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Test Drivers

Behind the glamour boys in X-planes is an entire profession making sure your Cessna has its wings on straight.

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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.”

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