'Legends Of Flight': Aviation's Hits And Misses

Mike Carriker i i

Boeing chief test pilot Mike Carriker draws fuselage components in space. Courtesy of The Stephen Low Company hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of The Stephen Low Company
Mike Carriker

Boeing chief test pilot Mike Carriker draws fuselage components in space.

Courtesy of The Stephen Low Company

Aviation has come a long way since the Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903. From gliders to biplanes and commercial airliners, new aircraft design has often changed the way we live.

In the 3D IMAX movie Legends of Flight, chief test pilot Mike Carriker chronicles a century of aviation trial and error.

The first plane Carriker remembers flying on was a U.S. Air Force DC-7. "As a small child, I remember sticking my face in the window and watching those big round engines starting up with all that smoke and fire coming out of the exhaust stack," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "I've never forgotten that."

Carriker first flew a plane, a Cessna 172, at age nine or ten, in Indiana. His father was a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot, and put him in front of the controls. "I was hooked," he remembers, "from right then and there."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This past Tuesday, an unusual group of aircraft flew into Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport: eight vintage biplanes - beautiful, 70-year-old Boeing Stearmans lovingly restored. One suffered an accident on landing, but no one was injured. That was the second plane in the formation. I was lucky enough to be aboard number eight. And there's lots more on that flight if you go to Blog of the Nation.

The flag was part of the promotion for a new 3D IMAX movie called "Legends of Flight" that focuses on one of the biggest industrial projects in history: the development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Boeing's chief test pilot Mike Carriker is the star of the film. He was in Washington for the premiere at National Airport, but he's now back home in Seattle, and joins us in a moment.

We'd like to hear from the pilots in our audience today, whether you fly gliders or fighter jets. What planes are the most fun? Why do fly? Where's the romance anymore? The phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mike Carriker is a former naval aviator who's rated to fly over a hundred different planes. And he joins us now from member station KUOW in Seattle. Mike, welcome home.

Mr. MIKE CARRIKER (Chief Pilot, Boeing 787 Dreamliner): Oh, hi, Neal. Thanks very much.

CONAN: And you say in the movie that the Stearman is one of your favorite planes.

Mr. CARRIKER: It is. It just - the simplicity of the airplane, the elegance of it, the wind in your face, the strut wire singing, the big round engine up in the front. When you get to fly a Stearman off a nice grass field, you've just gone back into what aviation can be.

CONAN: What plane did you first fly?

Mr. CARRIKER: The first airplane I remember flying was on a U.S. Air Force DC-7 coming back from Elmendorf Air Force Base. As a small child, I remember sticking my face in the window and watching those big, round engines start up with all that smoke and fire coming out of the exhaust stack. And I've never forgotten that.

CONAN: And then when you got to sit at the controls for the first time, what plane was that?

Mr. CARRIKER: A Cessna 172. My father was a sky pilot. He was an U.S. Army Air Corps chaplain and a pilot, and he let me fly a Cessna 172 when I was probably, I don't know, 10 or nine - nine or 10 years old in Indiana. And I was hooked from right then and there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: A Cessna's not all that different from a Stearman.

Mr. CARRIKER: No. And I just - you know, I just moved on and, you know, it had a nose gear, and it probably may be a little bit easier to fly. But that just - it's just so fascinating to see how different airplanes have come across in the last, well, 100 years.

CONAN: And in this film, "Legends of Flight," you say you get a chance from time to time to fly some vintage aircraft, not just the Stearman. You got to land at Manassas the other day. But the well, there was a Super Connie, a Super Constellation, a big-piston - four engine-piston four-piston airliner.

Mr. CARRIKER: Yeah. That's part of the film, is are these - how are these airplanes come acrossed(ph), and what do we know now or have learned throughout the ages, gliders and Stearmans and the constructure and the engine of the propulsion systems, and then the elegance of flying?

I think the Super Connie is - it really harkens back to the day when flying across the nation or going from one destination was an event. You know, people got dressed up, and it was a big event to do these things. And I think the Super Connie is the premier airplane of that era, where it I mean, it meant something to get on an airplane and go somewhere. It was an elegant event.

CONAN: And I don't know how much time you spent back in coach these days. It's not just an event.

Mr. CARRIKER: Well, the one I was on today was - the airplane left on time and I got here on time, and it was a very smooth flight. And there wasn't a spare seat in that airplane.

CONAN: But...

Mr. CARRIKER: And we were pretty tight.

CONAN: I don't think people dress up to make that flight to Seattle anymore.

Mr. CARRIKER: No, I don't think so. Now I think it's more or less like a bad commute.

CONAN: Yes. And one of the things about this new plane, the 787, you say in the film - there's an awful of lot engineering that goes on in this film. It's not just about the romance of flying, but a lot of engineering and how the revolutions in computers and, course, in the construction of carbon fiber, which is talking over from aluminum. These are big revolutions in airplane design. But nevertheless, they make it possible to have a better experience for the passenger. How so?

Mr. CARRIKER: Well, we think so. So when you take the material properties of the carbon fiber, you can do different things with the wings. You can make active control systems that help reduce the weight. If you reduce the weight of the airplane, you reduce the amount of fuel burned to move the airplane around. With the fatigue life of carbon structures, you can pressurize the airplane to higher pressure so the passengers have more oxygen. Because the carbon doesn't corrode, you can retain more humidity inside the airplane so that people don't get sort of dried out.

And one of the finest features of the airplane is the windows. They're about three times bigger than the current windows because the structure will hold that kind of load around the window. And even the windows are electrochromatically dimmable. There's no pull down slide anymore. You push a button and they dim down and then they brighten back up. And the interior lights - we use this wonderful interior lighting system that if you do like an oceanic-type event, where the lights come on over a 30-minute period and you kind of wake up instead of being, you know, startled when they bring in all the cabin lights, and holy smokes, you get blown out of your slumber.

CONAN: Well, having more oxygen in the plane means you won't go to sleep quite so quickly either.

Mr. CARRIKER: Yeah. Well, one of the airplanes I got to fly for the Seattle Museum of Flight was the 1933 Boeing 247. And I got to speak to a captain it was in his logbook, he had flown it for a Pennsylvania airline in 1940. He says, yeah, we used to love it because we climb up about 14,000 feet and just put all the passengers to sleep.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with Mike Carriker, who's the chief test pilot at Boeing and the star of a new film called "Legends of Flight." We want to hear from the pilots in our audience today. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Scott's on the line, calling from Sacramento.

SCOTT (Caller): Good afternoon, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Which plane do you think is the most fun?

SCOTT: Well, I have to say two of those. I fly a Canada regional jet for a regional airline and I understand from a passenger's standpoint that may not be the most comfortable of rides.

CONAN: They're right.

SCOTT: From a pilot's standpoint, it's an absolute dream to fly. It really is. It's very light on the controls, very - it takes a very nice touch to fly smoothly, but it's an absolute joy to fly.

The other airplane I fly are small, light, single-engine aircraft. I do provide some light aircraft instruction here in Sacramento. And to be able to share the gift of flight with other people is really - brings a lot of joy to me.

CONAN: What's your favorite moment, taking off?

SCOTT: Taking - yeah, it is. Taking off is good. It's - the one thing I like about flying more than anything else is no matter what might be happening on the ground, once you're airborne in-flight, not a lot of that matters. It's the here and now. Where are you going? How are you going to get yourself there? What are you going to do once you're on the ground? Landing is always fun. Fair or not, most passengers rate the entire flight on the landing. You know, the flight could have been beautiful. And one little bit of a firm arrival and everybody's going to be talking about what a bad flight it was. So a lot of pilots try to make sure we give good landings.

Mr. CARRIKER: It's the last thing you remember.

SCOTT: That is correct.

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

SCOTT: Thank you. Appreciate it. Take care.

CONAN: An email from Margaret Middleton(ph), who describes herself as a first lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol. A Cessna is not that different from a Stearman - my comment, not Mike's. Maybe from the vantage point of a Boeing Dreamliner, but only from that angle. I meant a small light aircraft.

But anyway - and this email from Preston(ph) in St. Louis: I saw the video of the accident you referenced earlier. Would your guest or you care to explain the cause? I don't know the cause. I'm not a pilot. Mike, did you get any later word after I left yesterday?

Mr. CARRIKER: No. It's like any other sort of incident. The best part about it, it was that those guys walked away from the event. The DCA airport folks there, they did an outstanding job. They were out there on the scene in a heartbeat and they had - their fire trucks were - the fire trucks were there in about three minutes. And then it's just like anything else. We'll let the NTSB investigate it and look at it, and they'll issue a report on what happened.

CONAN: If you read the story by the reporter in the Washington Post who was the passenger on that plane, he believes the cause of the accident was that he is a bad luck charm and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ... a jinx to a very skilled pilot. So let's see if we can get another caller in. And this is Rich and Rich is with us from Sioux City in Iowa.

RICH (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. Nice show. And I'm a pilot. Yeah, I liked your comment about, you know, where is the romance for flying? I think what I love about it is there's still a camaraderie. There's still pancake breakfasts that you can fly to, general aviation. I fly single engine. I also flew for the Civil Air Patrol. So I'm not of the caliber of your guest. But there is that romance and that camaraderie.

And a lot of the smaller airports here in the Midwest, you can call ahead and they actually have loaner cars still for the pilots. So you can literally get on - literally land your plane and they'll have a car that you just use there at the airport and bring it back when you're done.

Mr. CARRIKER: Yeah, the airport car.

RICH: The airport car. And it's still - there's still a wonderful world to it. And it's a - even after 9/11, it changed dramatically, but it's still - it's a great thing.

CONAN: And Rich, when you're talking to another pilot, do you ever run out of things to talk about?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICH: No. Absolutely not.

Mr. CARRIKER: It's against the rules.

CONAN: And some of those things are probably even true.

Mr. CARRIKER: Well, every now and then.

RICH: Depending on, you know, your viewpoint of the truth. But yeah, there's always plenty to discuss, whether it's a new airport or, you know, changes to your airplane or (unintelligible) federal regulations, these kinds of things. But sure appreciate the show and then - and having your guest there.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Rich. Appreciate it.

Here's an email from Mike(ph) in Idaho. Flying into a remote grass strip in the mountains of Idaho on a crisp, clear summer day, there's nothing more grand than that, especially if it's in a remote wilderness and you are alone. I used a Grumman Tiger, a single-engine plane, great economical plane. Are you familiar with that, Mike?

Mr. CARRIKER: Yeah. I flew Tigers and Cheetahs. The Cheetah is the bigger version of it. I flew a Tiger from Wichita, Kansas to Traverse City, Michigan as a college student.

CONAN: We think of Grumman as the manufacturer of those classic Navy planes during the Second World War.

Mr. CARRIKER: Yeah.

CONAN: And they've gone on to continue to produce light aircraft?

Mr. CARRIKER: Yeah. I'm not quite so sure - familiar - it must have been a separate company from the Grumman Iron Works out there in - on Long Island.

CONAN: We're talking with Mike Carriker, the chief test pilot at Boeing. He's been involved in the 787 Dreamliner program and a new film about that is out in IMAX and 3D. It's called Legends of Flight.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Mike, this I've mentioned there's a fair amount of engineering in this film, but it does seem to be aimed at students.

Mr. CARRIKER: That would be the true thing. So I think the epiphany for me was when we went to the Smithsonian that - you know, on that Tuesday afternoon.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CARRIKER: And I walked around the Smithsonian, and I noticed that 75 - it seemed like every person in there was between eight and 16 years old. And it really did bring home the point to me that an IMAX movie is to educate, inspire and then entertain. And like I - I thought about it for a while, and I thought, you know, if we can have one out of every hundred kids that comes into that movie take a course toward an engineering or a science-based curriculum, that movie will be a success.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Arlen(ph). Arlen, with us from St. Michael in Minnesota.

ARLEN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

ARLEN: I fly a Robinson R22 helicopter recreationally, and I find it very versatile. I don't need an airport, I don't need a runway. I keep it right at my house. I have a relatively small lot, three and a third acres, and that's all I need.

CONAN: Three and a third acres. So you're well aware - well away from any telephone lines or anything like that?

ARLEN: Absolutely.

CONAN: And do you fly back and forth to work?

ARLEN: No, I don't. Although I do use it sometimes in my business for delivering and picking up parts and taking customers out to lunch. I can land at a restaurant in the - at the corner of their parking lot. So like I say, it's very versatile. Can't do that with an airplane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARLEN: I'm also an airplane pilot, but I find the helicopter much more fun.

CONAN: Mike, have you flown a helicopter?

Mr. CARRIKER: Yeah, but I've never flown so that one's a piston-engine helicopter and you've got to throttle on the collective. I've flown lots of turbine-powered helicopters where you don't have to worry about the -they have a gas generator that makes the power. But, yes, it - I've got - I guess time in maybe 12 different kinds of helicopters.

CONAN: My gosh. Is there a kind of plane that you have not flown in yet that you would like to?

Mr. CARRIKER: Well, I'm working on it, if I could find one. And when I fly helicopters or fly these airplanes - I don't have a helicopter license, but when I was, like, an instructor at the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School, we were encouraged to go fly all the airplanes that the school had. So I flew, like, a Cobra from the front seat, flew an H-57, flew an H-60, flew an H-47, H-46 in there, as a co-pilot. So, you know, I'm not a type-rated helicopter pilot. And then when I got the opportunity to teach at the British Test Pilot School, I got to fly their helicopters too, under the same reasoning.

CONAN: Yeah. You mentioned - we were talking the other night about - and Arlen, thanks very much for the call and good flying to you - that you spent time in Britain as a - seconded, if you will, to the Royal Air Force and got to fly a lot of their planes too, just before they made the transition into the Tornado.

Mr. CARRIKER: Oh, it's just - it's a dream come true to go there. We had 12 different kinds of fixed-wing airplanes and only four instructors. And so on a given day you might fly a Beaver in the morning off the grass strip and then come back in the afternoon. The first year we had a British Electric Lightning. That was the over-under engine combination airplane. And the second year I was there, we traded that airplane for a air defense version Tornado. So I got a day in my logbook over there -well, I actually have a day in my logbook where I flew a Chipmunk in the morning and a Tornado in the afternoon. There - those are great days.

CONAN: Let's go to Roger. Roger with us from San Antonio.

ROGER (Caller): Hi. I'm a single-engine, and I love high wings so you can open the window and take pictures. And I would encourage all your listeners to somehow ride with a pilot over their local area, and you'll see things on the ground and patterns that you just can't see any other way.

CONAN: I was trying to take pictures from a biplane the other day, and that bottom wing gets in your way.

ROGER: It's tough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROGER: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Thank you, Roger. Here's an email we have from Dustin in Rockford, Illinois. I'm currently building my own plane, an experimental Mustang II. I'm wondering, has Boeing's test pilot ever built and flown his own plane. Would he ever consider it if he hasn't?

Mr. CARRIKER: I've flown lots of home-built airplanes. I had a Kitfox 5 in my garage for several years. It came down to where I had to make the engine selection, a few things like that. And about that same time I got so fully involved in the 787 program and things like that. A guy came along and offered it off my hands, but I've got my eyes set on a Hatz biplane. If I could, that's what I'd go get, or build.

CONAN: What is that?

Mr. CARRIKER: It's a small - it's a two-person biplane, you know, maybe about, I think 23, 24-foot wingspan. And it just - it really - it's like a Stearman but smaller. It has a regular kind of, like, Continental or Lycoming engine up in the front.

And the guys I've seen at Oshkosh with their Hatz biplanes, they're just all smiling. The only problem is with that is, I'd really like to put an airplane on floats. And it's kind of tough to put a - a low-wing airplane on floats.

CONAN: Yeah. In any case, I also had the chance to meet your wonderful wife, and she will want me to remind you, you better finish the redesign of the bathroom first.

Mr. CARRIKER: That's correct.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARRIKER: There are things you have priorities over.

CONAN: Mike Carriker, thank you very much for your time today. It was a pleasure to meet you this week.

Mr. CARRIKER: Thank you, sir. It was very fun speaking with you too.

CONAN: Mike Carriker, chief pilot for the - chief test pilot for the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner program. You can see him in the new movie Legends of Flight. He joined us today from member station KUOW in Seattle. You can find a link to the film at our website at npr.org. You can also see a picture of me next to the plane I flew in on our blog. That's also at npr.org.

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