Boeing engineer Pio Fitzgerald's fascination with the 747 began as a kid and culminated when he cured the wingtip flutter problem in the jumbo jet's latest incarnation.
Boeing engineer Pio Fitzgerald sat keenly alert in the cockpit of a 747-8 jumbo jet as veteran test pilot Jerry Whites maneuvered the plane at 31,000 feet to start the wingtips fluttering.
This flutter issue threatened the whole jet program — already far behind schedule — because aviation regulators wouldn’t certify the giant freighter unless Boeing fixed it.
The vibration was subtle and occurred only in unusual conditions, but Whites had tested it enough times that to him it felt like driving with “a badly balanced tire on your car.”
A team led by Fitzgerald had devised a fix, and he was onboard to get his first direct look at how the design performed. Whites flicked a switch.
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“We turned the system on and suddenly the road was smooth. We switched it off and (the vibration) came right back,” Whites said. “It was magic. Absolutely brilliant. … I just wanted to hug the guy.”
A month after that definitive flight test last January, Fitzgerald, 34, was named Engineer of the Year at Boeing Commercial Airplanes for his elegant solution, which required no physical modification to the wing and no added weight.
Eliminating the flutter paved the way for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification in August and Boeing’s first delivery of the jet this month.
In mid-November Fitzgerald will travel to the the Dubai Air Show as one of four nominees for the Innovator of the Year award from Flightglobal, publisher of Flight International magazine.
Boeing’s latest engineering star grew up in Killarney, famous as one of Ireland’s tourist beauty spots. Yet across an ocean and a continent, Boeing and the 747 had a peculiar hold on his imagination since he was little.
His parents had emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. and opened a pub in New York City, the birthplace of Fitzgerald’s four brothers. Fitzgerald was born after they moved back to Killarney to school the children.
They kept the Manhattan pub business, and as Fitzgerald grew up he spent school vacations in the U.S., making regular trips by air from Shannon to New York.
Fitzgerald’s first flight at age 5, on a 747 operated by Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus, sparked a boyish passion for aviation that has never faded.
During the flight, his dad talked his way into the cockpit, where the pilots politely answered the youngster’s breathless questions about how high they were and how fast they were going.
“That was the defining moment,” Fitzgerald said. “From that day on, I wanted to be a pilot.”
Every year afterward, Fitzgerald wrote letters to Aer Lingus, reporting which flight he was booked on and asking to visit the flight deck. In those days before 9/11, he even persuaded the airline to allow him to sit in the cockpit for some takeoffs and landings.
On his 16th birthday he took his first flying lesson in a Cessna at Kerry Airport, and flew solo a few months later.
Today, he flies a Piper Cherokee for fun. He’s reminded of Killarney, he said, as he soars over the green and blue of his new home in the Puget Sound region.
While earning a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Limerick, in 1997 he did an eight-month internship at Boeing. He worked mostly at Boeing Field, on flight tests of the 737 autopilot system.
That internship — “the best summer job ever” — got him interested in his eventual specialty: flight-control laws, meaning the use of computers to operate flight-control surfaces. He completed a master’s degree then a doctorate in the subject in England before he came to the U.S. to work.
After three years at an engineering-consulting company, he joined Boeing in 2005. (His Irish Catholic mother delights in his start date of Sept. 23, the feast day of Padre Pio, the saint for whom she named her son.)
Fitzgerald brims with enthusiasm for how the team he led — some 40 Everett-based engineers, not only U.S.-born but also immigrants from China, England, Iran, Japan, Romania, Turkey and Vietnam — produced the fix Boeing needed in a matter of a few months.
“You don’t pull off a technical feat like we did, in a short amount of time, without great people and great teamwork,” he said.
They solved the flutter problem using control surfaces on the 747-8 wings, called ailerons, that typically move up and down as the pilot banks the airplane.
Unlike the previous 747 model, the outboard ailerons on the 747-8 are fly-by-wire, meaning that their movement is controlled by a computer that takes direction from the pilot’s input.
Fitzgerald’s team programmed the computer to respond to sensors on the wings that detect movements far smaller than what a human can perceive. In the blink of an eye, the ailerons move slightly to counter the motion, suppressing the vibration before it is ever felt.
The fix added nothing physical to the airplane, just software.
The wingtip flutter was just one challenge in a six-year development program. The original Boeing plan of simply stretching the fuselage quickly gave way to the reality that the bigger plane needed a new wing.
Yet Fitzgerald’s team was remarkably successful at its central task: to ensure that the 747-8 responded to the pilot’s commands exactly as did the previous smaller model, the 747-400.
After the wingtip-flutter problem was discovered in early summer 2010, the long work hours grew even more intense and Fitzgerald rarely had time to take his Cherokee into the sky.
“We don’t do a job. We kind of live this,” he said. “This is serious stuff. It stays on your mind and you work whatever it takes.”
With the extra wing-design work and various flight-test setbacks, the program came in two years late.
“Nobody likes delays,” Fitzgerald said. “But we won’t compromise on the integrity of our design.”
Bob Bleeg, a 41-year veteran who came out of retirement to mentor Fitzgerald’s team, said he doesn’t share the widespread worry about a perceived gap in Boeing’s engineering talent as the old guard at the company retires.
Bleeg, who in the early 1990s led the introduction of fly-by-wire flight controls on the 777, said he was impressed by the young engineers and by Fitzgerald’s blend of technical ability and leadership.
“Pio will do very well at Boeing,” Bleeg said. “How far he goes is dependent only on his ambition.”
Fitzgerald said riding along on those 747-8 flight tests has been the highlight of his career.
He recalled stopping for coffee at a gas station near the Moses Lake airfield around 4 a.m. one Saturday in May last year as he hurried to a test flight.
When the barista commiserated with him on his early start, Fitzgerald’s response could have come from that wide-eyed 5-year-old.
“No, you don’t understand,” he told her. “I get to fly in a 747 today.”
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com