Bjorn’s Corner: New aircraft technologies. Part 38. Flight test aircraft

By Bjorn Fehrm

November 10, 2023, ©. Leeham News: We are discussing the different design phases of an airliner development program. After covering Conceptual, Preliminary, and Detailed design, we now discuss prototype manufacturing and testing.

Today, we look at the different flight test aircraft needed and their roles.

Figure 1. The development plan for a new airliner. Source: Leeham Co.

Flight test aircraft

Last week, we looked at the important first flight test aircraft, which is used to verify the aircraft’s flight envelope and flight characteristics. For the role, it’s heavily instrumented, where test racks and flight test engineer stations replace the cabin, Figure 2.

Figure 2. The interior of the first CSeries test aircraft. Source: Bombardier.

A flight test campaign for a new airliner in the 200 to 250-seat category takes about two years and 2,000 to 2,500 Flight Hours. To cover all the test points to generate the data needed for verification of design data and certification, a fleet of test aircraft is needed.

Figure 3. The flight test fleet with their roles. Click to see better. Source: Leeham Co.

The first flight test aircraft is used for flight envelope clearance, flying characteristics, flight control system testing and verification, and powerplant with fuel system checks.

The second flight test aircraft, which follows some four months after the first, is dedicated to system tests and verification. There are a lot of systems in an aircraft that need checking to ensure that they work as intended, that the systems cooperate with other systems correctly, and can be controlled with the aircraft’s avionics and cockpit systems.

In an airliner, we have an electrical system with power generation, hydraulic system, cabin Environmental Control System (ECS), Bleed air system for ECS, deicing and engine start, Landing gears, and APU.

The third test aircraft is used for avionics development and verification. It’s also a Certification conformant aircraft regarding avionics functions of the aircraft (cockpit pilot instrumentation, communication, navigation, systems control). It is used for certification testing for the avionics systems and the connected aircraft systems.

The fourth test aircraft is the Cabin development and verification test item. It’s then used to certify the cabin equipment and functions.

The fifth and final test aircraft is a cabin-equipped aircraft, which is serial production conform. It’s used for supplementary certification tasks, operational evaluation with different airline customers, training, and finally, a long worldwide route proving tour.

Serial production aircraft

If there are supplementary certification tasks that need to be done in parallel with the above flight tests, the first serial production aircraft are temporarily retained by the OEM to fly such trials.

After completion of the certification and any supplementary tests for extension of the aircraft certificate like ILS ACT III landing and ETOPS (Extended-range Twin Operations approval), several aircraft are sold at a reduced price as business jets and heads of state transport. The OEM keeps a couple of test aircraft for supplementary development and demo flights.

12 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: New aircraft technologies. Part 38. Flight test aircraft

  1. Somewhere in there is an aircraft to obtain data for flight loads, community noise, and fuel burn (NAMS).

  2. Hi Jeffrey,

    flight loads would be no 1, community noise no 1 and later at customer airports no 5 and NAMS no 2 as it has performance on its task card.

  3. If my memory is correct, only the 2 (or 3) first Airbus A350-900 where really considered as “pure” test aircraft since the other 2 where refurbished and sold to Air Caraïbe for commercial operations, thus being considered from the beginning as serial aircraft.

    • Airbus still retains 4 A350-900s , a 5th was sold to French bee, the 6th was the launch customer Qatar first plane

  4. Which aircraft flew the Embraer steep approach qual for the E195-E2 at London City this morning?

    • The big question is: who pays? Is it an OEM or customer responsibility? Is it the OEM making the product more marketable or the customer meeting a need?

    • I don’t quite understand the question. To qualify the E195 E2 for London City steep approach, Embraer has to do theoretical, simulator, and actual flight tests with a prototype E195 E2 (one that they kept after the certification of the E195 E2 was done). Which individual they use is not essential, only that it’s conformant to the serial aircraft.

  5. Hello Bjorn,
    Good piece and series.
    In the case of the 787 with full electric architecture, there are no bleeds for ECS and anti icing…. Not de ice.
    Commercial jets ensure no ice forms. Even the leading edges on the 787 are heated electrically. The brakes are electric.
    The only bleed on the 787 is a small one for engine inlet anti ice.
    This innovative change added criteria to the flight test evaluation.

    Because Boeing couldn’t guarantee the final configuration of the original 5 flight test aircraft to the airline customers all 5 were written off, ZA-005 rests at the Museum of Flight in Seattle and still has the orange flight test wiring.

  6. Bjorn,

    You answered my question within the parentheses. It is the OEM’s aircraft.


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