The Amazing Life of Mark McCullins

ABOVE Since boyhood, Northern Ireland native Mark McCullins has had a deep fascination with flight. By age 17, he boasted a license to fly a Cessna 172 aircraft.

Mark McCullins probably isn’t the only Bay area resident who hails from Northern Ireland. But he is probably the only one who came by way of Winnipeg, Moose Jaw, Alert (the northernmost permanently inhabited outpost in the world), Germany, France, Spain and Saudi Arabia. 

A high-profile business contract dispute almost cost him the chance to come here at all. But for the last year and a half, he’s been living in a dream job as chief test pilot for the Airbus U.S. Manufacturing Facility in Mobile.

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Each time a new airplane is crafted in the Port City, somebody has to fly it for the first time. McCullins is that somebody.

“Better lucky than good, ” he’s fond of saying as he ticks off the coincidences that led him to Airbus in Mobile.

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 owner John DeLorean encountered financial difficulties and closed the plant, which only served to worsen an already dire rate of unemployment.

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 go flying.” His mother encouraged his interest, telling him that “whatever you want to do, you can do; just work at it.” But that advice was hard to believe “when everything around me was very consumed by The Troubles.”

When DeLorean closed, McCullins’ parents chose Canada over mainland Britain and fetched up in Winnipeg.

“I was incredibly fortunate when we moved to Canada, ” he says, because it brought him into 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, citizenship and more.

The highly successful youth program, open to everyone at no cost, was a boon to his family and an opportunity that hadn’t existed in Northern Ireland.

Best of all, says McCullins, “If you stayed with Air Cadets, worked within the program and took the classes and progressed, they offered scholarships to learn to fly.”

“I still come in to work and pinch myself that I get to take a brand new airplane flying for the first time.” – Mark McCullins


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. There, he 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.”

With centers in eastern and western Canada and Quebec, the 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 flipping 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 finishing 11th grade, he attended power flight camp and earned a license for a Cessna 172 — the same airplane that Flight Training of Mobile operates in easy view from his current Airbus office.

“So I redoubled my efforts in my final year of high school and flipped even more hamburgers because I was trying to pay for power flight hours. 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 years and his pilot’s wings during his summers of military training.

And then, on to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, 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 turbo-prop 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.”

“Those planes don’t have a lot in the way of automatic systems, ” he says. But the cockpit is a great way to learn flying. “You learn how the airplane flies, how it feels and how the systems interact.” And with a crew of six, it “teaches you how to manage people.”

With that C-130 crew, he was 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, Nunavut, Canada, the northernmost permanently inhabited station in the world.

Once again, he found himself in a job he loved. While many pilots prefer the sleek flight of a jet fighter, “I didn’t want to fly fighters; I 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 copilot 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, Canadian Air Force officers have to speak French well enough to communicate with service members who speak only French. He had a high school certificate in French, plus the program 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 said. “You can imagine what it’s like for the C-130 pilot to be strapped into a Mirage 2000 fighter 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. “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. 

“You become very comfortable being uncomfortable.” After all, your job is to bring the aircraft back safely and to test everything on the list. “It’s a very different sort of discipline and approach that’s foreign to most pilots.”

Before he could even use his new skills at his next assignment at the Cold Lake test center, he was shipped to Germany to convert 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?”

Lucky Once More?

While finishing his Air Force career with a couple of six-month deployments to Afghanistan, he and his family joined friends for a 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. 

Now, 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.

And lucky again? 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.

Experimental test pilots check out a new design, performing every test from fuel consumption statistics to the thrilling antics of stalling an airplane in flight. And McCullins has done so, most recently, on the A350-1000.

But at his main job in Mobile, McCullins focuses on production flight testing — checking not whether it’s a good design, but whether this particular plane flies as expected.

The A320 family planes being assembled in Mobile are 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. We approach that in such a disciplined, methodical manner, ” 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 copilot and a flight engineer, while a cabin specialist sits in the passenger area. The crew flies about four hours, toward Houston or Atlanta or Memphis, depending on weather and checks 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, he says. “Many of the lessons I learned as a Cadet — about how the operation is run, the discipline of flying, the attitude you’re supposed to bring — are present in the operations we have here today.”

But that doesn’t diminish the thrill.

“I still come in to work and pinch myself that I get to take a brand new airplane flying for the first time.”

text by Nedra Bloom • photos by Todd Douglas

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