Back to Basics

GA airplanes teach military test pilots how to fly

April 1, 2002

Fifty miles southeast of Washington, D.C., where the Patuxent River meets the Chesapeake Bay, a U.S. Navy aviation officer crosses the ramp at the Navy's Test Pilot School. In his wake, a small group of general aviation pilots from the Virginia Aviation Museum follow, their heads swiveling like fighter pilots as they take in the activity surrounding them. A T-38 Talon taxis past, looking for a place to park as a pair of F-18 Hornets make an earsplitting formation departure. Overhead, a V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, still in flight testing, banks away and disappears behind a row of hangars.

Amid the sexy jets, you might overlook a few aircraft more familiar to civilian aviators. Sitting humbly on the ramp amid the silently squatting Black Hawk helicopters and sleek T-38s are a bright-red Pitts S-2A and an orange-and-white de Havilland Otter.

The noise is loud enough to rattle your intestines, and conversation is a labored exercise. "What's with the Otter and the Pitts? Are they part of a flying club?" comes a shouted question.

"No, they're here to teach the guys how to fly," responds the Navy commander. His answer is met with disbelief mixed with confusion. The officer, catching the expressions, grins and leans forward to make himself heard. "You have to understand that these are largely fleet pilots coming here. They're used to flying F-18s and F-14s. We use those aircraft to show them how hard flying really is."

In one of the best examples of the importance of flying fundamentals, the Navy takes its future test pilots, some of the best fliers in the fleet, and teaches them to fly lowly taildraggers. Struggling down the runway in the midst of a Chesapeake Bay crosswind are the future trailblazers in military aviation. For pilots who have thousands of hours in some of the most advanced aircraft that America offers, flying the taildraggers is a humbling experience.

Back in the early 1940s, the Navy established a flight-testing facility at Patuxent River Naval Air Station — "Pax River" as the sprawling air base is colloquially known — and an informal test pilot school soon evolved for fixed-wing pilots. In 1948 the school was formalized and graduated its first class after a six-month program. The school, one of only five test pilot schools in the world, currently graduates 72 students a year divided between two staggered classes of 36. The syllabus has doubled in length, and the yearlong program now includes a rotary-wing curriculum. Graduates are expected to take new aircraft designs and modifications and test how well they perform. The goal is to identify deficiencies and evaluate how the new designs fit into current needs and missions. "The bottom line is that we want to field the best possible equipment for the guys around the world in military missions," says Army Maj. Keith Darrow, a student at the school. Students still come from the fleet, but they are regularly joined by exchange students from the Coast Guard, the Air Force, and foreign countries. Because the Army has provided aircraft for the school's use, the Navy now trains all Army test pilots as well. Even nonpilot civilian engineers, wearing the same green flight suits, are found wandering the halls with the same notebooks and harried expressions as their military counterparts.

From the beginning, civilian engineers have been students at the school because it stresses the pilot/engineer team. When engineers design a test that requires the pilot to hold a 6-G maneuver for a prolonged period of time, they may not realize what that test does to the human being piloting the aircraft. Going through the school gives engineers an appreciation for the physical and piloting demands of aircraft testing. To relate to the engineers, pilots in turn learn the complex math and concepts of aerodynamic engineering. "Having a pilot who can talk the engineering talk is important to keeping a project going," says avionics instructor Jim Lewis.

Even though many engineers are given the opportunity to fly the school's aircraft, "We don't teach anybody how to fly," says Les Scott, technical director of the school. Pilots who attend "should be able to read a book and walk out and fly an aircraft they have never flown before. If they are not capable of doing that, if they are not happy doing that, then they should go back to what they were doing before."

To get into the school, a pilot must apply like any high school senior wanting to go to college. And the competition for placement is tough. Pilots are selected by a board of officers who look at a candidate's flight time, leadership skills, and service record. While 1,000 flight hours are desired, there is no minimum. And with budget problems affecting flight time across all branches of the military, today's students enter the school with fewer hours than in the past. Students tend to be 30- to 35-year-old men, largely because so few women are currently flying on active duty. On average, only one to two women join each class, a figure that the Navy hopes will grow in the future. Because candidates are scrutinized closely, and the skill level of applicants is so high, the washout rate is low and most classes graduate with all their members. The new test pilot, who is now committed to an additional three years of service, is usually sent to one of three test directorates at the base: Strike for F-14 Tomcats, EA-6B Prowlers, and F-18 Hornets; Rotary for helicopters; and Force for C-130 and P-3 aircraft.

The school sits tucked into one corner of the base, right on the edge of the Patuxent River. During World War II, seaplanes used to waddle in and out of the river and hangar in the huge structures that came to house the school. More than one instructor recalls the time when he was a student himself, struggling to master aerodynamic theories and complex math in the unairconditioned hangar, as the echoing sounds of engines and mechanics threatened to drown out the instructors. It wasn't until 1993 that the new "schoolhouse" was built on the rise overlooking the hangar and ramp.

Walking through the halls you come to sense the history that has passed through the school's doors. Along one hall are flags of the various countries that have supplied students and glass cases displaying intricately painted models of the school's aircraft through the years. But most inspiring is an informal "hall of honor" filled with photographs of some of the more noted graduates. Among the names are Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Jim Lovell, and Charles Conrad. For pilots who want to become astronauts, this is the place to be, and some of the students will admit to such goals.

The demands on students are high. In theory, each day includes four hours of academic work and four hours of flying activities. But reality is something different. "We have more stuff to do than time to do it in," says Marine Maj. Randy Bresnik, an 1,800-hour F/A-18C pilot. His typical school day starts at six a.m. when he heads to the gym for a workout. Then he's off to the schoolhouse where he briefs his morning flight from 7:30 to 9. He flies from 9 to 10:30 and then debriefs until almost noon. He grabs a quick lunch and tries to get ready for class at 12:30 p.m. When class ends four hours later, he does academic work until going home at 9 p.m. where he studies till 11 p.m. "I don't know how the married guys do it," Bresnik says. "I can't imagine coming here and doing this with a family."

One thing that helps with the stress is the fact that the school posts no grades. In the competitive environment that is the norm for military pilots, some find that refreshing. "There's so much to learn here from everybody else," says Bresnik. "The de-emphasis of weekly standing really enhances the learning environment. People are a lot more open to sharing and asking for help from their classmates. If there is no number one, you don't worry about who is number two."

Students, says Scott, are competitive enough when they arrive, and grading would only feed the fires. As technical director, Scott is responsible for the school's civilian staff. Like most of the staff, he's also a graduate and a man who seems to relish his Army origins in this Navy environment. "We try everything we know to keep them from competing with each other. We go out of our way to foster the idea of being a mentor."

Students are judged against an accepted rate of progression in the curriculum and not by the airspeeds or roll rates they find in any given aircraft. "The questions," says Scott, "are all good, but the answer depends on the aircraft, the mission, and the experience that they bring to the answer. One question can have multiple correct answers." The school is less interested in how a measurement is made than how well it is expressed. "We're trying to teach them to communicate. We don't worry too much about the details. If they can support their conclusions with their data, we don't fight them."

The final exam for the school is the DT2 (Developmental Testing Phase 2) report. It's a flight-test program that can take place anywhere in the world in any aircraft. One of the most important aspects of the report is that it must be about an aircraft the student has never flown before. It can be anything from a Russian helicopter to a Japanese multiengine seaplane to an advanced European or Israeli fighter. The report is a 150-page, single-spaced document that describes virtually everything there is to know about the flight characteristics of the subject aircraft. It builds on a student's every experience and is why the school goes to extremes to expose them to as many different types of aircraft as possible. To give that exposure, the school has one of the largest squadrons and the most diverse group of aircraft in the entire Navy.

Walking through the hangar, a visitor is likely to find F-18 Hornets, T-2 Buckeyes, T-38 Talons, a variable-stability SH-60B Seahawk helicopter, de Havilland Otters and Beavers, and a Schweizer X26A glider — all painted in Navy colors. In addition, there will be Army OH-58C Kiowas, UH?60 Black Hawks, and C-12 King Airs. And if the ramp and hangar were large enough, the school's P-3 Orion would be there as well. But even such a diverse group of aircraft is not enough. The school contracts out for additional aircraft for short-term deployment. Don't be surprised to see a Pitts S-2A, T-28 Trojan, or a variable-stability Learjet sitting on the ramp. In the past, students have been given access to float-equipped Cessnas and flights in the P-51 Crazy Horse. The various military branches routinely bring in aircraft such as the B-1, the U2, F-16, and C-130, as well as foreign aircraft such as the British Jaguar and French Mirage. Even attack helicopters such as the Italian Mangusta and Russian Mi-24 Hind have made visits. By the time a student graduates, he will have flown approximately 25 different aircraft.

"The point is to get as broad a view of aviation as possible," says Navy Commander Bob Stoney, the executive officer of the school. "How do you train people to adapt to new situations? By throwing them into as wide a range of aircraft as we can and forcing them to adapt." To underscore the point, one instructor referred to the V-22 Osprey undergoing testing at the base. "What kind of guy do you get to test that? Do you get a helicopter guy or a fixed-wing guy? By the time a guy gets out of here he's flown everything from a Pitts to a Boeing 707."

The variety of experience excites many of the students. "One of the reasons to come here is to have the opportunity to fly all the different aircraft," Bresnik says. "It gives you a thirst for all types of flying." Bresnik recently flew the school's Beaver for the first time. "It was unlike anything I had flown before. And it sounds just like in the movies," Bresnik says. "Flying an F-18 is fun, but flying the Beaver around at 500 feet and then landing on the grass is so cool! It's like driving my jeep down a dirt road, bouncing all over the place. But this is an airplane!"

Jerry Gallaher is a wiry man with a devilish twinkle in his eye. He's known as the "Spin Master" because he heads up spin training, his favorite flight maneuver. He's also a graduate of the school and has more than 1,000 hours instructing in its Otter. Like most of his students, he made his first tailwheel flight at the school. "I was amazed that anybody survived flight training in taildraggers to achieve anything in aviation. I think you need a healthy respect for these airplanes," Gallaher says. Students can't check out in the taildraggers, unlike other aircraft at the school. They must have an instructor along during their six hours of flight time.

"F-14 and F-18 pilots come in, and they're used to powered flight controls and they're used to stable airplanes. They generally make small corrections," says Gallaher. "Taildraggers are different. They're gust sensitive, and as soon as they touch the ground they're unstable. It's like driving a sports car with power steering and comparing that to driving an old pickup truck backwards at the same speed." Gallaher leans back, arms and legs sticking straight out before they begin gyrating wildly, his eyes a vision of mock horror. "Typically they look like this, particularly during landing."

Navy Lt. Tom Tennant, another F-18 pilot, is taking a break during his busy day as a student. He sits in a snack area with huge windows overlooking the ramp and hangars behind him. He's just been asked about his first flight in a tailwheel airplane, a de Havilland Beaver. His immediate reaction is to send his arms and legs into a brief fit of gyrations. Settling down with a grin spreading across his face he adds, "Probably the most challenging flight I've had here." He leans back in his seat, and with candor you might not expect of a fighter pilot says, "My first takeoff was plus or minus 25 degrees of the runway heading." Suddenly he blurts brightly, "But I kept it on the runway!" He laughs before continuing. "It was real humbling. I didn't need to exercise that day because my legs were sore when I got out." When asked how his first aircraft carrier landing compared to his first Beaver landing, Tennant replies, "About equal."

"You can brief all you want, but until you land it — you don't quite believe it till you see it," Tennant says of the Beaver. The best lesson of taildragger flying, Tennant adds, "is the requirement to actually fly the airplane from the moment you leave the chocks till you return to the chocks." It's a change of pace for these high-tech pilots. In a modern electronic jet like the F-18 and F-14, the pilot is merely "a voting member of the aircraft crew" and the aircraft's computer decides whether his vote even counts. As Bresnik puts it: "Flying the F-18 becomes second and employing the weapons systems becomes what you concentrate on. Reversing that is rejuvenating. You're back to the basics."

Tim Wright is an aviation writer and photographer who has piloted everything from powered parachutes to C-130s.