Inside Boeing Flight Test & The Doomsday Airplane

E-4B Advanced Airborne Command PostBy Neil Chance

As I said in my first article, I had hired on with The Boeing Co. as an Engineering Draftsman. By the sixties times had changed. Electronics was the big and up-and-coming thing, so I decided it was time to change professions. As I look back on it now, I am glad that I made the change because it took me to Flight Test at North Boeing Field.

It takes thousands of people and thousands of man-hours to build a new type airplane, but the flight test and certification is where the rubber meets the road. There isn’t one part of the airplane that isn’t tested to meet the standards required to get an Air Worthiness Certificate from the FAA.

The planes, because on a first of a model there is sometimes more that one test bed, are covered with strain gages that are hooked up to a bank of computers inside the cabin. If you were to look inside one of the test bed airplanes you wouldn’t see any of the passenger seats, all you would see is row after row of racks full of computers. As soon as the pilot fires up the engines those computers are recording all of the engine parameters, everything the pilot sees on his instrument panel and everything he does in the cockpit, including communicating with the crew or ground. There isn’t a thing that those computers haven’t recorded from engine start to engine shutdown. After a test flight, that flight can be lived over and over again from the computer data. When you looked into the inside of a test airplane you might see rows of fifty-gallon aluminum drums all hooked together with pipes and pumps. With the water barrels they can set the weight of the airplane to what ever they want and by pumping the water back and forth they can change the C/G of the airplane to what ever they want. The Boeing Company doesn’t just flight test their airplanes in the Seattle area. They go to where ever the conditions dictate. If they need to test for high altitude takeoffs and landings, they go to the Andes in Peru. If they need cold weather test they go to Siberia in Russia where the temperature is forty below zero. If they need to test in hot weather they go to the desert of Australia where the temperature can reach a hundred and twenty degrees. They test for cross wind landings. They test flying in icing conditions. They test flying through hail and rain. They sometimes do so many stall tests that we run out of airsick bags. Doing zero G (gravity) tests doesn’t help the airsick problem either. Believe it or not they even do gas mileage tests. I would be lying if I said that every test flight went as planned. The fact that things don’t always work as planned is what made my job interesting.

Now for a story that very few people know about. It’s an airplane that is called the “Airborne Command Post”, A.K.A  “The Doomsday Airplane”. For those of you old enough to remember the Cold War with the USSR you can relate to this story, if not I hope you find it interesting anyway. During the cold war there was a fear that the USSR might launch a first strike nuclear missile attack on the U.S. If this should happen there was a chance that all ground communication could be knocked out. The United States needed a way to launch our missiles if we were attacked first. So how can we do that? What if we put an airplane in the air 24-7 that had the launch codes and that nobody knew the location of? Good idea. So The Boeing Company, about 1960, built some airplanes that had all of the communications equipment needed to send launch codes to all missile silos around the country. It’s code name at the time was “Looking Glass”. Now this is easier said than done. Problem: When a nuclear bomb explodes it sends out a huge electrical magnetic impulse that can fry electronic equipment. To solve the problem, all of the electrical and electronic equipment in the airplane had to be hardened. To harden something electrical means to put a shield around it. An airplane has a ton of wire in it already but when you start putting braided shielding around every wire bundle you are more than doubling the weight. For what it is worth the people that had the job of hardening the airplane had one tuff job. I was witness to the work they had to do and my hat is off to those people. Now you have solved the electrical problem, how do you shield the people in the airplane? One of the big problems is the windshields in the front of the airplane. How can we protect the pilots? Have you ever noticed the window on your microwave oven? Have you notice the screen in the window is full of little holes so you can see inside the oven? That screen lets you see in the oven but the microwaves can’t get to you. Bingo! So we put the screens on the pilot’s windows and that problem was solved. There is a lot of other thing that you might find interesting but I won’t talk about because they may still be classified.

Have you heard the expression “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there aren’t any old, bold pilots”. In the next addition I will talk about some of the pilots that I have flown with at Flight Test.