off, helping them with their training program and the questions they have. To have our launch customer get in the seat, and to show them all the things we had talked about all these years, and to show them that, yes, it does work—that was the best day.

A & S: That does sound like a proud moment both for you and for the company.

Carriker: Yeah, and with those two pilots in the seat, they flew it. I talked on the radio and did all of the standard first officer things, but I never had to touch the controls.

A & S: You were chief project pilot for the Sonic Cruiser, which was cancelled in 2002. Do you think commercial aviation is ready for a passenger jet that could cruise near Mach 1?

Carriker: Yes, but the laws of physics make it a daunting problem, because it’s tough to get around those laws in an airplane that has the capacity and the cost that people want to pay. It's funny, if you look at some of the studies, nobody wants to go faster north to south, and nobody very much wants to go faster traveling east, because if you go from New York to London, that’s your overnight sleep. Who wants to get to London at three in the morning instead of five? About the only time people wanted to go faster was when they traveled west. But the premium to travel faster was such that customers would say, “Wait a minute. I can pay 10-15% less and take three more hours? I’m taking the three more hours.”

A & S: You also fly the Boeing 247D airliner and a B-17F for Seattle’s Museum of Flight. What are those old airplanes like?

Carriker: The 247 was delivered to United Airlines in 1933. I had days when we were still developing the 787 where I’d go down and try to fly the 307 or the B-17 or the 247, and I just remember marveling about the engine start procedure. In the 787, it’s all auto start. These big turbine engines, either GE or Rolls Royce, you reach up and you set the switch to start and then you bring up the fuel master switch, and you literally sit there and watch the airplane start itself. And if it doesn’t start itself, it turns itself off and it gives you a message, and you do the procedure. In the B-17, the 307, it literally took four hands to start the engines. I mean, you had the starter, you had the boost coil, you had the magnetos, and you had the mixture, and you had to pay attention. You had to watch how many props turned out. You had to listen to it. You had to watch the smoke coming out of the cylinders. Here we went from an airplane that made maybe 1,200 horsepower to these engines, which probably at full thrust make 40,000 to 50,000 horsepower. One of them has two switches, and one of them has four hands.

A & S: What got you interested in aviation?

Carriker: My father was a U.S. Army Air Corps, then U.S. Air Force chaplain. I grew up on Air Force bases. I remember being on a DC-7 coming back from Elmendorf Air Force Base to McChord here in Seattle as a first grader. I remember that engine starting up, and it was just like, this is all I ever want to do in my whole life. I was a kid that built model airplanes. I pumped gas all day long to go flying for one hour outside of Wichita, Kansas.

A & S: There’s something to be said for following your dreams.

Carriker: That’s true. I’m very blessed, I think. I love airplanes. I love why airplanes fly. I love the history of airplanes. I love the history of the Boeing Company flying airplanes. I find it fascinating—especially the 1930s and the 1940s, up through the B-52 and B-47 era—all the skill and the talent of the people that produced those airplanes. It’s always been fascinating. And to get to quasi-follow in those gentlemen’s footsteps is quite an honor.

A & S: You’ve flown a lot of airplanes. Are there any you’d like to fly but haven’t?

Carriker: Oh, yeah. If I could line up a couple out here, there would be some Grumman Cats—a Wildcat and a Bearcat and a Tigercat. Those would be the three I would pick if they were just sitting out there. I’ve [also] never flown in one of these world-class acrobatic airplanes—that would be a real hoot. And of course, strapping on an F-22 wouldn’t be a bad day, either. But that’s out of the realm of possibility.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.