Soaring on a Southern Wind
Mark McCullins has loved flying big planes most of his life. Today, he has his dream job: taking Airbus planes on their maiden flights.
Mark McCullins, who could fly before he could drive, stands ready to run final checks before he and his team take a brand new Airbus plane aloft for the first time.
Airbus jet components are created in plants across Europe, make their way by ocean liner to Mobile and are assembled by skilled workers at Mobile’s Aeroplex. When that work is complete, someone needs to take the finished plane up in the air for the very first time.
That someone is Mark McCullins, chief test pilot for Airbus in Mobile.
And there’s nowhere he’d rather be.
This is a man who had a pilot’s license before he had a driver’s license. In fact, his motivation to get a driver’s license was simply to have transportation to the airfield so he could fly.
A native of Cumber, near Belfast in Northern Ireland, McCullins was a child during The Troubles — a lengthy period of political strife and unemployment. To ease the situation, the British government encouraged a DeLorean plant (think “Back to the Future”) in Belfast, where McCullins’ father worked as an engineer. But the plant closed, worsening an already dire unemployment rate.
Already McCullins was fascinated with flying, a love awakened by his very first flight on a Hawker Siddeley Trident 3, the aircraft of choice for British Airways’ shuttle service from Belfast to London. “I thought it was the greatest thing to get to sit on an airplane and go flying.” His mother encouraged his interest, telling him that “whatever you want to do, you can do; just work at it.” But the advice was hard to believe “when everything around you is very consumed by The Troubles.”
When DeLorean closed, McCullins’ parents chose Canada over mainland Britain and fetched up in Winnipeg.
In Canada he soon learned of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets program. Supported by the Air Force, but not precisely military, the Cadets program dated back to World War II and focused on flying, physical fitness and more.
The highly successful youth program, open to everyone at no cost, was a boon to his family, and an opportunity that simply hadn’t existed in Northern Ireland.
Best of all, says McCullins, “If you stayed with Air Cadets and you worked within the program and you did the classes and progressed, they offered scholarships to learn to fly.”
From age 13 up, every Cadet who wanted a glider flight could get one. By the time he was 15, he was off to summer camp where he was paid $20 a week on top of room and board, learned about citizenship and useful life skills and earned the chance to enter the gliding scholarship program “at the ripe old age of 15 and a half.”
The Cadet program is “the largest licensor of pilots in Canada, strictly through the gliding program,” McCullins says. Once licensed, the Cadets went back to care for the planes, work with new cadets and earn more flight time.
“I used to work at McDonald’s in the evening, to flip burgers, to get money to pay for airplane rentals.” He’d borrow the family car for a trip to Portage la Prairie, where older cadets lived in World War II-era barracks and ran the gliding zone. Each day, after younger cadets went home, the working team got a glider flight.
At the age of 17, just after 11th grade, he attended power flight camp and earned a license for a Cessna 172 — the same airplane that Mobile Flight Training operates in easy view from his Airbus office.
“So I redoubled my efforts in my final year of high school and flipped even more hamburgers, because now I was trying to pay for power flight hours — and by the time I graduated high school, I had my private pilot’s license, with a night rating and a cross country rating.”
That chance to fly is the first example of McCullins’ favorite truism: “Better lucky than good.”
From high school he moved on to Canada’s Royal Military College, a tri-service academy, where he earned an engineering degree during the academic year and his pilot’s wings during summers of military training.
And then on to Moose Jaw for flight training, before moving to his first operation squadron flying the C-130 Hercules. By then, he’d run the gamut — from glider to single-engine trainer to single-engine jet trainer to Beech King Air’s twin-engine turboprop — and then to the C-130.
“A C-130 is a flying truck,” he concedes, but a good one. “It will take you anywhere and more importantly, it will get you home.”
He was soon stationed at Thule Air Base in Greenland, where each summer they would repeatedly load up with 20,000 pounds of Arctic diesel and head north for the 5,500-foot gravel runway at Alert, the northernmost permanently inhabited station in the world.
While many pilots prefer the sleek flight of a jet fighter, McCullins had decided he wanted to fly big airplanes. More than once an Air Force official took him aside to question that decision, “but you always sort of know where your interest and where your passion lies.”
Most of those who opt for big planes have their eye on an airline career.
Not McCullins. He was waiting for the right option — in the meantime moving from co-pilot to captain to instructor.
When the option for test pilot came up, he recognized his calling. “It takes the flying that I love and the engineering and puts them together” — but he had to win a place in the program.
Lucky again? The Royal Canadian Air Force was desperate for a test pilot with experience on big planes.
Unlucky? He had a broken jaw and his dentist wouldn’t release him in time for the test pilot school in the U.K. He couldn’t go to the U.S. because the September 11 events had shut foreign pilots (even Canadian pilots) from U.S. training programs. It looked like a no go, until the phone rang with a query: could he do test pilot school in French?
Well, he had a high school certificate in French and Canadian Air Force officers have to have enough French to communicate with service members who speak only French. And they offered a three-month starter course in the language — so he opted for it.
“In the year I was in France, I flew 24 different types,” he says. “You can imagine what it’s like for the C-130 pilot, who’s used to moving at 200 knots, to be strapped into a Mirage 2000 fighter going at Mach 2 after a classroom presentation and a look at the simulator.”
“But the French philosophy was, if you’re going to be a test pilot, then go, figure it out,” he says. Loosely translated, the concept is “unfog yourself.”
“It means, ‘sort yourself out.’ They don’t teach you how to fly 24 different types of airplanes. They teach you that aerodynamics is aerodynamics. The techniques that we use to test a Cessna 172 are the same techniques that we use to test an A321.
“As you can imagine, your mind gets rapidly expanded on that; you become very comfortable being uncomfortable.”
After all, the job is to bring the aircraft back safely and test everything on the list. “It’s a very, very different sort of discipline and approach that’s very, very foreign to most pilots.”
Next he was shipped to Germany to work on converting A310 aircraft to tankers for air-to-air refueling, a specialty of his. Back and forth to Germany he went for three years, becoming ever more enthralled with Airbus craft and often being asked: “Mark, why aren’t you flying with us?”
Finishing his Air Force career with a couple of six-month deployments to Afghanistan, he and his family joined friends for a Christmastime ski trip to Colorado. One of the friends had a brand new computer, and in the process of showing it off, found a help wanted ad for someone with expertise in Airbus aircraft, tankers and a willingness to spend time in the Middle East.
McCullins got the job, left the Air Force after 20 years and a day, and headed for Madrid — working on development and certification for the A330 tanker.
Who in Mobile doesn’t know what happened next?
Airbus sold the plane to the U.S. Air Force, planning to build it in Mobile. And McCullins would be coming to test fly them. After a contract challenge from Boeing, however, the contract was rescinded. So instead of Mobile, McCullins headed for Saudi Arabia.
By the time he completed his commitment in Saudi Arabia, Airbus had revamped its plans for Mobile, opening a commercial assembly line instead. And McCullins headed for the Gulf Coast in 2015.
The A320 family of planes assembled in Mobile has a tried-and-true design, long since past the legal and engineering process of certification. “The design is frozen, the performance is known, the systems are well known,” says McCullins.
“But you still have to fly it for the first time.
“Now we approach it in such a disciplined, methodical manner because it is the first time that airplane has flown,” he says. “You have to treat that with a certain amount of respect.”
“On the other hand, it’s a very well known design and the majority of what you find during production flights is little noises, little squeaks.”
In fact, the team uses a noise recorder to find such squeaks, tracing the source until it’s defined and fixed.
They check that fuel consumption matches the numbers in the customer’s contract. “As you can imagine, for an airline that does as many hours and flight miles as American Airlines [a major customer of the Mobile plant], if your fuel burn targets are off by half a percent, that’s millions of dollars a year.”
And the team checks safety systems. Everything that can be checked on the ground is checked on the ground, McCullins says, but you can’t check the effects of changing air pressure, for example. Every air passenger has heard the safety announcement about a loss of cabin pressure — but it takes a flight test to make sure everything operates just as the cabin attendants have assured passengers it will.
McCullins is captain of a four-person crew for that first flight. He shares the cockpit with a co-pilot and a flight engineer, while a cabin specialists sits in the passenger area. The crew flies about four hours, toward Houston or Atlanta or Memphis, depending on weather, and checking each item in the engineer’s manual.
The brand new planes he flies today are a far cry from the gliders and Cessnas he flew as a youth in Canada, but the essence of the job is no different.
“I still come in to work and pinch myself some days that I get to take a brand new airplane and take it flying for the first time.”
Nedra Bloom is copy editor and Todd Douglas is a freelance contributor for Business Alabama. Bloom is based in Mobile and Douglas in Fort Walton Beach.