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
Test pilot Bill Vavra is doing what test pilots do—hurtling across the sky in his company’s newest carbon-fiber screamer. In front of him, beyond the EFIS, IAPS, and several other acronyms associated with such high-flying enterprises, is a nine-foot nose-mounted boom filled with sensors connected to gauges. Behind him sits an instrument bay loaded with the latest in electronic tell-me-how-I’m-doing hardware. And to his right, just beyond the switch-laden center console and the throttle quadrant, is a reporter looking for something…well, something test-piloty.
“Let me think about that one,” Vavra says as he casually demonstrates the engine-out performance of this experimental Raytheon prototype—the Premier-I, a seven-passenger, 530-mph business jet—high over the winter wheat of south Wichita. “There was this one time when during this one test flight that I had this one problem…”
Vavra, a six-year Air Force veteran with well over 17,000 hours in high-performance jets under his Nomex belt, tells his tale of a general aviation flight test “near thing”: “We were returning from a test flight with a brand-new airplane and I couldn’t lower the landing gear, which, as you know, makes for poor taxiing qualities. So I told the tower we needed to look at the situation and flew off to a practice area.”
Kicking into a civilian approximation of Right Stuff mode, Vavra and his flight test engineer began furiously digging through manuals and assessing the situation. Suddenly, the gear popped out. That is pretty much the whole story. No dramatic maneuvering, no foamed runway and meat wagons lined up along the landing threshold. Nothing too test-piloty there.
“Sorry,” Vavra says. “But this is general aviation flight test. Not Hollywood flight test.”
Maybe Hollywood did exaggerate the danger and glamour of flight test a little with Clark Gable, seen running daringly in and out of luck and Myrna Loy’s arms in 1938’s Test Pilot. In that film, co-star Spencer Tracy upbraids the wide-eyed ingenue Loy: “You little fool! Don’t you know it is even dangerous to look at an airplane?” But soon life imitated art. Think of Chuck Yeager pushing his X-1 past the sound barrier in 1947, or the X-15 pilots toying with the edge of space in the 1960s, or any of today’s test pilots throwing fresh-off-the-drawing-board fighter jets around the sky above Edwards Air Force Base.
That’s not general aviation flight test, and it’s doubtful that a Hollywood producer would ever come looking for Bill Vavra or, even less likely, production test pilot Barton Jones.
“I have a wife and two boys ages nine and eight,” the 42-year-old Jones says. “We are active in Cub Scouts and camping and fishing, and that is the way I like it. I do not want to give up flying but I want a normal family life also.”
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…
“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.”
What it does take to be an experimental test pilot is apparently not so much flying ability as assessment ability. Sure, you have to keep on target with climbs, dives, stalls, and even level flight within certain parameters, but ask any of these guys and he will tell you that most pilots can eventually learn to do that within acceptable levels. What sets them apart is their investigative nature, background in engineering, knowledge of what it takes to get FAA certification, and tolerance for paperwork and more paperwork. “There is an old saying in flight test,” Preston says: “An airplane doesn’t get off the ground until the paperwork at least equals its gross weight.”
While advances in the science of aviation have diluted some of the wild experimentation in experimental test flying, there are still problems that require a certain amount of seat-of-the-pants flying ability. Just this past year, test pilots at both Cessna and Piper were forced to declare in-flight emergencies and land their experimental prototypes on highways.
And experimental flights can have even more dire consequences. In 1980, Canadair’s new Challenger corporate jet prototype crashed, killing its chief test pilot, after an angle-of-attack indicator malfunctioned and the airplane stalled (another malfunction kept a temporarily deployed “spin chute” from separating from the aircraft after being engaged). In the course of testing its single-engine composite design over the years, relative newcomer Cirrus Design Corporation has experienced several crashes, resulting in the deaths of three test pilots, including former military test pilot and NASA astronaut Robert Overmyer in 1996.
While tragic to the experimental flight test community, hazard is expected from time to time. But experimental test pilots are also sometimes asked to revisit proven general aviation designs that have already passed the certification process and are flown on a daily basis by just plain folks with private or recreational ratings. And these programs can be just as hazardous as any initial flight test program.
“It was in April of 1966, the same week I was selected for the astronaut program,” recalls Apollo crew member Fred Haise, now a semi-retired aviation consultant. “This test almost ended my astronaut career before it got started.”
Haise was flying as a test pilot for NASA at Edwards Air Force Base in California when a call came in from the FAA. “They asked us to do a program on the Piper Twin Comanche which had a couple of accidents in which the tail came off in flight,” he says. For the former fighter pilot, flight test was flight test no matter if the airplane redlined at 190 knots or Mach 2. So he set about planning and flying a series of incrementally faster test flights trying to find out why the Twin Comanche’s tails were failing. “I would put it in a dive and when the airspeed stabilized at the number I wanted I would chop the yoke—hit it with my hand trying to induce an unstable series of oscillations that can mean real trouble for an airplane.” One day Haise chopped the yoke and the Comanche chopped back. “It was like riding a jackhammer,” he says. “I couldn’t read the instruments. I couldn’t get the controls to respond. But we got good data.”
The Comanche’s tail failed, but fortunately did not tear off the airplane, and the future lunar module pilot was able to land the crippled twin on Edwards’ dry lake. As a result of Haise’s experience, the FAA sent out an airworthiness directive that more than likely saved many lives. “I had a chase plane shooting the whole thing,” Haise adds. “The airplane looks like a bird flapping its wings. I understand the Air Force Test Pilot School still uses the footage as part of its curriculum.”
Test flights that become case studies for budding test pilots are rare. Usually pilots can spend their time doing what they do best: helping make good airplanes better—and having some fun in the process. Back aboard the multi-million-dollar Premier-I prototype, Bill Vavra and I are hauling the mail at 17,000 feet when Vavra suddenly turns to me and offers the controls. “Have some fun,” he says. “Really wring her out.” Soon we are skimming the cloud tops as I do my poor imitation of “really wringing her out.” But as no alarm bells are chiming, Vavra leans back in his seat and smiles. “You want to know what the best part of being a test pilot is?” he says. “This is it. We’re flying a high-performance jet, having a blast, and there is nobody in back so you don’t have to worry about them [dropping] their doughnuts.”