Heather Ross was not destined to be a test pilot. She stumbled into the cockpit “very much by accident”, thanks to two brothers who were also interested in aviation. She had initially planned to be a musician.
But at university, the woodwind specialist quickly recognised that music would not be a career in which she could thrive.
“It was kind of the same thing over and over again. I’d played in all sorts of groups – marching bands, jazz bands, orchestras, and all that. Maybe I was burnt out. And I wasn’t sure if I could eke out a career.”
Her first cockpit experience was “an epiphany”.
“That’s when I realised, ‘Oh, wow, this is incredible’. I mean, the world is three-dimensional… There’s now this vertical aspect to seeing the world. The things that were familiar to you in two dimensions take on another one as you fly above it all.”
With an aviation career that now spans almost four decades, 59-year-old Ross has come a long way since that epiphany. In the meantime, she has personally seen the industry from all sides.
Ross arrived at Boeing in 1985 with a degree in aeronautics and astronautics in hand, and worked as a flight-test analysis engineer.
“I loved the job. It was great. I got to fly on the airplanes. But I was in the back of the airplanes,” she says.
What she really wanted was to be up front. However, at the time, Ross had nowhere near the experience needed to compete for a job as a test pilot.
So, in 1988 she joined the US Air Force, becoming type-rated on the Cessna T-37 and Northrop T-38 trainers, and the Lockheed Martin C-5 and C-141 airlifters. Ross flew more than 40 missions in the first Gulf War. She followed that with a stint at United Airlines as a Boeing 737 pilot flight engineer on 727s and 747.
Nine years after leaving Boeing, Ross was back, this time with the credentials to sit up front.
Of her 9,200h total time in the cockpit, more than half are flight-testing hours accumulated with Boeing. Ross now holds US Federal Aviation Administration type ratings on the airframer’s 737, 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787 models – every commercial aircraft the company builds.
As deputy chief pilot for the 777X programme, she is an “engineering project pilot,” meaning she is one of the professional aviators to be involved in the programme from day one. She spent 10 years on the 787 before shifting to the 777X development programme six years ago.
“I get to focus on that airplane. There are so many paths that an airplane design can go down. If some of them don’t work or meet pilot expectations, or if they are hard to implement, having a pilot help early on with the design really prevents last minute changes and realisations.”
The test campaign for any new aircraft design is meticulous and disciplined, with systems verified over and over in simulators and labs on the ground.
“By the time that the crew gets in the airplane for the first flight, we’ve tested all of the parts of the airplane and the pieces and all the different components,” Ross says. The pilots and the equipment have prepared for all possible scenarios. “It’s a very, very methodical, very careful build up in preparation for first flight.”
Though Ross has never been at the controls during a type’s first flight, she maintains an excitement and a fascination for the process and the teamwork that goes into making an aircraft defy gravity.
“Flying any airplane, regardless of whether it’s the first time that particular airplane is flown, or the first time that type has ever flown, it’s always exciting,” Ross says. “I still feel the same way every time I push the power up, even on an airplane that I’ve flown 100 times.
“It’s that realisation of everything coming together. People’s efforts, expertise, knowledge and care. Everybody’s focused on achieving the same goal, which is to get the airplane airborne, and offer a great product, ultimately, for our customers and for the flying public,” she says.
Ross is among a handful of women doing a job that thousands of professional pilots – male and female – would covet.
“Airplanes are built so that you don’t have to have unusual strength, which is great because it means that women can fly them just as well as men can,” she says. “The airplane doesn’t care.”