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EXCLUSIVE: On the Flight Deck with 787 Test Pilot Heather Ross

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Written by: Brandon Farris
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(Editor’s note: During the festivities surrounding the recent 787 test model handover at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, NYCAviation was granted an exclusive interview with Heather Ross who is one of the head 787 test flight pilots.)

NYCAviation (NYCA): Before the Dreamliner, what other aircraft did you fly?

Heather Ross (HR): I flew on the 737 program as the production chief pilot for Boeing, but overall I have flown on the 747, 757, 767 and 777. Before I joined Boeing I served in the Air Force in the T-37 and T-38 training aircraft before switching over to the C-5 Galaxy as my main mission plane before I transitioned to the C-141 Starlifter. After that I joined United Airlines flying the 747 and 727 as a flight engineer before getting upgraded to a first officer on the 737.

NYCA: So out of all those airplanes, which has been your favorite?

HR: Oh gosh, that’s a tough one. There is a real tendency under the wing of this airplane (ZA003) to say this airplane. It’s a great airplane; it really is. I love this plane but I love the 737 too, so it’s really a tough choice.

3750 Heather RossNYCA: How does the Dreamliner compare to other Boeing aircraft, and what’s it like to fly the dream?

HR: It’s named appropriately, for one; the aircraft really is a dream to fly. It’s very easy and makes all of us pilots look good. The flight controls do a wonderful job of basically rejecting turbulence and upset so the ride is very, very smooth. Since we’re standing under the Dreamliner, it’s obvious we’ve flown this airplane all over the world; in fact, a couple times around. I can tell you even on 16- and 17-hour flights I don’t feel as fatigued as I would on any other airplane. The cabin pressure is much lower, and the humidity is much higher so you don’t feel dried out. It’s just a real comfortable plane to fly not only as a crew member and pilot but also as a passenger.

NYCA: How do you think the efficiencies created by the Dreamliner will help with, say, the 777X and other future Boeing aircraft?

HR: I know we are already using some of the technologies that we have developed and some of the lessons that we’ve learned on this airplane and we’re using that under the 777X. There’s a lot of technology that we developed for this airplane that I know will flow to the 777X and future airplanes. I think it has been quite successful in that sense.

NYCA: What did it mean [to you] to be selected for the 787 flight test program when pilots were being chosen?

HR: It was a real honor. I was selected by Mike Carriker to come and be part of the 787 program almost eight years ago. At the time, he said, “I’d like you to come and be a part of the program. It should only be about two years or so.” And now we are into six years, but I still love flying this airplane. I enjoy going to work every day. We keep changing which phase we are in. We were in that development phase, then the design phase, followed by the planning phase and finally we went into the planning for flight test phase. Then once we were wrapped up with the -8 program it was time to move onto the -9 and now the -10. So it’s always something different, it’s exciting even with one model to keep me busy likely for the rest of my career.

NYCA: How many hours and test flights have you done on the 787?

HR: I’ve got about 1,300 hours of time on the 787 in general, not really sure on the number of flights to be honest. Our test flights vary so dramatically as you know, some of them are super short while other are very, very long. I’ve done lots of those — not just on the world tour where we were flying the plane from point A to point B, but some of our test flights go from eight hours to 12 hours to 16 hours — and again, that is just in testing. Others are only 30 minutes, yet very intense depending on what we need to test. For a while I had the most hours of any pilot in the world on the 787 but now of course our airline customer pilots are passing us as they have pilots flying it every day and all day long. I think that is wonderful, and the way that it should be.

NYCA: What was your most memorable moment during the 787 flight test program?

HR: There were a lot of really memorable parts depending on if you’re talking from a testing perspective. I think probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve done so far on the 787 program was the Service Ready Operation Validation. That was where we took ZA002 — the test 787 in All Nippon Airlines’ paint scheme — and brought it to Japan for the carrier to test fly it for about ten days. That was really interesting and, really, a wonderful experience because you got to really talk to, be with and fly with the carrier’s pilots and let some of them take control of the real airplane for the first time. It was one of the projects that I was directly responsible for. It was great to be able to give them the airplane even just temporarily and let their crews work it and let them give feedback on it. It was really an amazing experience.

Second greatest was the dream tour. Getting to bring the 787 all over the world and show it to the customers who have been waiting so long for it and let them experience what it is like. Also to show it off to some of our suppliers and the folks that had worked on various parts of the airplane and to let them see their parts with the rest of the airplane connected around it because that is how they view it. It was exciting because they were really thrilled to see the airplane.

NYCA: How much joy did you have once certification was achieved and the first aircraft was handed off to launch customer ANA?

HR: It was a huge milestone. A culmination of what we’ve been working so long for a lot of the guys. I mean, I came into the program about a year and a half to two years after it was launched, but some folks already had six to eight years put into the aircraft. So it was a real excitement to see the first one delivered, as it was just a culmination of so many efforts to get to that point.

NYCA: What does it mean to you for ZA003 to be officially delivered to the Museum of Flight? What do you think people will be able to take away and experience from the aircraft being here?

HR: Sadly, it’s the end of the airplane’s direct participation in the 787 program, as the airplane will never fly again. From that perspective, it’s a sad moment; but the reality is this airplane has potential to do even more for aviation and for aspirations of future generations.

This airplane will be an inspiration to kids and young adults for generations to come and will inspire them to get into aviation. In fact, I actually brought three of my kids here today to experience this, and they are excited. They see the excitement of the people around the airplane and it helps bring people closer to the fact that dreams can come true.

Brandon Farris is a Northwest-based aviation photojournalist who has a love and extreme passion for aviation and Major League Soccer. To see more of his work, check out his Flickr or contact him via email.

About the Author

Brandon Farris



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