Meet one of the pilots who puts Boeing jets through their paces
Ross spoke Wednesday as the inaugural speaker in the Future of Flight Foundation's community speaker series, describing her path to become a Boeing test pilot and the different types of pilots Boeing employs.
Ross first came to Boeing as a flight test engineer, analyzing data onboard flight tests. She left the company to join the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Before returning to Boeing, Ross also flew as a commercial pilot for United Airlines.
Unlike commercial pilots, Boeing pilots often get to fly different models of aircraft. Ross has earned the FAA's approval to fly Boeing's 737, 747-400, 767, 777 and 787 airplanes.
Many Boeing pilots served in the military and often were graduates of military test pilot schools or were teachers there, Ross said. All have engineering degrees.
When Ross, 49, was earning her bachelor's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the University of Washington in the early 1980s, she was one of five women in a graduating class of 50. She was the only woman in her U.S. Air Force pilot training class of 22 students.
"I hope that changes," she said. "Because women are every bit as capable of flying these airplanes as men."
Pilots at Boeing fall into one of four categories. Training and technical pilots work with Boeing's airline customers, either training carrier pilots or answering their questions. Boeing also has a small group of executive pilots, who fly executives to meetings, air shows and other events.
Production pilots "are pretty much the last Boeing employees that the customers see," Ross said.
Every aircraft that Boeing delivers -- whether it's the first 787 or the 950th 777 -- is flown by both Boeing and customer pilots to show that the aircraft flies as expected. Ross has worked as a Boeing production pilot.
Engineering pilots like Ross provide input on entirely new aircraft and aircraft derivatives. They've worked with airlines and know what Boeing's customers are seeking in an airplane.
And, when an entirely new jet, such as the 787, or a new model, such as the 747-8, is introduced, engineering pilots get to test out those jets. That means putting the planes through a barrage of tests, for instance landing in high crosswinds, flying the 787 for extended amounts of time or forcing an engine to stall on the 787 to see how it will recover.
"We don't take on risks," Ross said.
Ross and other Boeing test pilots "flew" the Dreamliner hundreds of times in a flight simulator and, after the 787 was complete, by tricking the plane to think it was flying while it was on the ground.
By the time Ross actually flew a 787, she felt "very comfortable" despite the fact the plane had only been flown five or six times previously and the weather wasn't ideal.
"The airplane really does fly a lot like the 777," Ross said, noting that she wasn't just repeating a plug by Boeing's marketing department.
As a test pilot for the 787, Ross' job requires her to work odd hours and travel with the 787 to wherever the plane is undergoing testing. She had to balance that hectic schedule with the demands of being a wife and mother of four children. "It's very challenging," Ross said. "I'm not going to soft-sell it."
Ross' husband is a commercial pilot. With the economic downturn, he opted to take a two-year furlough, which coincided with the bulk of activity on the 787 flight test program.
"You don't do this alone. You have to have an understanding spouse," she said.
Nov. 30: Jim Freeman, former director of flight standards for Alaska Airlines.
Jan. 11: Joe Justice, team lead of WIKISPEED.
For more info: www.futureofflight.org.
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