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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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.”

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