With nearly 600 hours of testing completed on the new 787 Dreamliner and more than 200 hours on the new 747-8, Boeing is in the thick of a very busy year of flight testing. Delays in both programs have put the new composite airliner and the company’s biggest airplane ever both behind schedule, and the company is working very hard to make sure there are no further problems with the billions being invested in the two programs.
So during a test on an aircraft last month when there was a simple communication problem between two critical data archives recording the mountains of data from the airplane, the company did not want to waste any time in fixing the issue. It called in the nerds.
“We’re really a flying help desk.”
That’s the humble and perhaps overly simplified way Neil McNeight explains his job. For an experienced software engineer, working the help desk might not sound like anything worth bragging about. But for McNeight and his coworkers, the help desk they operate has the future of one of the biggest companies in the world riding on their ability to solve a problem right now. And they pride themselves on being able to solve a wide range of problems while dozens, if not hundreds of people wait impatiently for the job to be done.
“If you don’t solve it quickly, it’s going to cost the company a lot of money” McNeight says of the pressure that comes with every phone call.
McNeight’s title is actually a real time software engineer in the Boeing’s flight test division. If the test pilots are the faces of flight test, McNeight and the rest of his group are an example of the unknown, and less glamorous side of developing a new airplane. They are on call to make sure the company’s billions of dollars tied up in developing the 787 and 747-8 doesn’t run into any delays for something as simple as a problem with a TCP/IP connection. This kind of problem at your desk might cause you to miss a critical Facebook update. But the same issue in flight test could cause an entire team to come to a grinding halt when the data stream stops cold.
During flight test, it is often the test pilots who garner most of the attention. But these public faces of airplane development are just one small part of the flight test team. Most every test pilot will refer to the numerous engineers and others who are the people responsible for developing a new plane like the 787. After all, it is the the engineers who design and develop the airplane. And there are even more flight test engineers to design and monitor the myriad of tests during each flight to ensure the airplane is performing the way it is expected to perform.
But in addition to the engineers responsible for designing the airplane and all of its complex systems who occasionally get some of the attention they deserve, there is a group of people who work in the flight test department and are rarely seen outside of the company. The software nerds who keep all the data flowing.
There was a time when flight testing consisted of a test pilot going up in an airplane and putting it through a series of maneuvers. The pilot would get a feel for the airplane, check the instruments, jot down some notes and finish the flight. On the ground, the pilot would then tell the designers and engineers what he thought of the airplane’s flight characteristics and share some of the data he recorded via pencil and paper in the cockpit.
Today things are a bit different. Actually more like terabits.
A test pilot’s feel for the airplane is still important, and they still take some notes. But in modern flight test there are thousands upon thousands of variables being measured and tested. So it is up to the software and data links to make sure all of the information makes it back to the designers and engineers who can verify the airplane is behaving how it was designed.
Boeing's Airborne Data Analysis and Monitoring System
McNeight and the others on his team are the ones who make sure the terabytes of data keep flowing. And if some of the data isn’t flowing, a test could be stopped mid flight. Though usually the goal is to find the problems before the airplane ever leaves the ground.
On board each of the 787 as well as the new 747-8 test aircraft there are thousands of instruments recording data before, during and even after every flight. And from one flight test to the next, the data collection system critical to the engineers watching the tests may have to be changed from the instruments recording the engines, to those monitoring the brakes.
The thousands of instruments are all feeding a computer that sits in the telemetry room back on the ground. At the heart of this system is the Airborne Data Analysis and Monitoring System, better known as ADAMS. More specifically it’s ADAMS V (a cleaning of the ink on Roman numeral I was all that was needed when ADAMS IV was upgraded).
ADAMS V is a command line type system that is connected to a TCP/IP network. And just as every computer in your office may have a different IP address on your TCP/IP network, every instrument on board a 787 has its own IP address as well. Through a multi-casting network where the data flows to the machine that wants to listen, different groups that require the same data from various instruments, all get what they need.
McNeight says his job is sort of like a firefighter. Ideally you never want to be called. But when you are called, it’s time to spring into action and work quickly.
“It’s real time, dynamic problem solving” he says, “we’re generalists [and] we have a certain depth of knowledge in everything.”
Four of the six 787 flight test aircraft have flown a total of 196 flights so far. On the 747-8, three test airplanes have made more than 100 flights. Recent tests have included extreme cold testing in Florida and more climate testing in Texas for the 787, and most of the 747-8 testing has taken up residence in Palmdale, California.
With thousands of hours of testing still to do, there is an unimaginable amount of data still to be streamed to engineers. For McNeight and the others on the team, there are still plenty of late night calls sure to arrive. But he says as a software engineer with a penchant for airplanes, he’s more than happy to keep working the flying help desk.
Photos: Jason Paur/Wired.com