Behind the glamour boys in X-planes is an entire profession making sure your Cessna has its wings on straight.
- By D.C. Agle
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
(Page 2 of 4)
Jones tests factory-fresh aircraft for New Piper in sunny Vero Beach, Florida. It is a career the former aircraft mechanic and agricultural and corporate pilot will be the first to tell you is not exceptionally glamorous. “When I tell someone what I do, they think of the Gary Cooper type, silk scarf and all,” Jones says. “But that type would cost you too much money. What you really want is some guy who has five kids and a mortgage. We are not paid to take chances with someone else’s aircraft. We are paid to bring them home in one piece.”
Production flight test is the most humdrum outpost of the flight test profession. Just as every car rolling off the production line is examined by someone with a keen eye for flaws, and each pair of Fruit of the Looms is perused by Inspector 12, every virgin airframe that rolls out of the factory doors is put under the microscope—both on the ground and in the air—by a production test pilot. It is not always as easy. Even with the advantages of computer-aided design and advanced manufacturing techniques, each airframe is still made by, and every altimeter still bolted in by, a human being—a thought never very far from a production test pilot’s mind. “There is a certain excitement when you are out there and taxiing into position in an aircraft that has never flown before,” explains Frank Martinelli, manager of New Piper’s production flight test program. “You hear the horror stories of aileron control chains coming off during first flights, tools left in the fuselage, and stuff like that. But mostly you just hear of them because it happens so infrequently.”
Perhaps the biggest danger these pilots face is not their untested aircraft but their environment. Piper’s test pilots ply their trade in one of the busiest air corridors in the country, and it is not just the airplanes that get their attention. It’s the feathered creatures who enjoy the same south Florida sunshine and at the same altitude as the pilots. “Let me tell you,” Martinelli says, “if I ingest a bird or something else happens and I lose the engine, I’d rather put it down in the ocean and take my chances with the sharks than go down in the swamps and deal with one of those gators.”
Flying five to seven days a week with an average of five flights per day, production test pilots buzz over a lot of sharks and gators, taking every new airplane to every placarded redline and every minimum flyable whatever. If a twin-engine Seneca is rated to climb at 1,500 feet per minute, they make sure each one does. If the operating manual of a single-engine Archer says the airplane will stall with the gear down at 48 mph, you can be darn sure a Piper pilot has made sure they all stall at 48 mph. By the time the Federal Aviation Administration grants an airplane type a certificate of airworthiness, one or more of Piper’s test pilots will have tested and checked off hundreds of items in a thick Flight Inspection Report. From confirming that the map light works and the trim wheel has no excess friction to making sure the compass is accurate and the cabin defroster is operational, there is no detail too minute for inspection and approval. And with today’s general aviation instrument panels looking more like that of a Super Hornet than the one in the Spirit of St. Louis, it can take four or more flights to check all the mechanical and electronic gear and get it working as advertised.
Which brings us to 700 bumpy feet over Florida swampland. Little more than 10 minutes ago, Jones was soaring 25,000 feet over the Atlantic making sure maintenance crews had fixed a minor glitch in the pressurization system of a Malibu Mirage, an $869,000 single-engine turboprop. Now he’s taking the airplane down among the gators, water moccasins, and buzzards, going flat-out through turbulent air, doing a test the Flight Inspection Report for Model PA46-350P calls “maximum indicated level flight airspeed.” “We run at full power at low altitude to check performance,” Jones says. “If you’ve got good rpm, good fuel flow, and good manifold pressure and you are not flying within a certain known speed range, something is wrong somewhere. Could be airframe-related. A prop could be dragging. Something with a landing gear door. At that point you really do not know what, but you do know you cannot check it off as acceptable.”
A production test pilot taking an airplane on its first flight will always be able to find something that can be tweaked. This particular Malibu has been up three times, with mechanics adjusting a list of ailments in between. Now, with the airspeed indicator reading a right-on-the-money 183 knots, Jones makes one final, satisfied squiggle of his pen and closes the book on the last open question about the Malibu. Of the event, Jones offers no memorable words. Not even a high-five. As he steers for home a couple of buzzards zing past our wingtip. Jones just smiles. “Our competition,” he says.
Upon landing, Jones walks away from this three-quarter-million-dollar machine, which he has taken from the cradle to certified-for-delivery. He will likely never fly the airplane again, or even see it. But there are two other Malibus waiting for first flights, a Seneca that needs its global positioning system re-checked, a couple of Archers that need some tweaking, and a factory cranking out more just behind them. It keeps him busy, and it keeps him flying.
As much flying as Jones and Piper’s other production test pilots logged—well over 7,000 hours each—they could never come close to the king of production flight test. The king does not live in sunny Vero Beach. He lives in landlocked Wichita, Kansas, and is now retired. And does he have some hangar stories…