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 3 of 4)
“Here is one,” the 92-year old Mort Brown begins. “In the ’60s we were building the Cessna 337 and they flew fine. But then they decided to change the wing and I soon noticed handling problems with the planes I was flying.”
Brown, at the time Cessna’s chief of production test pilots, kept bringing one of the particularly ill-performing twin-tandem-engine 337 Skymasters back from test flights with a bad report card. It was apparently a frustration Cessna’s production manager did not need. After all, it was the production manager’s job to make certain the “production” made money for the company. Yet here was Brown bringing back an airplane again and again, complaining about its flying characteristics. Finally, the production manager decided to tell Brown what was what, explaining in no uncertain terms that there was not a thing wrong with the 337, that engineering had signed off on the new wing and Brown, as a production test pilot, was obligated to sign off on the airplane. Or perhaps find another line of work.
“So I said, ‘Okay, boy, let’s go for a ride,’ ” Brown recalls. “I got us up to 8,000 feet, and sure enough, when I put it into a gentle stall, we rolled up into a right tight beautiful spin and lost 5,000 feet. Now, this particular manager was a pipe smoker, and when we got back on the ground he couldn’t even get the darn thing in his mouth he was shaking so hard.”
After Brown’s passenger got his mouth and his pipe connected, Cessna engineers took a hard look at the newly modified 337 wing. They found that the new production process being used to get a sharper edge on the wing’s leading edge—the rollers would bend the aluminum tighter mid-bend—left a small ridge in the aluminum. While virtually unnoticeable on the ground, in the air the kink induced stalls well above the design airspeed under certain conditions, causing the aircraft to depart from controlled flight. The production process was modified and Brown was vindicated.
For the chief of production test pilots it was a bittersweet victory. Brown was well on his way to an undoubtedly Guinness-worthy 18,000 first flights, and here was a production manager with one eye on the bottom line and the other on Brown, telling him how airplanes flew. “Some people say production flight test is a pushover,” Brown says. “T’aint so. You want top quality but sometimes the stuff leaving the factory is otherwise. You have got to be able to understand what is not right with an airplane when you first fly it and tell the guys on the ground what needs to be fixed and do so quickly enough so that the company still makes money on the deal.”
Every manufacturer of FAA-certificated general aviation aircraft has a production flight test department filled with pilots like Brown, Jones, and Martinelli—company pilots who love their jobs because they spend the majority of their time airborne. But each manufacturer also has another flight test department, where pilots spend considerably more time attending meetings and doing paperwork than flying. These guys, too, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It is our job to break airplanes,” explains 62-year-old former semi-pro baseball player Mike Preston, who helps coax new aircraft designs into production. “We are supposed to push the airplane as hard and as far as it will go within the bounds of what it is supposed to do.” Preston is a freelance test pilot whom Piper is using to bring the new turbine engine Meridian, a state-of-the-art 300-mph aircraft with a completely digital cockpit, to market. To the FAA, this certification means that almost every performance parameter and every imaginable situation that the most ham-handed, lame-brained of licensed pilots can put this new aircraft in will be explored and described in copious detail.
Preston and his peers at Piper’s engineering flight test division are as close to the Hollywood version as you will find in Vero Beach. But after the seventh flight profile, in which you have to hold altitude within five feet and airspeed within half a knot to test cruise performance, the gloss can fade pretty quickly. And then there is dealing with the lesser-mortals thing: “Most people in an aviation company, from the president on down, don’t really know what it takes to get an airplane certified,” Preston says. “I’ve been in some meetings where some of these people come up with the dumbest comments and weirdest ideas because they don’t understand what it takes.”