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Originally published Saturday, February 6, 2010 at 10:01 PM

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Head of test-flight program isn't just a desk jockey

Boeing Vice President Dennis O'Donoghue says it's important to have "a senior executive who has flown the product," so he personally takes up the planes he's in charge of testing.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Boeing executive Dennis O'Donoghue started as an ace test pilot and has flown every Boeing jet and many other airplanes in the most extreme conditions.

Yet O'Donoghue, the Boeing vice president overseeing the flight-test programs of both the 747-8 and 787 Dreamliner, last month took an ordinary 737-800 into the air for a routine pre-delivery test flight. And on Friday he piloted Dreamliner No. 1 on a spin to Moses Lake.

O'Donoghue, 51, insists he's not merely scratching an itch to get in the air. He just sees his role as being more than a desk jockey.

"I think it's part of my job. The real value for me is, I get out on the (flight) line," he said. "The guys on the line will tell you things your direct reports won't."

"Having someone who is a senior executive who has flown the product and can talk intelligently about it, that's important," he added.

O'Donoghue flew Harrier jump jets in the Marine Corps as a fighter pilot, then as a test pilot. Later he was a NASA research pilot on scientific missions, such as evaluating the handling of a de Havilland Twin Otter seaplane through extreme icing conditions.

He joined Boeing in 1996 as lead test pilot on the short-take-off-vertical-landing version of its Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) concept airplane, the X-32B. He remembers the thrill the first time he pointed that plane's swivel engine downward and hovered above the ground.

After Boeing lost the JSF competition to Lockheed Martin, O'Donoghue became deputy project pilot for the Sonic Cruiser and then the 7E7, since renamed 787.

During that time, he also commanded the Air Force Reserve airlift wing at McChord Air Force base, flying C-17s.

In 2005, he left Boeing to become chief test pilot at Eclipse, the now-defunct builder of very light jets, but after a year returned to Boeing, this time in management.

Now a youthful 51, the quiet-spoken O'Donoghue oversees some 8,000 engineers, test pilots and technicians. With a smile, he self-deprecatingly plays down the image of the brave and dashing test pilot.

With all the sophisticated simulation equipment now available, he said, a pilot can prepare for tests so exhaustively on the ground that the actual test flights become almost "a nonevent."

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"It's very much different from the days of Chuck Yeager," he said, referring to the famed test pilot who in 1947 was the first to break the sound barrier. "But don't destroy the myth. We like being heroes."

Sometime in the months ahead, O'Donoghue plans to take a 747-8 up and see how it handles.

No big deal. He won't have to hover.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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