Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann has taken a Boeing 777-200LR jetliner above 30,000 feet and let it stall, testing whether it can recover without...
Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann has taken a Boeing 777-200LR jetliner above 30,000 feet and let it stall, testing whether it can recover without a precipitous drop. She has put it into a dive, approaching the speed of sound. Soon, while accelerating down the runway, she’ll shut one of the two engines to test that the jet can still take off safely.
How’s that for a dream job at 52?
Capt. Darcy-Hennemann is a senior test pilot on Boeing’s 777 program and lead pilot on current test flights of the 777-200LR, the latest ultra-long-range model.
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She began initial flights over Puget Sound and Eastern Washington eight weeks ago. Next week, Darcy-Hennemann will begin takeoff and landing tests on the immense runway at California’s Edwards Air Force Base.
Stall testing is already complete. High above Eastern Washington, Darcy-Hennemann said, she pushed the nose of the airplane up until the world below disappeared and she could see only blue. She kept pushing the rotation upward; finally, the lift under the wings disappeared.
Such a test looks calamitous as the airliner drops sharply for a second. But though it can lose 2,000 feet of altitude, it’s not in free fall.
“The airplane is always under control,” said Darcy-Hennemann.
“In the middle of the stall, you still have control over the wing,” said Frank Santoni, chief 777 test pilot. “That’s how you can get it back to a nonstall position.”
The two pilots talked in the airplane’s cockpit, days before the jet’s maiden flight from Paine Field in Everett. Santoni would be co-pilot.
On the control panel in front of them, a small label read: “Boeing 001 Experimental.”
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to fly,” said Darcy-Hennemann.
As a Boeing test pilot, she does more than fly: She gets to know an airplane from conception and birth until it’s certified for passengers.
A University of Washington graduate in aeronautics and astronautics engineering, Darcy-Hennemann participated in — 200LR engineering-design meetings. She watched the first model, that 001 airplane, progress through factory assembly.
Now, in an eight-month test program, she must prove the airplane’s capabilities and gather flight data that will be used by airline pilots. Behind the flight deck, instead of passenger seats, the plane is filled with computer stations that constantly gather data.
Capable of flying 8,660 nautical miles, the 777 — 200LR matches the range of the Airbus A340-500, the longest-range jetliner currently in service. With optional auxiliary fuel tanks, it can surpass the Airbus jet, pushing the range to 9,420 nautical miles — though no customer has yet ordered that option.
The first airplane is due to go to Pakistan International Airlines, which will begin nonstop flights from Pakistan to the United States.
Last week, Air India committed to taking five of the — 200LRs, for the first direct flights between India and the United States. Air Canada has ordered 18 777s, included the first order for the freighter version.
But first, Darcy-Hennemann must put the airplane through its paces.
Most testing is within the normal speed parameters that the airplane will encounter in service. But she doesn’t stop there.
“We also go way beyond where an airline would ever fly the airplane,” she said.
Typical cruising speed for the 777 is about 640 miles per hour. In the dive test, the airplane will reach about 730 miles per hour — 0.96 Mach, just a tad below the sound barrier.
At Edwards Air Force Base, the tests ahead include an engine shutdown as the jet accelerates toward takeoff. The unequal thrust swings the nose suddenly to one side, and the pilot must correct with a full opposite rudder.
Darcy-Hennemann’s description of another less spectacular test — called a flutter test, where the pilot pulses the flaps on the wings and tail to see if resonance creates undue vibration — suggests the bond that develops between test pilot and flying machine.
“The airplane has its own particular feel and sound,” she said. “When doing flutter testing you can hear [the vibration], almost like a tuning fork, move along the body of the airplane then move back and stop.”
Sitting in the 777-200LR cockpit in March, Darcy-Hennemann’s enthusiasm for fast airplanes spilled out in the idiom of a young girl from 1960s Los Angeles, where she grew up. She recalled that visitors to Disneyland bought tickets labeled A through E to get on rides, with the E-tickets reserved for the most thrilling attractions.
On a runway off to the right on Paine Field, one of the Boeing chase planes that escort test flights roared into the air, momentarily making conversation impossible. The T-38, a fighter-like airplane, is used also by the Air Force to train pilots.
As it streaked skyward, Darcy-Hennemann smiled admiringly. Flying that chase plane might be even more fun.
“That‘s the E-ticket ride,” she said.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com