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Why Boeing 787 pilots just traced a giant Dreamliner airplane across the country

It wasn’t a stunt: When Boeing’s test pilots flew a 787 Dreamliner jet for 18 hours and nearly 10,000 miles, tracing the outline of a 787 Dreamliner in the skies ranging from Michigan and Alabama to Wyoming, they were just adding a noteworthy twist to a routine requirement.

The flight, which began at Seattle’s Boeing Field on Wednesday afternoon and finished up in the same place at 9:40 a.m. today, served as an endurance test for the 787’s Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine, which is undergoing certification.

“Rather than fly in random patterns, the test team got creative, flying a route that outlined a 787-8 in the skies over 22 states,” Boeing explained in a statement. “The nose of the Dreamliner is pointing at the Puget Sound region, home to Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The wings stretch from northern Michigan near the Canadian border to southern Texas. The tail touches Huntsville, Alabama.”

No one on the ground would have known that the pilots were part of a performance art piece, unless they happened to match up their sighting with the flight plan mapped out for BOE004 (tail number N7874) on tracking websites such as FlightAware or Flightradar24.

See how and *why* @BoeingAirplanes decided to draw a giant 787 in the sky. https://t.co/9zGZc72Prf #dataviz by @itoworld #avgeek pic.twitter.com/VCvUasoFfz

— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) August 3, 2017

The planners for Boeing’s test flights have been doing this for years: In February, Boeing flew its 737 MAX 8 on a route that spelled out the letters “MAX” over the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

Just before the Super Bowl in 2014, Boeing pilots flew a 747 painted with Seahawks livery to trace a big “12” in honor of the football team’s 12th Man.

And in 2012, a similar 18-hour endurance test went into full Etch-a-Sketch mode, tracing “787” and the Boeing corporate logo on a flight that ranged as far east as Iowa.

Do such flights dump tons’ worth of climate-changing emissions into the atmosphere? Maybe so, but considering that they’re required for certification, it doesn’t matter much whether the planes just circle the airport hundreds of times or actually have a little fun with the exercise.

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