Words Aloft: Test Pilot, Airline Style | Aviation

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The radio chatter was all in Spanish except for our instructions, and as we rolled down the runway beneath a hazy Mexican sky, almost everything felt out of place. The captain and I were in street clothes. A mechanic was on the jumpseat, videoing the takeoff roll to capture instrument indications. In back, nine more mechanics were spread throughout the cabin, eyes and ears seeking out any anomaly. They had just spent the last three months performing a heavy maintenance check on this bird after it had been parked for more than three years, sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. The runway centerline stripes flashed beneath us faster and faster until the captain called out, “V1…Rotate.” 

As we lifted off, the stick shaker buzzed in my hands for a long second—an obvious fault. We had flying speed, and I wasn’t pulling aggressively. I still eased a little of the back pressure to give a little extra margin, and the stall warning went away shortly after. We climbed in silence, fully expecting more failures. 

Airplanes don’t like to hibernate, and this one had spent years parked in the desert before a crew ferried it to this maintenance base, where it spent 64 days in the hangar. A squad of mechanics—nicknamed the “Pumas”—performed 1,500 tasks to get our bird inspected and airworthy. The Pumas found corrosion in some of the bulkheads and stringers, requiring extensive sheet metal repairs. Seals had become dry and brittle. Electrical issues had cropped up just as we arrived in town for the functional check flight required before our bird could return to service. The original sheet called for an April 30 return to service. We were scheduled for the test flight on May 24. There were a lot of folks at headquarters who wanted this airplane back on the line.  

Maintenance test flights almost never happen on schedule, and I knew that when I picked up this trip. We’d been deadheaded down with a connection through Mexico City, and the captain…

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