Here Peter Chandler discusses the role test pilots have in cockpit design and integration.
It is nearly two years since the A350 made its maiden flight on a balmy day in Toulouse back in June 2013. The flight was the culmination of a determined effort by Airbus to challenge Boeing’s leadership in the long-haul aircraft market. Those efforts continue, with MSN2, one of five A350 XWB test aircraft, most recently appearing at Munich International Airport at the end of February, as it concluded a world airport tour to drive sales. To date, the new medium-capacity, long-range, wide-body aircraft has racked up an incredible 780 orders from 40 customers worldwide.
It was following its maiden flight that Peter Chandler, chief test pilot for Airbus, who was captaining the prototype aircraft as part of a six-man crew, explained: “It just seemed really happy in the air… all the things we were testing had no major issues at all.”
I first met Peter Chandler on the inaugural flight of the A380, nearly a decade ago. And although not taking part on the first flight, he was integral to the test flying and development of the aircraft.
Although not unique, it is still quite unusual to have a career jump like Chandler’s: “I started off as a pilot in the Royal Air Force originally flying Buccaneers and then Tornados, and then went to test flying within the RAF. I did the test pilot course with the US Air Force as an exchange pilot. I came back and spent another five years or so test flying and instructing in the Air Force [Empire Test Pilots’ School].Then at the end of my time in the RAF, I left and joined an airline, so I went to Virgin Atlantic just as an ordinary airline pilot and ended up as a captain on A340s and then the opportunity came to go to Airbus and carry on, and go back to test flying, but in a new role with commercial airplanes instead of fighters.”
As well as serving in the RAF 20 years, Chandler has now been with Airbus for 15 years and even before then began work on the A340-600 as part of an airline working group. It was then that the development work began on the A380: “I saw the A380 program right through from when it was first launched, through the flight testing and into service. And as that was finishing testing, the A350 was starting in terms of development, so it followed straight on into that. So the major programs for me have been the A340-500/600 and then the A380 and the A350. I have flown a bit on the A400M, but it’s not really my main project so I don’t know quite so much about that.”
The A340-500 cockpit technology Chandler first worked on years ago has moved forward. Now, as a civil test pilot, what are the biggest changes he has noticed ‘up front’? Less than might be expected: “In terms of the cockpits and the way that the pilots operate, it has been… I wouldn’t say a slow evolution… but it has been a evolutive process because from the [A]320, 330, 340 which had virtually identical cockpits, we put a new cockpit into the 380, which actually retained a lot of the elements from the original airplanes, but it introduced much more intuitive interfaces. So we have, say, a cursor trackball system interface with the flight management systems; most of the functions are done with point-and-click and drop-down menus, rather than little screens with line select keys.
“We have electronic documentation rather than paper documentation, which of course is now coming in on all the aircraft, in many cases just through iPads, but it was fairly revolutionary when it came in with the 380. And then the 350 has basically been another evolution from the 380, so the 350 has taken all the good bits from the 380 and improved them slightly.
“So the major change I suppose is that the cockpit is much more user-friendly now than it was in the 320, 330 and 340 cockpit layout. Pilots are now required to cope with a much more complex air traffic system than before, so there’s a lot more types of approach. It used to be that you would do an ILS (instrument landing system) approach, or you would do a VOR [VHF omnidirectional range beacon] approach, and that was it. Now, for even small airports, there will be a dozen different sorts of approach including RNP [required navigation performance], others based on GPS, GLS, various noise abatement, complicated routings, and so on. So what the pilots are required to do has become much more complex and therefore the cockpit systems, particularly within the flight management system, have had to adapt to that.”
Although test technology does seem to evolve at a relatively slow pace, it has changed the role of the test pilot and the processes in which data is managed with regard to the development of aircraft. Is the test pilot becoming redundant as software design and downloads are increasing in efficiency? Is the test pilot now just the bus driver?
Chandler disagrees, but explains in detail that it is teams’ roles that have changed in a short space of time, not the importance of those roles: “Test flying is still important, but it’s just that the way we work is perhaps different. A lot of the work we do is collecting performance data, or demonstrating and getting data. So a lot of the performance side is basically just flying the airplane very accurately so that we get reliable data. But equally there are quite a lot of things that we do, particularly in the handling qualities of the airplane, where it’s very subjective – we want the aircraft to feel right for pilots. As pilots, we are trying particular maneuvers, seeing if the airplane is responding as we want it to; and when it’s not, then we go back to the data to find out why it’s not and try to work out what to change. So in some areas the data supports us in refining the characteristics and the handling of the aircraft, while in other tests we are there basically just to fly the airplane accurately to get the data. So it’s a bit of a mix.”
So where has the emphasis changed between the computer guys on the ground and the pilots in the air? “I suppose the big change is the amount of data that’s now available. The data collated 20 years ago would be taken by people in the cockpit and pilots actually writing down numbers as they saw them on the dials, which of course doesn’t happen any more because all of that is recorded,” says Chandler. “But the principle behind it is: first, you need to have accurate data to support the flight tests; and second, on some occasions you need the technical data to be able to explain various phenomena. That really hasn’t changed very much; it’s just the amount of data we have and the way we collect it.”
But how involved are test pilots now in the design process from, literally, the ground up? Chandler is emphatic: “The first thing to say is that the test pilots are involved in the design process right from the start. For example, with the A380, right from when the program was launched, virtually all aspects of the cockpit design, and particularly the layout of the displays, and because of the ‘Trapdoor’ system [for test aircraft] that we have as an interface, all of that we were involved in,” comments Chandler. “I was involved in this personally, right from the start.
“Our involvement starts way, way before the flight test program starts. When it gets to the flight test phase, we have flight test engineers here who specialize much more than the pilots do. So there will be flight test engineers who are specialists in, for example, engines and fuel systems, in performance, in handling qualities, in various systems, in flight management and avionics. They tend to manage the tests much more than the pilots do, and for us, it’s good because they’re the ones that generally write the reports. Of course, it includes any comments from the pilots.
“So we do have a very close interaction with the design office engineers right from early on in the program in the subjects with which the pilots are concerned, which is mostly cockpit functions and cockpit displays. Then when it gets into the flight testing, the pilot is the main arbiter, for example in handling qualities and tuning the flight controls. It is here that the pilots have a very strong voice. Other things relating mostly to performance, we can’t do anything much apart from just fly the aircraft and then let the boffins work out what’s either right or wrong with it.”
The A350-900 is now certified – it got the type certificate in September 2014. The first aircraft was delivered to Qatar in December and is now in service, flying from Doha to Frankfurt.
Chandler was flying the second: “The second one is also going to Qatar – I actually did the first flight on it in February 2015, so that’s in the delivery process. Meanwhile, there is still some work to do [on the aircraft program] – software upgrades for various systems, which we will obviously need to test, but the bulk of the testing is all done now,” By the March 4, 2015 the second aircraft had been delivered to Qatar “But next we’re starting on the 350-1000, which is the stretch version. That starts in 2016, so will get busier toward the end of this year.” What will the next generation A350 test entail? “It will go through a test program similar to the 350-900, but a lot of the tests we won’t have to repeat. For some things, like checking the handling because it’s a longer fuselage, there will be quite a lot of handling to do. A lot of the systems are common, so there will be less systems testing,” comments Chandler.
And looking around the corner? “I’ve never met an engineer who has enough data. As it’s possible to get more data, of course people want it, whether it’s useful or not. I think what we will have to do in terms of testing is just start looking at what is really necessary to do and what isn’t because otherwise test programs are just going to get longer and longer.”
To read the full interview with Peter Chandler, read the April issue of Aerospace Testing International.
Next time ATI interviews the chief test pilot of the 787 Dreamliner Randy Neville