How did a group of Boeing engineers end up building a single-engine airplane?
To answer this question, let’s go back to 2006. A group of Boeing leaders in the Puget Sound area were talking about the experiences of young, newly-hired engineers at Boeing. How to retain them, how to help them grow their experience, etc. While many new engineers found their work interesting and compelling, others were not so happy. Some complained that they rarely had the opportunity to do substantial, meaningful, inspiring work, at least not for the first couple years of their careers. Also, with the exception of a relatively small number of engineers in rotation programs, many new-hires only got to see their one “corner” of Boeing (at least during their first job) and did not get exposure to work in satellites, fighters, airliners, helicopters, structures, systems, propulsion, controls, and all the other interesting things that Boeing does. In addition;
– Many new engineers don’t have many opportunities for hands-on work. Instead, they spend every workday in front of a computer.
– Many new engineers focus only on a narrow kind of work applied only to a few similar components, rather than an entire system.
– Many new engineers do not get to follow a component or system from its inception through development, testing, and certification. Instead, they see only one brief phase of development, such as the initial design, some analysis, or the tests for certification. This is because most things at Boeing do take several years to develop, from beginning to end. (This is unlike most projects that engineers do in college, where the entire product lifecycle happens over a few weeks or months, allowing for more learning opportunities). Also, almost no engineer at Boeing does design, analysis, procurement, fabrication, AND testing, let alone project management or other such leadership work.
How could new engineers have access to more meaningful, hands-on, big-picture work? This group of Boeing leaders decided in 2006 that it would be worthwhile for the company to fund a series of projects where small aerospace systems could be conceived, developed, built, and tested, in the span of a few months to a year. They created something called “ONE: Opportunities for New Engineers”, a commitment to set aside funding for making these projects happen. (You can learn more about ONE here, here, here, and here).
The first step of the ONE program was to create an application form, an open call for proposals. Employees of all levels, from new-hires to Tech Fellows, submitted ideas. The first projects included the design, fabrication, and testing of a composite wing. Over the following few years, robots and rockets and radio-control airplanes were then designed and built and tested, as were “smart” systems that enabled them to operate autonomously. A flywheel was used to store energy in a 787 galley. ONE groups are currently exploring the practicality of 3D printing for aerospace components, of solar-powered UAVs, of using air scrubbers to capture pollution, and of using ionized air from plasma electrodes to reduce the drag in landing gear. Other ONE groups are designing a supersonic airliner and a satellite. All these projects are only studies and experiments, and will not be added to Boeing’s products in the foreseeable future. However, they succeed in developing engineers’ engagement, experiences, technical capabilities, and leadership skills, and made for really terrific mentoring and networking opportunities among engineers and also with Boeing experts and senior leaders. This success caused the “ONE” model to spread to Boeing sites all over the US: El Segundo, Long Beach, St Louis, Philadelphia and Mesa, as well as around the Puget Sound: BCA, BDS, and EO&T.
In 2008, a young Boeing engineer named Brandon Gorang had a bright idea: The goals of the Boeing ONE program (hands-on work, project management, etc.) could be met by working on a single-engine airplane. The initial vision involved restoring a small antique airplane, but throughout 2009, some conversations and feasibility studies revealed that an even better idea might be to build a kitplane. Such a project would offer engineers technical insights about fields such as composite construction and systems design, and also excellent leadership opportunities in managing the long list of tasks and unforeseen challenges that arise while building an airplane.
The idea was developed by Brandon, as well as by three other early “founders” of the group: Miguel Marmol, Flint Jamison, and John Lesh. They nicknamed their team “ONE BCnF” for “Build, Certify, and Fly”.
The nascent team realized that they could only get Boeing to pay for this project – that it would only be truly meaningful rather than “just for fun” – if there was a customer. As with all of the work done at Boeing, the decisions about design and execution and documentation should be based on a customer’s needs. Towards that end, the BCnF team approached the Boeing Employees Flying Association. BEFA is a flying club that owns a substantial fleet of airplanes, ranging from many Cessna 172s to an aerobatic Citabria, a fast-cruising Cirrus, and a seaplane. BEFA members range from new student pilots to experienced airline captains, aerobatic instructors, and Boeing executives. BEFA is a shared-ownership flying club: Every member owns a small fraction of each of the airplanes, therefore they do not really “rent” them as much as simply pay for the operational costs. (This means that BEFA can operate Experimental airplanes, which the FAA prohibits from being used in for-profit endeavors such as rental operations).
The BCnF team asked BEFA: What kind of a kitplane would make for a good addition to your fleet, if any?
As with many aspects of operating a single-engine airplane, BEFA’s preferences were largely constrained by the need to keep insurance costs practical. An airplane that is too unconventional in design, that exists in numbers too small for appropriate risk evaluations, or that has characteristics that would make it relatively difficult to handle (such as a tailwheel or tricky low-speed performance), might be impractical to insure. The airplane would also have to be available to most BEFA pilots: Retractable gear and/or a very powerful engine require special endorsements that not every private pilot has earned, so such features would put the airplane out of reach of many BEFA members.
However, an airplane of conventional design (no EZs or other canard airplanes), flying in large numbers (at least 200, ideally 500), with fixed tricycle gear, and an engine with less than 200hp… would make for a great addition to the fleet. Aerobatic capability and fast cruise speeds would be very nice too, as well as side-by-side seating for training new pilots, and a range of several hundred miles like most of the other airplanes in the BEFA fleet.
One last potential hurdle was the FAA. Kitplanes are typically certified as “Experimental, Amateur Built”. However, this certification is intended for airplanes that (A) will be primarily flown by their builders, and (B) are built by one or a small handful of people (not by a large group of people who might join and leave the project at different stages) so that the builders/pilots retain all the knowledge of how the airplane was put together. Could an airplane built by a large and potentially changing team, to then be delivered to a separate group of pilots, get an FAA airworthiness certificate under “Experimental, Amateur Built” rules? The team contacted Seattle’s MIDO, or Manufacturing Inspection District Office, the FAA guys in charge of inspecting amateur-built aircraft. At the MIDO, Rich Arterburn thought the project was a great idea, was very supportive of it, and helped the team work out all the details. As for knowledge retention, the builders agreed that people could only join the team if they expressed a willingness to commit seriously and stay until the end, and the team made sure that all members had opportunities to become familiar with all areas of the aircraft: fuselage and wing structures, systems and powerplant, flight controls, etc.
In short: The BCnF group wanted to build one, BEFA wanted it (and would be able to insure it), and the FAA would certify it. So everything was ready to go.
Once all these boxes had been checked and concerns had been alleviated, the project’s executive sponsor – Steve Atkins – was able to secure funding for the BCnF team to order a kit.
Now… Which kit to buy?
The three best-selling lines of experimental homebuilts out there are Glasairs, Lancairs, and RVs. All of them offer models that meet the criteria above, and all are produced by companies that offer great support and modern features. So now the question became: What airplane did the ONE BCnF team want to build? Naturally, given Boeing’s recent advances and growing reliance on carbon-fiber structure, the team wanted a composite airplane, ruling out RVs. That narrowed it down to either Glasair or Lancair. At this point, the decision was quite difficult: Like Boeing’s airplanes, Lancairs are fantastic from an engineering and performance point of view, achieving fast speeds and long range with surprisingly low fuel burn. However, they are not the easiest airplanes to land, because of their high approach speeds and tricky controls. Glasairs are easier to land, remain easily controllable at slow speeds, use the same engine as many of the airplanes currently in BEFA’s fleet… and the kit is supplied by a great company full of friendly, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and helpful people, all within easy driving distance of Boeing’s Puget Sound facilities.
Visiting the Glasair factory
Their most popular model, the Glasair 2, is available with fixed tricycle gear, and it’s fast and aerobatic without requiring more than 200hp. In addition, Glasair was the first company to offer all-composite pre-molded kits. This means that the airplane fuselage and wing skins arrive largely pre-made, looking just like a big model airplane kit, ready to be glued together. In reality, of course, things are little more complicated: The builders must create some small structural and aerodynamic components and all airplane systems, and then assemble it all together. But the Glasair product is polished, reliable, and complete.
After a flight in a Glasair – and determining that it is fast and powerful, solid, predictable, and easy to fly – and a visit to the Glasair factory, the ONE BCnF team was sold. In 2010, they ordered their Glasair 2 kit.
Where do you build an airplane? At Boeing, the answer may seem obvious: At an airplane factory! Boeing’s factories are full of great tools and knowledgeable people. The Everett factory is literally the most spacious building in the world, so theoretically, there should be no shortage of room. However, both of these factors come with prohibitive complications: Union rules only allow machinists (not engineers) to fabricate and assemble hardware in our factories and shops. And factories are actually very dynamic places: Empty space is never empty for long, as components and tooling are always being moved through areas, stashed in otherwise-empty spaces, and making it impractical to find room that could be conveniently dedicated to one side project.
The perfect solution was eventually found: build the airplane at the Concept Center. This interiors prototyping facility is just up the road from Boeing’s Everett offices, and contains the tools and opportunities for engineers to design and fabricate innovative ideas. In fact, some of the materials and fabrication techniques used to develop the mock-ups at the Concept Center would come in handy while building a kitplane. So the kit was delivered from Glasair to the Concept Center, and the BCnF group unwrapped it like an early Christmas gift in December of 2010.
Checking out the kit
So we have a kit, and we have a shop. At that point, was it just a matter of “roll up your sleeves and get to work”? Not quite. What is the optimal way to get 30 people to build an airplane? How do we make the most productive use of everyone’s time, and of the tools available? This is where ONE BCnF really became heavy in project management. Some of the instructions were specific and detailed, supplying a good roadmap for how the airplane should come together. But some sections were less clear; the team still jokes about one bullet point in the instructions that says little more than “install engine here”. It was time to think about the work that lies ahead, and to break it down into manageable chunks. You want everyone to participate in interesting activities, but you want some specialization so that “experts” in each area can make good progress.
Attaching the fuselage halves together, and getting ready to attach the wings.
From an engineering point of view, the most complex part of the project was creating the systems. What instruments go in the panel? What sensors and antennae go on the outside of the airplane? How are they powered? How much redundancy is there? None of this is determined by the Glasair kit, only by the builders. They are free to make an airplane as bare-bones as a World War 1 biplane that doesn’t even have an electrical system, just a compass and gauges for airspeed and altitude and engine RPM… or as decked-out as a jet, with large computerized screens, an autopilot, the ability to pick up a variety of navigational radio beacons, GPS, electric flaps and trim, and other gadgets. And once the builders choose where in the spectrum they will be, it’s time to choose all the displays and gauges to be placed on the panel, all the batteries and switches and wires and antennae and lights, to figure out how they should all be connected, and then to fit the “brains” into the shell of the airplane. And because the airplane will be operated by people who are not the builders, the use of these systems must be documented in clear manuals and procedures, including troubleshooting guides and processes for dealing with systems failures.
Choosing the systems was a customer-driven process. Would BEFA like an airplane that can only be flown during the day in good weather? Would they find it worthwhile to have an airplane that can fly itself in zero visibility? The team worked with BEFA to draw up requirements, and to select systems components and instrumentation to meet these requirements. This way, BEFA gets the capability it needs without extra bells or whistles.
The 30-40 people who initially expressed interest in the project broke into three teams: one to build the wings, one to build the fuselage, and one to develop (select, procure, connect, test) and document all the systems.
What kind of work does it take to build a Glasair? It looks like a big model airplane kit: two halves of a fuselage, the upper and lower surfaces of the wings and horizontal stabilizers, a cowling for the nose, some landing gear, and some windows. Do you just glue it all together?
Hardly. Many of the components must be fabricated from scratch. For example, the wing skins – the surfaces of the wing that we see from the outside – were pre-made and included in the kit. However, the internal ribs and other stiffeners had to be made from scratch. Same for the interiors. Also, large jigs must be built to ensure that the airplane is level and properly aligned when it is put together.
As the name suggests, Glasairs are made almost entirely of fiberglass. Therefore, much of the building process involved mixing, laying up, and sanding layers of fiberglass. Luckily, Boeing employs many people who are experts in composite design, fabrication, and repairs. They were consulted often when it was time to make key components, especially when mistakes were made.
As for the systems, a mock-up of the cockpit was built right next to the airplane. (You can see them being displayed above at a Boeing event). It included the instrument panel and the space behind it, where the electronics would be housed: Air pressure sensors for altitude and airspeed, gyroscopes that tell direction and orientation, radios for communication and navigation, a GPS, wires and circuit breakers for the airplane’s lights and starter motor and radios and displays, batteries so that these systems could operate without the engine running… All of these items were chosen, purchased, placed into the mock-up, wired up for power and for talking with other systems, tested for functionality, and documented for use by pilots. Ergonomics experts from Boeing were consulted to ensure that displays and controls were in easy and intuitive locations relative to the pilot. A unique panel surface was designed around the displays and controls, and 3D-printed on site using the rapid prototyping tools at the Concept Center facility such as a 3D scanner.
Some of the key milestones in the project:
– The kit was delivered in December 2010.
– On January 2011, the wings were closed. This means that the wings’ components and internal systems were finished and in place, allowing the upper and lower skins to be bonded into a single wing “box”.
– On October 2011, the firewall was complete. This is the vertical wall in front of the pilot, where the engine and many other key systems are attached.
– The engine arrived in 2012.
– By July 2013, the airplane was resting on its landing gear, “weight on wheels”
– In January 2014, the electronics and sensors in the systems mock-up were installed into the airplane.
– In April 2014, the power was turned on for the first time.
Of course, that is a high-level “fast-forward” overview of over three years. Zooming into just the past few months, for example, reveals the countless tasks along the way, such as fabricating and hooking up the control surfaces, installing the brakes, completing the doors and windows, testing the engine, modifying the wingtips, and making the center console.
The many posts on this blog describe – and include photos of – many of the key milestones. For example, you may wish to read about wiring the wing, making the ribs, closing the wing and the horizontal stabilizer, attaching the horizontal stab to the airplane, making the engine mount and nose gear and header tank, etc.
Unfortunately, most of those blog posts are from 2011 and early 2012. Starting around the middle of 2012, the BCnF team was so busy building the airplane, they didn’t really have time for blogging. So below is a series of pictures with the “hits and highights” from the past two years of the project. After those pictures, we will conclude with an update on where the project is at, including the power-on ceremony and the painting of the airplane.
Many Boeing VIPs visited the project over the course of the years. Above, the team is visited by Scott Pelton, chief engineer of the 737 program.
When the power was turned on last month, this indicated that the airplane is complete. Theoretically, it was ready to fly. This was a major accomplishment, and many VIPs from all over Boeing were invited to attend an event to acknowledge and celebrate the project:
Boeing chief test pilot Mike Carriker checks out the cockpit.
The wings were then removed, and the airplane was trucked to Renton for painting. Once at Renton, the wings were reattached, and the landing gear fairings and some of the control surfaces were removed to be painted individually.
The next steps after painting will be a roll-out ceremony, an inspection by the facility that does maintenance on BEFA’s airplanes, and finally, an FAA inspection. That should all happen during late May and early June, with first flight currently planned for mid-June, if all goes well. Then, it will be time for the flight test program… but we will cover these details in a later blog post.
The airplane is to be painted in Boeing livery. Soon, a blog post showing the airplane after paint, as well as first flight, flight test… and a trip to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh!!! Stay tuned.