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 4 of 5)
Why Cecil Field? It’s the southernmost facility in the United States where Boeing can support F/A-18 operations. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s like Bangalore, where, despite being 3,000 feet above sea level, it can be 100 degrees Fahrenheit in February. It makes sense to practice in a similar climate to pinpoint how the engines and flight control surfaces will respond. “I can’t find a hot spot in the U.S. 3,000 feet above sea level,” Traven says.
In November Traven traveled to India to further prepare for the February show. “I met with the airshow organizer,” he says. “I met with the guy that will be the air boss in charge of actual flying displays.” It’s about familiarization with the base, landmarks, and flying rules. He then assembles a routine he can do in his sleep.
Aero India will differ from the other major international shows. “We’re not flying the Indian show for a host of countries,” says Traven. “We’re flying the show for India. That is a very focused and intentional airshow. There’s a lot at stake. There’s a lot of pressure.”
Nonetheless, Farnborough, which, along with Paris, has become known for major orders of airliners, still offered a good audition for all the fighter pilots honing their acts for India. And those routines took off and landed rapid-fire, as they do at all the big international shows. The most marked difference between a corporate test pilot’s demonstration flight at Farnborough, Paris, or Aero India and a military pilot’s recruiting flight at a military airshow is that the corporate pilot is given much less time—rarely more than six minutes, sometimes as much as eight, as will be allotted at Aero India. That’s because there’s plenty of business to take care of on the ground at a corporate show.
“These international shows, they’re more tradeshow than airshow,” says Traven. “They’re filled with contractors that supply the industry. There are hangars full of them. You almost have to go see it to believe it.” With meetings and negotiations starting early in the morning and running through the day, he says, the noise and spectacle of a fighter demo create a distraction. So all the flying happens in a few scheduled hours, say noon to 3 p.m., and the pilots are expected to observe strict time limits.
“It is a very exhilarating six minutes,” says Pennington. “It is a helmet fire, and it’s very busy, physically demanding, physically straining and stressful, mentally stressful, both in the preparation and actually in the event itself.”
“You barely get to breathe,” says Traven. “It’s really like one continuous maneuver. You’re in afterburner almost the whole time. I burn a thousand pounds [of fuel] a minute.” Because he chooses to carry stores under the wing to portray the airplane in an operational configuration, Traven has to counter drag, and uses the afterburners that much more. By contrast, the ordinary military pilot at a Memorial Day show at some U.S. Air Force base might be in afterburner only about half the total flight time, he says.
To keep things short, corporate show pilots have to perform within that imaginary box right over the runway. In the case of Paris, the constraints also keep performers away from airline traffic at nearby Charles de Gaulle International Airport. Military pilots at a military show, on the other hand, get to stretch out in a radius perhaps five miles around the show center, while enjoying 15 or 20 minutes to set up and execute an array of graceful maneuvers. Shows by Britain’s Red Arrows or the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds exceed half an hour.