Qantas has revealed new details of research plans for its Project Sunrise ultra-long-haul commercial services initiative from Australia that includes a series of supporting test flights, the first of which is scheduled for later this month.

Although the airline has not formally committed to launching the project’s new routes, which would link Sydney with nonstop flights to London and New York, the Australian carrier has outlined plans to conduct tests during deliveries of three new Boeing 787-9s over consecutive months starting in October.

Meanwhile, Qantas is analyzing bids from Airbus and Boeing for specially modified variants of the Airbus A350 and Boeing 777X, respectively, and will make a decision by year-end.

The first flight, scheduled around mid-month, will be from New York to Sydney, with the November test taking place on the London-Sydney route. The December test will also link New York and Sydney. Each of the non-revenue flights will take place after Qantas officially accepts the new aircraft from Boeing.

The first priority for the research flights is better understanding of pilot and cabin crew fatigue, Qantas chief technical pilot Alex Passerini said. “The pilots signing up for doing those flights are going to have sleep diaries and will wear sensors to monitor vital signs such brain wave activity. We are going to have Airbus and Boeing fatigue experts on board who will be running through scenarios deep into the flight to look at crew response to certain tasks. The crew will also have to do urine samples for melatonin,” he added.

“Project sunrise will require fatigue rules that have not yet been developed. We currently allow up to 20 hr. duty time, but this will require up to 24 hr., so how do you do that and manage pilot fatigue? The only people who have a good understanding of that are US Air Force bomber crews so it’s a relatively new area,” said Passerini, who was speaking at the International Society for Air Breathing Engines conference in Canberra, Australia.

As well as aeromedical research, the flights will also focus on innovations to improve the cabin experience and passenger wellbeing. “We have some key frequent fliers who have been selected to participate and a revised menu will be looked at and trialed.”

Upgrades to flight deck avionics will also be evaluated to help crews maximize aircraft performance. “Computing power on the aircraft is necessarily limited because of rules around certification, but we are looking with Boeing at new capabilities like the FliteDeck Advisor; a system with which optimization routines for the flight can be run outside the Honeywell flight management computer and delivered to the crew for insertion,” he said.

Developed by Boeing-owned Jeppesen, FliteDeck Advisor plugs into the aircraft’s flight data recorder system test port via an interface device and uses aircraft weight and real-time en route data to provide optimized flight profiles to the crew. The system, which is tailored to work with the specific host aircraft, is designed to reduce fuel consumption by up to 2% and reduce pilot workload. The device enables preflight and en route active route synchronization between the flight management system, electronic flight bag and automated uplink/downlink of flight routes to the ground.

“Project Sunrise will pose significant challenges to us because some of the routes will take us directly north and then across Siberia and Russia and very close to the North Pole, while other flights will take us further south over Sri Lanka and north from there. So, we have wide variation of tracks and some real constraints among those,” Passerini said. “China is another area which is quite limiting in the sense that we don’t have a lot of tracks we can use, so optimization is tricky.”

Boeing will also use the flights to perform nautical air miles survey (NAMS) testing with the aircraft that are powered by the latest production standard of General Electric GEnx-1B engines. “The airframes are coming in well and tight in terms of manufacturing tolerances, but there’s a little bit of variation in the engines,” Passerini said. Some performance margin has been traded to counter ice crystal icing: “I’d like to get that back,” he added.

Of the routes, New York to Sydney is considered to be the most challenging because of headwinds, “which at that time of the year pick up and can average 30 kt.,” he noted. The London-Sydney flight will be feasible in around 18.5 hrs., compared to the 20 hrs.-plus flight time achieved in 1989 by a fully fueled Boeing 747-400 with a partially complete interior and fewer than 20 passengers. That flight consumed 183.5 tonnes of fuel and was made longer by not being allowed to overfly China. “These days we are allowed to overfly China and part of the Himalayas,” Passerini said. “The aircraft will burn roughly 85 tonnes and carry 55 people at least, so there’s been a tremendous improvement over a relatively short period of time.”

Project Sunrise studies currently project a flight time of 20 hr., 20 min. for the Sydney-London flight. Despite the unprecedented onboard time, Qantas believes that—based on the response to its recently inaugurated direct Perth-London flights—there will be strong demand. “It will cut travel time by 4 hrs., as well as the variability of transits and potential weather delays,” Passerini said. The Perth-London route has now been operating 16 months without a single diversion and has experienced average load factors of between 92%-94%.

Guy Norris