Supersonic Sales Call
If you want a customer to spend $10 billion on your jet fighters, you gotta bust some Mach.
- By Jorge and Karen Escalona
- Air & Space magazine, March 2009
(Page 2 of 5)
The test drive is a golden opportunity for a salesman to land a sale. For the corporate test pilot, that means guiding the customer through a demo flight. The majority of riders are active military pilots who fly only after preflight simulations with a team of trainers, and cockpit coaching from the test pilot—a minefield of language and cultural differences. A slip of the tongue could destroy rapport with a potential buyer.
Mary Ann Brett, a Boeing public relations representative for the Super Hornet who travels everywhere Traven does, notes that Boeing counts on him for more than flying. “We’ve brought him into our marketing meetings for his expertise about the aircraft, and for his unique perspective on the customer’s requirements,” she says. Ricardo picks up on a lot in the cockpit, when he’s demo’ing the airplane to the customer, that only he can apply to discussions once on the ground—with either the customer, to explain why the airplane does what it does, or to the Boeing team, to get them to understand what the customer is really interested in or concerned about, likes, etc.”
Corporate test pilots prepare a mix of shows: a high show, when good weather permits an imaginary “box” for the pilot to climb to 5,000 feet or more; a medium show, when cloudy weather brings the top of this maneuvering box down to 3,000 feet or lower; and a low show, 1,500 feet above the runway. Any lower and the aircraft simply isn’t flown. Pilots work to visualize that box beforehand with their own preflight rituals.
“All the display pilots do this,” says MiG test pilot Pavel Vlasov. “You have to cut away the secondary data and concentrate on your immediate mission.” Vlasov and fellow test pilot Mikhail Belyaev approach their jets before each display, contorting their bodies to mimic the movements of the routine in a “walking sortie.” To the casual observer, the pilots seem to be dancing a strange tarmac ballet.
“It [the flight plan] has to be crystal clear when you walk to your jet,” says Phillipe Duchateau, Dassault’s test pilot. “If not, chances are you’ll screw up, since there’s not much thinking capacity left when pulling 9 Gs.” To him, any airplane demands respect. “You can have 5,000 hours on fast jets and still kill yourself in a Cessna trying to impress your grandma.”
Airshow officials ground pilots for any deviation from the box. Thanks to strict safety rules, few test pilots have crashed at airshows in recent years. But going back a few decades, there have been tragedies, such as two test pilots who fatally crashed the Northrop F-20 Tigershark during demonstrations in the mid-1980s. Northrop failed to sell a single F-20 (see “The Airplane Nobody Wanted,” Aug./Sept. 2000). The Soviets lost two Tu-144 supersonic transports, one at the 1973 Paris Air Show in an accident that killed all six people on board and eight more on the ground, and destroyed 15 houses. They failed to sell the Tu-144 abroad, and Aeroflot retired it in 1978.
“There’s an old saying that’s been kicked around,” says Troy Pennington, who flew for the Marine Corps for two decades before he became Lockheed Martin’s F-16 test pilot. “ ‘Are you lucky, or are you good?’ Risk management is something of a pervasive attitude for us.” The day of the show, Pennington repeats the display in his mind countless times, and refers to his deep concentration as “being in the bubble.” Two hours early, he heads to the portable maintenance shed near the runway. “When I come out to the airplane, all my maintenance guys are out there and we’re jokin’. But there’s a point in time where I will walk away to be by myself in the bubble.”
The job attracts the sort of pilot able to handle high levels of corporate expectations and public scrutiny. Candidates are chosen from an international military pool and all the top test pilot schools—Pennington, for instance, graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland, and has more than 6,000 hours in 31 aircraft types.
All the test pilots who will fly at Aero India are superachievers, and the corporations they work for are highly competitive. “It’s like watching caged wrestlers in a slap-down fight,” says Traven, referring to the intense corporate elbowing already in progress.