A team effort
The effective testing and validation of Airbus aircraft is a highly collaborative process that leverages the individual capabilities of engineers, test pilots and various technicians – all of whom work together to assess an airplane’s performance and ensure it meets the highest quality and safety standards.
Every new Airbus jetliner programme undergoes multiple phases of testing, which determine its individual operational parameters and reflect the aircraft’s compliance with official regulations.
These evaluations include structural and static tests to establish how the wings and fuselage behave with normal and exceptional loads; and fatigue tests – examining how the main structure responds to operational loading over an extended period of time, along with a variety of additional checks.
Distribution of responsibilities
Two types of engineers play important – yet very different – roles during an Airbus aircraft’s in-flight evaluations: the test flight engineer and the flight test engineer, both of which perform key tasks on the ground and aloft.
Responsible for an entire development aircraft, the test flight engineer sits behind the pilots during a test flight, and helps them conduct operations – with an emphasis on its systems. From in the cockpit, this team member keeps a clear overview of events during each stage of the flight while the pilots complete various manoeuvres. If the aircraft is being flown on the edge of its operational limits, it is their duty to ensure the correct system configuration setting is obtained.
On the ground, the test flight engineer also makes sure the post-flight maintenance activities are coordinated, and confirms that the aircraft is put into the correct configuration in advance of its next test.
Setting the table
The flight test engineer, on the other hand, specializes in one particular aircraft component, and supports the in-flight evaluations by making sure the test goals are understood; building the flight order; ensuring adequate safety is provided and interacting with all involved with preparations.
During the evaluations, the flight test engineer acts as the flight director and confirms that the tests are performed properly, according to the established programme and to the agreed test procedures. From a large observer station with several data screens in the aircraft’s cabin, this engineer makes rapid and detailed notes on the area of responsibility in-flight.
Afterwards, this engineer will compile the flight crew report using detailed logs kept during testing, which will be analyzed to establish where – if at all – it differs from anticipated findings.
An invaluable component
An Airbus test pilot plays a number of crucial roles during development and testing of new aircraft, beginning with key support in the cockpit’s design and followed by many hours in a series of simulators – first with a research version, and then performing a “virtual flight campaign” in the systems integration test bench (also known as the “Iron Bird.”)
For an aircraft’s first flight, the aim is to validate the aircraft’s basic handling qualities, and begin measuring performance – including its fuel consumption and cruise efficiency. The test pilots provide vital operational insight so that any differences in handling between the computer model, simulators and actual aircraft can be identified for fine-tuning of the controls. During future evaluations, the pilots will validate the aircraft throughout its normal flight envelope, and to the operational limits.
Even after an Airbus aircraft achieves its certification, a test pilot’s job is not complete. When each jetliner rolls off an Airbus production line, it is they who will conduct its first flight, as well as the customer acceptance flight for handover to its new owner.