Supersonic Sales Call

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

A U.S. Navy pilot briefs an Indian reporter before a VIP flight at Aero India in 2007. (Kevin Flynn/Boeing)
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However, with safety a chief concern, pilots often put aside competition in favor of cooperation. They see one another regularly at all the shows, and in some cases have known one another for years.

“In our opinion there is no competition when you get on that side of the ramp,” said Lockheed’s Pennington on a July day last year. He pointed toward where the demonstration jets were parked beyond throngs of well-heeled businessmen at the Farnborough International Air Show in Hampshire, England. (“Farnborough,” as it is known, is held every other summer to alternate with the Paris Air Show.) “We leave the competition…over here with the guys in suits. The airshow pilot business is camaraderie. It’s a club.”

Traven, who also flew at Farnborough last summer, agrees that the competing pilots look out for one another. “I’ve literally climbed down from the cockpit at the end of a demo, run over to the Russian plane waiting to take off, and crawled up the ladder to tell him the tower is calling the clouds at 4,000 feet when they’re really at 3,000.”

For big airshows, these pilots train for months, and in Traven’s case attend to details as specific as the content of daily meals. Each day’s preparation is an exact replica of the previous one, with his display coach, safety officer, and an engineer constantly assessing the routine’s risk levels. Traven flies the Super Hornet with plenty of room for error 5,000 feet above the Florida coast near Cecil Field to define the box in which he maneuvers. He repeats the display twice daily, creating a descending “ground line” in the sky until he brings the performance down to 500 feet above the runway.

Why Cecil Field? It’s the southernmost facility in the United States where Boeing can support F/A-18 operations. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s like Bangalore, where, despite being 3,000 feet above sea level, it can be 100 degrees Fahrenheit in February. It makes sense to practice in a similar climate to pinpoint how the engines and flight control surfaces will respond. “I can’t find a hot spot in the U.S. 3,000 feet above sea level,” Traven says.

In November Traven traveled to India to further prepare for the February show. “I met with the airshow organizer,” he says. “I met with the guy that will be the air boss in charge of actual flying displays.” It’s about familiarization with the base, landmarks, and flying rules. He then assembles a routine he can do in his sleep.

Aero India will differ from the other major international shows. “We’re not flying the Indian show for a host of countries,” says Traven. “We’re flying the show for India. That is a very focused and intentional airshow. There’s a lot at stake. There’s a lot of pressure.”

Nonetheless, Farnborough, which, along with Paris, has become known for major orders of airliners, still offered a good audition for all the fighter pilots honing their acts for India. And those routines took off and landed rapid-fire, as they do at all the big international shows. The most marked difference between a corporate test pilot’s demonstration flight at Farnborough, Paris, or Aero India and a military pilot’s recruiting flight at a military airshow is that the corporate pilot is given much less time—rarely more than six minutes, sometimes as much as eight, as will be allotted at Aero India. That’s because there’s plenty of business to take care of on the ground at a corporate show.

“These international shows, they’re more tradeshow than airshow,” says Traven. “They’re filled with contractors that supply the industry. There are hangars full of them. You almost have to go see it to believe it.” With meetings and negotiations starting early in the morning and running through the day, he says, the noise and spectacle of a fighter demo create a distraction. So all the flying happens in a few scheduled hours, say noon to 3 p.m., and the pilots are expected to observe strict time limits.

“It is a very exhilarating six minutes,” says Pennington. “It is a helmet fire, and it’s very busy, physically demanding, physically straining and stressful, mentally stressful, both in the preparation and actually in the event itself.”

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