Captain David Lohse knows what it is like to take an aircraft to the edge of its operating limits.
That’s because as head of flight technical services for Cathay Pacific, it is his and his team of test pilots and flight test engineers’ job to ensure all of the Hong Kong-based airline’s aircraft – from the A350-900 that rolls off the Airbus final assembly line in Toulouse to the Boeing 777‑300ER workhorse already in the fleet – meet and continue to meet specified performance guidelines.
In the case of new aircraft about to enter the Cathay Pacific fleet, Captain Lohse or one of this team will conduct an acceptance test flight alongside a test pilot from the manufacturer.
Take for example, what happens when a notification is received from Boeing that an aircraft, say a 777‑300ER, is ready for delivery.
Following notification, one test pilot and one flight test engineer are assigned to do the acceptance test flight and make their way to Boeing’s facilities at Everett Field north of Seattle in Washington State. After arriving on site, the pair conducts a detailed review of any activities that are particular to that aircraft.
Then comes the two phases of the acceptance test flight.
The first involves ground testing, including a detailed flightdeck inspection and powering up the aircraft’s electrical, hydraulic and pneumatic systems. There are also tests on various safety components such as the weather radar equipment, the enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS) and traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), as well as comprehensive flight control functional testing.
Should those tests be successful, that will signify that the aircraft is airworthy and ready to fly. For this phase, a Cathay Pacific test pilot sits in the left seat alongside a test pilot from the manufacturer in the right seat. They are joined in the flightdeck by a flight analyst from Boeing and a flight test observer from Cathay Pacific, who acts as the airborne test director and gathers critical data throughout the flight.
And the takeoff is always a sight to behold, given the weight of the aircraft.
“We are typically quite light and one of the tests that we are doing is that we are verifying the necessary thrust with the maximum rating of the engines during the takeoff roll,” Captain Lohse told Australian Aviation.
“Unlike a typical flight that you will see out of say Sydney where an aircraft is going from Sydney to LA fully loaded, when you take off with full-rated thrust in a 777 or a 747, it’s a very short roll and you climb away quite quickly.
“You will know an acceptance test flight out of Everett in Seattle. The performance is quite impressive.”
Captain Lohse said there is a lot of work to be completed in a typical acceptance test flight, which usually lasts between three and four hours.
“The difference between a revenue flight, say flying from Hong Kong to New York on a 15-hour sector or a 16-hour sector and a test flight is you come out of that three-to-four-hour flight and you know you’ve been working hard the entire flight,” Captain Lohse said.
“It’s a lot of manual flying, because one of the important things that we are doing as a function of this test flight, underlying all the systems testing, is we are checking and assessing the handling qualities of the aircraft.
“On a typical revenue flight a large part of the cruise portion would have the autopilot engaged, but what we are doing is we are looking very much deeper into the fundamental handling qualities and systems functionality of the aircraft.
“It is a lot of work and you are really going from one test point to another. You are really just punching them out. It’s designed in a way that allows it to be done as efficiently as possible so that you are not burning fuel unnecessarily.
“But to be efficient you also find that it really does become pretty taxing towards the end. It is a very busy profile.”
During those few hours, the flightcrew focuses on back-up safety systems such as the alternate landing gear and alternate flap extensions.
The engines are also individually shut down and re-started at corner points within the certified re-light envelope. The crew also conducts a fuel jettisoning exercise.
There is also some slow speed testing to check the stall warning and protection systems in both clean and approach configurations, as well as a deliberate de-pressurisation of the aircraft to confirm the emergency oxygen masks deploy.
For Boeing aircraft such as the 777-300ER, the flightcrew conducts a missed approach from approximately 100ft above ground level (AGL) followed by an automatic landing at Moses Lake Airport, which is inland from Seattle and used as a regional test field.
The flightcrew then re-program the flight management computers for another maximum thrust takeoff and the return flight to Everett. En route several backup electrical and hydraulic tests are conducted, including deployment of the ram air turbine (RAT) which provides critical backup electrical and hydraulic power in the event of an emergency.
The final landing back at Everett is usually a manual one. The pilots then conduct a rejected takeoff test from about 100kt to ensure the emergency auto-brake systems and ground spoilers work as expected for such a dynamic and critical manoeuvre.
Captain Lohse said that the flightcrew was constantly assessing the handling qualities of the aircraft throughout the acceptance flight.
This meant flying the aircraft beyond some certified airspeeds such as the maximum operating speed limit to check all the warning systems were functioning properly.
While all this is happening in the flightdeck, there is often airline staff in the main cabin going through a checklist of their own for the operation of the galleys, inflight entertainment system and on board internet Wi-Fi.
They also look at the seats to ensure they are up to scratch. Essentially, both in the air and on the ground, all aspects from the paint scheme to the finish of the aircraft interior and passenger cabin are being examined to ensure everything satisfies “contractually agreed requirements”.
“Anything aft of the flightdeck that is provided by a vendor other than the manufacturer is verified,” Captain Lohse said.
“Our team of engineers that come along with the flight test team are doing very detailed measurements of seat pitch, they are checking the fit and the finish and the quality of the entire passenger cabin.
“A lot of that obviously can be done on the ground but it is also very important in our experience to have a look at panels when the fuselage expands under normal pressurisation cycles just to ensure that all the panels are tight-fitting, the quality of the panels are up to the standard that we expect for a Cathay Pacific aircraft.”
More often than not, the acceptance test flight confirms everything is in working order ahead of the formal handover and transfer of funds.
However, there is a process for anything that is not quite right.
“Every now and again we do pick up observed squawks or defects and we will get back on the ground and we will provide any observations on defects to the manufacturer,” Captain Lohse said.
“Part of the purpose of doing the test flight is to ensure that all of those defects are rectified before the aircraft leaves the ground in Toulouse or Seattle for Hong Kong so we can enter the aircraft into revenue service as soon as possible.
“And all of that work will be done under warranty prior to Cathay actually transferring the money to purchase the aircraft.”
There is also a representative from the Civil Aviation Department of Hong Kong to ensure the new aircraft meets local regulations such as the need for multi-lingual (Chinese and English) exit signage and placards before a certificate of airworthiness is issued.
Once the aircraft is ferried back to Hong Kong, it usually undergoes some further minor works before being quickly introduced into revenue service.
However, for the A350-900, some aircraft have been sent to China for seat installation.
“Our aim is to get the aircraft into revenue service as soon as possible. Our engineering team does a very good job of that,” Captain Lohse said.
“But sometimes we will get an aircraft delivered to Hong Kong out of the manufacturer’s facility that requires something like a cabin installation to be done.
“In some cases for our A350 fleet, we’ve been installing seats in Xiamen after the aircraft has been delivered and before we enter revenue service out of Hong Kong. The aircraft would leave Airbus with an empty cabin section that would be appropriately placarded off and protected.
“When you are a premium carrier like Cathay Pacific, your customers expect a certain level of quality, not just from the flightcrew and the cabin crew and the engineering team, but they also expect a certain quality from the in-flight experience as a passenger, whether it is economy, first class, premium economy or business.
“People have the right to expect a comfortable flight and we have our motto of delivering a ‘Life Well Travelled’. That’s one of the things that we take very seriously, that customer-facing aspect of the acceptance process.”
TEST FLYING ALWAYS A PASSION
Captain Lohse served in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), initially flying the F/A-18 with 75 Squadron from RAAF Base Tindal.
Then in 2001, after completing a test pilot’s training course in California, he joined the RAAF Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) at RAAF Base Edinburgh north of Adelaide, where he flew the Hornet as well as the Pilatus PC-9/A and Hawk 127.
“I was always drawn to the idea of test flying,” Captain Lohse explained.
“What really appealed to me about it was always being involved with leading edge technology and doing a lot of hands and feet flying and working with certification of systems that were right at the cutting edge.”
After 15 years in the military, then Squadron Leader Lohse joined Cathay Pacific flying Boeing 747 freighters based out of New York and soon moved to Hong Kong to be a part of the airline’s flight test team.
In 2016, he became the head of the unit, which includes a number of Australians in its ranks of eight full-time staff and four part-time pilots.
“One of the things that I really value about the team that we have at Cathay Pacific of test pilots and engineers is that ability to really dig into the systems and maintain currency with that fundamental hands and feet flying,” Captain Lohse said.
“That is the best way for a test pilot to assess the overall quality of an aircraft.
“You don’t get the same feel when you have got the autopilot in cruise as you do when you are doing trim checks manually flying or doing engine inoperative climb performance where you’ve got one engine shut down in the aircraft and all the other engines are at maximum power and you are trying to fly a very precise test point to within plus or minus one knot to get guaranteed climb performance.”
In addition to the acceptance test flights, Captain Lohse’s team also conducts quality assurance on Cathay Pacific’s existing fleet with “sample test flights”.
“The purpose of that is to take a representative sample of our fleet,” Captain Lohse explained.
“So we have 70 777s. We will fly a certain number of those every year just to check against the baseline data that we obtained in the initial test flight, just to make sure that there aren’t any performance shortfalls or aren’t any systems deficiencies that have come in over time as the aircraft continued its service with Cathay Pacific.
“We activate backup and emergency systems that are not typically utilised on a revenue flight to ensure that they will work first time if ever needed.”
The team is also responsible for maintaining the regulatory qualifications for Cathay Pacific’s full flight simulators at its flight training centre in Hong Kong.
CATHAY PACIFIC DELIVERIES RUNNING UNTIL 2024
Captain Lohse and his team will be kept busy with both sample test flights and new flight deliveries until at least 2024, given the Cathay Pacific order book.
The Hong Kong-based carrier has the first of 20 Airbus A350‑1000s on order due to arrive later in 2018. It also has orders for six more A350‑900s to join the existing 22 in the fleet.
Meanwhile, the airlines’ 21 Boeing 777-9X aircraft are scheduled for delivery between 2021 and 2024. Captain Lohse said work on the 777-9X entry into service was already underway, as the team prepares to qualify a full flight simulator for the type.
Captain Lohse is particularly excited at the prospect of having the 777-9X – which is some 77 metres in length, has a total wingspan of 72 metres and is capable of flying 7,600nm when carrying 400‑425 passengers in a two-class configuration according to Boeing figures – in the Cathay Pacific fleet.
“I’m hoping to be the first guy with Cathay Pacific to fly that aircraft and accept one in 2021 which is the scheduled first delivery.”