The 14-hour, mid-October Qantas flight from Sydney to Los Angeles probably went as most do: peanuts, in-flight viewings of the latest Spider-Man, a restless toddler, some overtippling business travelers. Four days later, though, workers at a facility three hours east of Seattle were, in the words of AeroTec President Lee Human, working to have the same Boeing 747-400 “de-Qantas-ized.” The Australian airline’s logos were removed from in-cabin displays. Electronic equipment identifying Qantas was ripped out. The whole thing belonged to Rolls-Royce now.
“This airplane has had a good life with Qantas Airlines for the last 19 years,” says Human, whose aerospace testing, engineering, and design firm won the Rolls-Royce contract to transform the aircraft. “Now it’s going to have a second life as a flying laboratory.”
If all goes according to schedule, the 747 in two years will become an airborne testbed for Rolls-Royce engines. Pilots associated with the British company will take the plane, newly loaded with instruments, sensors, and an experimental jet engine, into the sky to be tested in conditions like those in which it will someday operate. Meanwhile, engineers in stations in the back of the aircraft will monitor the engine’s performance.
Rolls-Royce is investing $70 million to refurbish the aircraft, including installing 30,000 new parts. It has a few big reasons to spend the money. For one, its current flying testbed, a Boeing 747-200 that operates out of Tucson, Arizona, is almost 50 years old, so it’s harder and harder to find parts, says Rolls-Royce director of development and experimental engineering Gareth Hedicker. Also, this 747-400 aircraft will be able to fly higher and faster than its predecessor, which means Rolls-Royce can test its engines in a greater variety of situations.
The new instruments being added to the plane will allow Rolls-Royce to simulate a wide range of electrical and hydraulic conditions. This will let the company collect more data on how its jet engines work, says Hedicker.
It’s unusual for engine companies to build flying laboratories for testing purposes, says Richard Anderson, a professor of aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle University. Most rely on ground testing, replicating the low air density and 600 mph speeds of air travel. Then they use sophisticated techniques—and Federal Aviation Administration–certified safety processes—to ensure that those results can be replicated up above. Building a flying tester might allow Rolls-Royce’s engineering teams to more quickly move through the iterative design and testing process, says Anderson. But it’s more expensive, especially with a 747. “That’s a very large and expensive airplane to operate as a testbed,” Anderson says.
But Rolls-Royce deliberately chose a larger, four-engine plane for its versatility. The company can, for example, replace one of the engines with an experimental model, and—because 747s can survive on three engines—not worry that a wrong move will send the plane plummeting toward Earth.
Rolls-Royce has also asked AeroTec to do something unusual: It will reroute fuel, electrical equipment, and hydraulic systems, and add sensors, so that an extra, smaller fifth engine can be mounted on the 747’s forward fuselage. “It’s not a trivial exercise,” says Hedicker. But it is an exercise with a purpose: Rolls-Royce will be able to test its business jet engines on the airplane as well. (The other engines won’t be turned off in flight, but they can be adjusted to make sure that the smaller guy is doing some of the work.)