March 1, 2004
Keith Darrow walks out of a cavernous hangar on the edge of the Patuxent River and makes a beeline for what most of us know as a Beechcraft King Air. But unlike most King Air pilots, Darrow and his only passenger wear the dark green Nomex flight suits of military aviators. The insignia on his shoulders identify him as a major in the U.S. Army, and the King Air, officially known as a C-12, is painted in Army colors despite residing at the Navy's Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Darrow and his passenger are both students at the Navy's Test Pilot School and today they're flying to Richmond so Darrow can meet currency requirements in fixed-wing aircraft. As part of today's mission, he'll also teach his passenger, a civilian engineer, some of the finer points of IFR navigation and landing procedures.
Teaching and being a student are familiar roles for Darrow. While in the Army, he has accumulated two master's degrees. His favorite Army job, besides attending the Navy's Test Pilot School, has been as an instructor pilot in the Cobra attack helicopter.
Darrow is a man whose love for all things flying is infectious. It's a passion that goes back to his hometown of Lewiston, Idaho, when he was just a kid living a few blocks away from the airport. Like many older pilots who trace their first flight to the barnstormer at the county fair, Darrow points to its modern incarnation: a helicopter thrill ride when he was 12 years old. A year or so later a school report led him to visit the local control tower, and by age 15 he was washing dishes and busing tables to pay for flying lessons. At 17 he climbed into a Cessna 172 for a 300-mile round-trip flight to the nearest flight examiner. "There went all my dishwashing money."
When it was time for college, Darrow was confronted by a situation few have seen: simultaneous appointments to the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy, the Coast Guard Academy, the Merchant Marine Academy, and West Point. Darrow, who is interested in history as well, chose West Point because of its traditions — and nobody has more helicopters than the Army.
In his Army career, he's earned a master's degree in aerospace engineering and one in national security. While working on his engineering masters at Georgia Tech, Darrow used his spare time to get his commercial rating. When the Army tapped him to teach aerospace engineering at West Point, where he used a Cessna 182 as a flying classroom, he made time to earn his CFI rating. But he considered the Navy's Test Pilot School to be one of the greatest challenges — and the biggest plum — of his career.
The school is small and the competition is so tough that it took Darrow 13 years to get in. As a test-pilot student, he faced 12- to 14-hour workdays and separation from his wife and two children. Despite the demands, Darrow was delighted. "It's a perfect job for me. It combines my love of flying with my academic interest. Where else can you go and fly so many different aircraft? This is the candy store for pilots." As part of his one-year tenure at the Test Pilot School, he flew up to 26 different types of aircraft from taildraggers, to floatplanes, to supersonic aircraft, to Russian helicopters. He also flew the school's glider. "At the top of a loop, it gets unearthly quiet. It's the quietest I've ever been in an aircraft." Darrow chuckles and adds, "Kinda spooky."
Darrow says his general aviation experience was a big help in becoming a test pilot. "As you progress from the private pilot standards, to the commercial standards, to the CFI standards, those [pilot performance] tolerances gradually narrow. Coming into the test-pilot school they're narrowed even further." The lazy 8s, chandelles, and other requirements of those ratings progressively refined his piloting skills and helped ready him to explore flight envelopes at the school. The stall and spin training, he says, "are good examples of the test programs we do here. It's all been a good buildup for this experience. It's led me to where I am today."
Since graduating from the Test Pilot School, Darrow has been promoted to Lt. Colonel and spent this past January studying in-flight aircraft ice accumulation. "How odd to be intentionally searching out heavy icing conditions. Very much contrary to my early training as a general aviation pilot," he says.
When asked how long he plans to stay in the Army he replies, "As long as they keep giving me great jobs like this. I'll stay as long as they'll have me." But when it's time to reenter civilian life, aviation will still be there. Darrow, who loves to teach, plans to become a CFII and a CFI in helicopters.
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