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A U.S. Navy pilot briefs an Indian reporter before a VIP flight at Aero India in 2007. (Kevin Flynn/Boeing)

Supersonic Sales Call

If you want a customer to spend $10 billion on your jet fighters, you gotta bust some Mach.

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Ricardo Traven, Boeing’s chief corporate test pilot for the Super Hornet, was physically in a briefing room at Naval Air Station Cecil Field near Jacksonville, Florida, one sweaty day last June. But mentally, as he prepared to fly a practice routine in the F/A-18E/F, he was eight months ahead and 10,000 miles away at Aero India, a corporate airshow at Air Force Station Yelahanka, near Bangalore. As he moved the imaginary control stick between his knees, he was flying at 550 mph 200 feet off the ground, competing for one of the biggest fighter contracts in history: 126 aircraft valued at $10 billion.

The potential customer, the Indian air force, is looking to replace its aging fleet of cold war-era MiG-21s. Though India has traditionally looked east for arms, Traven’s job is to fly his F/A-18 so well during the course of the February 11–15 airshow that the business goes to Boeing instead. That means each day at the show, he must put the Super Hornet, 30 percent larger than the original F/A-18, through its most aggressive maneuvers with a couple of tons of armament beneath the wings, afterburners going almost nonstop, in order to convince military and other government brass to buy the aircraft.

“I close my eyes when I go through the routine in my mind,” Traven says of the preflight ritual. “I’m meditating. I visualize every maneuver in my head, taking into account weather and the wind and what I should expect to see as a result of those variables. No surprises.” With precision, he performs eight basic maneuvers, each followed by a repositioning maneuver, all in six minutes, a blur to the spectator but a routine hardwired in Traven’s head. He retraces each one in detail before every flight, practice or primetime.

Okay, so not much different from the way most safety-obsessed show pilots would rehearse their moves. But a bad performance by Traven carries bottom-line, balance-sheet consequences for a global aerospace corporation: diminished prestige, lost revenue, perhaps even the early closing of a production line, with the resulting loss of jobs. He’s well aware that one wrong flinch of the hand on the control stick could send a supersonic sales pitch toward the ground, killing more than just a sale.

The same goes for the other five contenders heading to Bangalore: Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Fighting Falcon; the Eurofighter Typhoon, made by a European consortium led by EADS; the Dassault Rafale from France; the Saab Gripen from Sweden; and the Russian Aircraft Corporation’s MiG-35. The MiG will be the only aircraft to offer thrust-vectoring engines (see “How Things Work: Thrust Vectoring,” June/July 2008), which steer exhaust in any direction and let the jet dance in mid-air. (The thrust-vectoring Lockheed Martin F-22 is not for sale abroad.)

To try to land this contract, each company will rely on a team of professionals, from the CEO to the engineers who build and prep the aircraft. Plenty of corporate schmoozing will happen behind the scenes. But the most visible element of the process is the test pilot, the man who performs the aerial display and gives the test drive. “A chief of an air force,” says Traven, “wants to talk to a pilot.”

Traven might put on a business suit for a company event in the evening, but more likely, he contributes during the day, appearing in the booth, briefing room, or chalet in his flightsuit, available for questions from the people qualified to ask them.

“Any country that evaluates a plane has a team doing it,” says Traven. “On that team will be test pilots who score the aircraft. They need to like the aircraft to recommend it for purchase. So we meet those folks, and take them flying.”

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.

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