Air Force Test Pilots Risk Everything So Others Don’t Have To
By Chad Stewart
From a lay person’s perspective, the job of a military test pilot may seem filled with death-defying stunts and near-misses.
That would be the Hollywood version.
Test pilots and engineers work for months—even years—to ensure that each flight is boring and uneventful. They continually focus on planning for every contingency, every possible scenario, to make the test as safe as possible. They live their professional lives on the edge, but not the edge of death. It’s the leading edge, where knowledge, preparation and experience combine to help make pilots’ jobs safer.
“There is a saying in flight testing that you cannot go flying until the weight of the paper equals the weight of the airplane,” said Air Force Major Mark Jones Jr., a former C-17 pilot who now flies as an instructor. “That ‘paper’ includes test plans, safety analyses, etcetera. We work hard to plan for contingencies. We cannot anticipate them all, but we try to.”
The planning for a test flight often takes weeks or months and includes numerous meetings and significant time in simulators.
“Simulators are a training environment that provides as much realism as possible. Training in them helps to reduce risks inherent with flight test,” said Jones. “Almost every flight test program includes an evaluation of elements of the aircraft design in a simulator.”
Sometimes the simulation is nothing more than a desktop computer and an office chair. On other occasions, it is a machine rigged with wires, computers, some aircraft components and a cockpit. A fully developed simulation “lets [pilots] establish procedures, check sub-systems and software. It may not be a realistic representation of how the aircraft will feel when we fly it, but it does help us prepare,” he said.
The time spent in the simulator can total a few hours or a few weeks, depending on the test the pilot is preparing for. Even with years of experience in a given aircraft, Jones said pilots will still duplicate high-risk maneuvers in a simulator before going airborne and attempting the real thing.
For test pilots, the planning doesn’t start with meetings, simulators and mathematical equations. It starts when they enter the Air Force Academy, or in Jones’ case, in childhood.
“As far back as the eighth grade I had a laser-sharp focus on what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was quoted saying ‘I want to go the Air Force Academy, become a test pilot and eventually be an astronaut.’” He’s reached two of his three stated goals and still has his eye on the third.
Simply having an immense number of flight hours under your belt isn’t enough to test planes for the Air Force. A background in mathematics, physics or engineering is almost mandatory. Jones, who received his degree in mathematics from the Academy, said the technical background needed to be an experimental test pilot eliminates more than 90 percent of the pilot pool.
For him, that wasn’t an issue. “I was attracted to the synthesis of technical expertise in science, engineering and math and being on the edge of the envelope as an aviator. I’ve been interested in math for as long as I can remember being interested in aviation.”
After graduating from the Air Force Academy and completing graduate studies in Hawaii, Jones spent nine years flying C-17s for the service. He deployed numerous times, flying hundreds of sorties over Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. After years in the C-17, Jones was accepted into the highly selective Air Force Test Pilot School. As a member of a 20-person class, he spent a year at Edwards Air Force Base living a pilot’s dream, flying 30 different aircraft as part of the curriculum. Jones and his classmates flew Air Force, Navy and British fighters, cargo jets, tankers, helicopters and trainers.
While at Edwards, he had the opportunity to fly the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a close air support jet. While the fixed-wing aircraft has a proven track record in combat, it only has one seat. The Air Force doesn’t own any two-seaters, so when students take their first flight in the plane, they fly solo. Jones had ground and simulator training prior to flying the Warthog, but there was no substitute for the real thing.
“The nerves go away once you start running checklists and doing procedures. I always find myself checking and re-checking things multiple times in those situations. My mind is always working, staying ahead of the aircraft. … I’m too busy to be nervous.”
Regardless of how prepared a test pilot is, the flights are still dangerous. After all, these are tests that are often designed to push the limits of an airplane.
“There are times when we are doing things with an airplane that have never been done before,” said Jones, who was the Air Force’s chief test pilot for the C-17 when he left active duty in 2011.
During his years conducting C-17 flight tests, he performed record-setting airdrops with heavy weights, experimental platforms and experimental parachutes.
“Our simulators could not accurately simulate [the airdrops]. We had an idea about what it should look like, but it was all new,” he said.
He also was member of a C-17 crew that conducted “science projects” for NASA, dropping an Orion spacecraft and an Ares rocket—part of the since-cancelled Constellation program—out the aft end of his plane. While the Ares test was successful, the Orion drop was a failure, albeit a spectacular one. Although the payload departed the C-17 without incident, the Orion’s parachutes failed, sending the spacecraft to its demise in the Arizona desert.
Jones, now a reservist, instructs military aviators and works as a civilian test pilot. He’s flown thousands of hours in military and civilian aircraft and has been fortunate to only have a handful of life-threatening incidents occur, though not in the air. Most of the close calls have happened on the ground.
“One time I was cleared for takeoff and, as I always do, I clear the final approach path for airplanes, [which is] like checking both ways before crossing a street. An airplane was about to land and would have hit me if I had pulled out onto the runway without checking. It was a mistake by the controller.”
Jones said there is a maxim in flight testing that suggests more airplanes are lost during ordinary testing than while performing dangerous maneuvers. “Sometimes, it seems we let our guard down during the ‘routine tests’ and that’s when accidents happen.”
He hasn’t had many close calls in the air, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t cheated death during his aviation career.
“Looking back on several situations, I’ve realized if one more thing had gone wrong, we could have crashed or died,” he said. “Every time an airplane accident occurs somewhere in the world, I stop and think, ‘that could have been me.’ I take a hard look at my habits, my airmanship and flight discipline to make sure I’m doing my part.”
–Chad Stewart is the senior editor of On Patrol.
Every day, America’s service members selflessly put their lives on the line to keep us safe and free. Please take a moment to let our troops know how much we appreciate their service and sacrifice.