TAP celebrates 75 years and is proud of its Airbus fleet. Sandra Bour Schaeffer is a test flight engineer for the airplane manufacturer. Everything she tells us is both exciting and promising.
No-one likes bad weather when they are in the sky. That’s why pilots are trained to steer clear of squalls and gales. Only, not when Sandra Bour Schaeffer is on board. In her job as an Airbus flight test engineer, she used to invite pilots to head towards turbulence and crosswinds. “For me, it’s just an honour to go to the limits of the airplane and then beyond those limits” – though always keeping everything within great safety limits.
If that all sounds a little loopy loo, that’s because it is. So why does she do it? French-born, with dual German nationality, Schaeffer insists that, while risky, the mid-air acrobatics of the test team aren’t entirely foolhardy. Sure, it can get a “little shaky” at times. But it’s possible to “progressively” exceed an aircraft’s maximum permitted speed without imminent death. The same, apparently, is true of shutting down engines mid-flight.
To guard against accident, a whole gaggle of telemetry experts are employed back at Airbus’ test base in Toulouse (TAP’s fleet currently holds 86 Airbus). It’s their job to monitor every blip and squeak while the test plane is in flight. With their expert input, Schaeffer knows if it’s safe to accelerate that extra knot or if the time has come to pull back.
If the thought gives you the wobbles, don’t fret. No commercial pilot will ever be called on to push an airplane to such extremes, she points out. Which is basically the point. Test engineers go to such extremes so that others never have to – and, in the hypothetical situation that they ever do, then Airbus can be confident that its planes will withstand it. With over 2,000 hours of test flights under her belt, plus many more hours on simulators, Schaeffer knows Airbus’ aircraft fleet inside out. Her “baby”, as she calls it, is the single-aisle Airbus A321, but she also has a particular familiarity with the Airbus A320neo and A321neo models, which she tested on their inaugural flights. As a veteran test engineer, she admits it can be difficult to switch off when flying for work or pleasure. Even before the aircraft takes off, she is listening with a professional ear to its various bruhs and rumbles.
Nor has a life in flying taken the shine off her life-long passion for air travel. It’s an interest that saw her study aerospace engineering at university, then pass through flight test school in France, and eventually land her a PhD in non-stationary fluid dynamics (don’t ask; it’s complicated). As a regular traveller for work, she has her routine off pat: pack light, cabin baggage only (whenever possible), and a window seat for trips that hold out the prospect of seeing the sun rise or set. Oh, and one final personal foible; she only ever arrives for embarkation just in the nick of time. It’s not only the physical feat of flying that enthrals her. The way aviation brings people and communities together is also a constant inspiration to her. Air travel helps “open people’s minds” to other cultures, she argues – something she describes as a “wonderful asset” of commercial aviation.
Go green – or blue
Not one to sit still for long, she recently took on a new challenge, stepping up to head a new business unit at Airbus called Airbus UpNext. The unit’s objective in a nutshell? “To identify breakthrough technologies.” In characteristic fashion, she has thrown herself into the task with bullish enthusiasm. Along with a team of 100 or so experts scattered across Europe, she is on the hunt for the best ideas using the very latest technology. Her remit ranges from the imminently possible, like better connectivity onboard (it’s all about flat antennas, apparently), through to the slightly scary, like autonomously-controlled take-offs. Airbus UpNext’s strategy is to evaluate, mature and validate emerging technologies in order to research and develop proof of concepts at scale and speed, giving them the boost they need to take them to market. By her own reckoning, about half of the projects are considered bonkers by her colleagues. She enjoys their scepticism: it spurs her on.
Helping shape the future of aerospace feeds her life-long fascination with technological innovation. But it also speaks to a more immediate driver; namely, her concern for making flying more compatible with a warming planet. Airbus isn’t starting from zero here. The French airplane manufacturer already invests around €3 billion in research and development, a substantial slug of which is earmarked for environmental projects. Its Clean Sky initiative marks a case in point. Among other in novations, the scheme has produced a super- -fast, super-efficient helicopter demonstrator, called RACER.
So what breakthrough ideas can she tell us about? She is uncharacteristically hush-hush. Commercial confidentiality and all that. But her reticence is also fed by the high uncertainty innate to the innovation process. As experience has taught her, much can happen to waylay even the most promising ideas, from knotty technical problems to regulatory brick walls. Still, not everything is top secret. Take the E-Fan X, for instance. This trial aircraft is one of Airbus’s big bets towards achieving its stated goal of halving its carbon footprint by 2050. Equipped with a two-megawatt electric motor (a replacement for one of the plane’s four jet engines), the hybrid-electric demonstrator uses an onboard battery and power- -generation system to help boost the plane’s propulsion. The E-Fan X’s first flight is down in the diary for 2021.
Another idea that is inspiring Bour Schaeffer’s aeronautical imagination takes its cue from birds. Imagine if commercial airlines flew in formation like, say, migrating geese or swans? Not tail-to-tail like military aircraft, she clarifies. But close enough to benefit from the energy of the previous airplane’s vortex. Even two nautical miles apart could make a difference to fuel consumption, she says. If the aviation is ever to become compatible with a low-carbon future, then it will take smart innovations on multiple fronts. Simply put, “there’s no single answer”. Pushing the limits has been a motto for Schaeffer throughout her career. First as a test engineer; now as a tech angel. Bumps in the road await, no doubt. But, boy, does she have an exhilarating ride ahead.
by Oliver Balch /// photo P. Masclet
web design & development 262media.com