Principal product engineer Ian Hankin helps pave the way for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner's United debut
Author Marie Reinke
WHEN A NEW AIRPLANE TYPE is entering the fleet, there’s a rule of thumb that says you begin planning three years in advance, says Principal Product Engineer Ian Hankin, who leads the “service ready” team at United for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Another rule: Think big. Almost 250 people in various roles throughout United put the plans in place to welcome the first North American Dreamliner.
“I love working with people in different areas,” Hankin says. “Normally an engineer wouldn’t be involved with this many people across the company.”
Hankin has had quite a bit of practice bringing new planes into the fold: In the 1990s, he led the 767-200 and 767-400 service ready teams.
“Whenever we get a new fleet, engineering takes the lead, stepping in to get the different departments together and execute the tasks they need to do to get ready,” he says. “We have to think about everything, down to the point where somebody has to paint a stop line on the tarmac showing where we should park the new aircraft. There’s a 777 line, a 757 line, a 767 line. If the line isn’t in the right place, the plane won’t stop where it should and the passenger loading bridge won’t line up. For every detail large and small, the key is getting all departments working together.”
Orchestrating every single second in an aircraft’s day and every touch point is challenging under normal circumstances—but the 787 isn’t just a normal plane.
“There’s a lot of new technology on the Dreamliner,” Hankin says. “It has a carbon fiber fuselage, not metal. It also has no pneumatics, so it’s all electronic. The architecture is different. For customer and crew comfort, the cabin humidity is higher, and the plane is pressurized to a lower altitude. The biggest challenge is getting accustomed to the new technology, especially from an engineering and maintenance standpoint.
“Every department understands what it needs to do to bring a new aircraft into the fleet,” he continues. “Each department has its own experts who know exactly what they need to do in their areas and how to do it, from flight operations and cargo to engineering and maintenance training.”
When United inducts the first airplane of a new fleet, it must work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make sure the aircraft conforms to current federal aviation regulations. Among other things, FAA representatives check that the actual aircraft configuration matches the drawings, the correct emergency equipment is on board and located in the right places, and all FAA-required placards are installed. In addition, “our operational groups need to go on board to do training and get familiar with the airplane,” Hankin says. “We have to get the mechanics taxi-trained, and catering needs to drive the catering truck up to the plane. Everyone needs to touch it.”
United also conducts proving runs with the FAA, officially establishing that the airline knows how to fly the plane from point A to point B. Proving runs include diverting a test flight to the nearest airport or simulating a mechanical malfunction so the FAA can gauge the airline’s response. Because United was the first U.S.-based airline to get the 787, the FAA required the company to do more than 100 hours of proving runs before placing it into revenue service.
Because the airplane flies with new technology, United set up a command center at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston to operate for the first 90 days that the plane is part of United’s fleet. More than 30 people from Boeing and global partners including Honeywell, GE, Goodrich and Panasonic are there to support the airline and answer any questions that arise during the plane’s first several hundred flights.
“We’re watching over every last detail, every screen and wire,” Hankin says, “because all of us at United Airlines are just as excited as our customers to see this plane in service.”