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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“You barely get to breathe,” says Traven. “It’s really like one continuous maneuver. You’re in afterburner almost the whole time. I burn a thousand pounds [of fuel] a minute.” Because he chooses to carry stores under the wing to portray the airplane in an operational configuration, Traven has to counter drag, and uses the afterburners that much more. By contrast, the ordinary military pilot at a Memorial Day show at some U.S. Air Force base might be in afterburner only about half the total flight time, he says.

To keep things short, corporate show pilots have to perform within that imaginary box right over the runway. In the case of Paris, the constraints also keep performers away from airline traffic at nearby Charles de Gaulle International Airport. Military pilots at a military show, on the other hand, get to stretch out in a radius perhaps five miles around the show center, while enjoying 15 or 20 minutes to set up and execute an array of graceful maneuvers. Shows by Britain’s Red Arrows or the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds exceed half an hour.

Not so in Traven’s world. “There’s a relevance for every maneuver I do, and that’s to display the capabilities of the plane to the military operational pilot and senior decision makers.”

Still, he says, part of his job is to go “beyond extremes, so that the end-user, when he needs it, can push within a window of safety. We don’t fly up to the ‘edge,’ we go over the cliff. We then come back and we draw a line in the sand for others that says, ‘Cliff here.’ ”

The gee-whiz factor of a public display is undeniably important. Says Dave Desmond, another Boeing test pilot, “The international airshow scene caters to two fronts: the public that attends to enjoy the thrill and the noise, but who probably doesn’t fully appreciate the significance of the maneuvering dynamics, and the potential customer, who is keenly assessing the capabilities being displayed.”

“You want to be able to win the hearts and minds of your customer and the public, and there can’t be room for any disappointment,” says Craig Penrice, a former Eurofighter test pilot. “You can’t replace the moment.” He learned that lesson just before a flight at a foreign airshow when a problem arose with an inertial system that helps control the airplane’s attitude. “From the marketing standpoint, there was an expectation level [to take off], but I had to cancel the flight,” says Penrice. The company eventually made the sale, but “we learned to always bring two airplanes.”

With multiple airplanes on hand, the six companies and their pilots, ready for business, head to India. There they’ll light the afterburners and trace out their Power Point presentations in the sky, and hope to win a few hearts, a few minds, and all the dollars. 

Jorge and Karen Escalona wrote “Lockheed’s Missing Link” (June/July 2008).


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