Obituary: Ken Higgins pushed air safety as Boeing test pilot
Ken Higgins had to hide his colorblindness to become a Boeing test pilot, but he eventually rose to lead the program and became known as a pilot who discovered the most improbable faults during testing.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Ken Higgins landed a 757 jet at Boeing Field in 1982 with all its wheels ground down to the steel rims, flames trailing along the runway.
On a different 757 test flight, ice damage forced him to limp home over the Cascades with one engine gone and the other on reduced power.
And during a 777 widebody stall test in the mid-1990s, the wingtip of the big jet momentarily swung past the vertical as it banked to the right.
Mr. Higgins, who died April 22, earned a reputation through such hairy moments for being the Boeing guy who’d find the most improbable faults during certification testing.
“Ken had a knack for finding these things, sometimes in pairs,” said John Cashman, who flew the 777 test flights with Mr. Higgins as co-pilot.
Mr. Higgins rose to head the commercial airplane test organization and led an effort to improve Boeing’s flight-test safety practices, improvements later adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Mr. Higgins, who retired in 2006 and had just turned 71, died of an aortic aneurysm.
He graduated from O’Dea High School in Seattle and earned an engineering degree at the University of Portland.
Mr. Higgins was one of the few Boeing test pilots who didn’t arrive there through the military.
In his university ROTC program, he discovered that he was colorblind and as a result was turned down for pilot training.
After he joined Boeing, he nevertheless learned to fly privately and constantly lobbied to join the flight-test program that he eventually would run.
He was allowed in first as a flight-test engineer, but his wife, Sandy, said “he was such an engaging person and worked so hard” that eventually he was allowed to fly test planes.
To get there, he bluffed his way through the eyesight test, she said, by memorizing the pages in the standard books used for the test of colorblindness.
“It was rote memory,” she said.
Sandy, who was Mr. Higgins’s childhood sweetheart and was married to him just shy of 49 years, said she was naive enough not to worry about her husband’s risky job.
Even though that 757 landing at Boeing Field was all over the TV that day, she heard about it only after Mr. Higgins got home.
“It looked like a big deal. It wasn’t,” he reassured her.
That incident was a conjunction of two independent and very unlikely events.
First, the antiskid brake system had failed in flight, as had its monitoring system, so the pilots didn’t know about the brake failure. Then, with the 757 coming in to land, the flaps got stuck and wouldn’t come down.
As the plane hit the runway faster than usual, the brakes immediately locked up.
Cashman, watching from the ground, saw all eight tires blow and their rubber grind down until the steel rims were scraping the runway.
“It was pretty spectacular,” said Cashman. “It became a joke that if you had to find a problem on an airplane, you’d put Ken on it.”
Because things happened to him that engineers had calculated as occurring less than once in a billion flights — that’s 10 to the minus 9, in technical terms — the flight-test team even gave him a joke T-shirt: “Ken Higgins 10-9.”
But such incidents in flight test, revealing vulnerabilities that hadn’t been considered, advance the safety of the flying public.
After the 757 engine failures during icing tests over the Cascades, Rolls-Royce added a heater to the spinning cone at the center of the engine fan to prevent ice buildup there in the future.
And Cashman said that after the 777 rose past vertical in that stall test he flew with Mr. Higgins, Boeing engineers adjusted the jet’s flight controls to ensure that it could never happen again.
In the last decade of his 40-year Boeing career, Mr. Higgins became a vice president, headed the flight-test organization and led a systematic upgrade of its safety processes, including more stringent safety training and documenting of safety hazards.
Before that, Boeing had relied on veteran-pilot experience, without formalizing the processes. The FAA later used the program industrywide as a template for best practices in flight-test safety.
Outside work, Mr. Higgins was devoted to his family and a man who loved projects, his wife said.
He remodeled rooms in the house, maintained a succession of family boats, flew his own home-built airplane and made his own wine, bottles of which were stored in a wine room he built himself.
Besides his wife, Mr. Higgins is survived by three children, Joel Higgins (Amy), Shannon Cirovski (Sasho) and Dan Higgins (Melyssa); eight grandchildren; and four brothers.
A celebration of his life will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Normandy Park Community Club. Another memorial is planned later at the Museum of Flight.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com
An earlier version of this story, in describing an incident during a 777 flight test, mistakenly referred the nose of the jet swinging past vertical. In fact, the plane was banking and it was the wingtip that swung past the vertical.