Test Pilot: 101

Test Pilot, one of the most glamorous titles for a pilot, right? Well, sort of. The adage goes, if you deviate from limits or design you become a test pilot. This usually is intended to make you think twice before deviating from said limits and/or design. In the movies the Test Pilot usually pulls up just before impacting terra firma, or in the more intense films he ends up climbing out of the smoking or maybe not. The realities of flight testing seem to be that it is a much more mundane job, or at least it is supposed to be. When it gets exciting, something has gone wrong.

None of this comes from experience as of yet, it comes from doing some research on test flying amateur-built experimental aircraft. I have been wanting to build or restore an airplane for a long time and as the primary worker-bee I want the spoils of war, namely, I wan to test fly my work. Many experimental builders think of the test period required for the airworthiness certificate is just the need to fly off the 40 hours without attracting any attention from the FAA or NTSB; this was never how I saw the test flight. I had always planned on a full and thorough flight test program but I wasn’t really sure what that was.

Flight testing is apparently akin to an aviation black-magic that only a few initiates have a deeper understanding of, or at least that what it seemed like. After poking around on the internet for a couple of years I gathered a few resources but was still somewhat in the dark. Many moons ago I put a book on my Amazon wishlist “Flight Testing Homebuilt Aircraft” by Vaughan Askue. This was the only reasonably priced reference book I could find and it didn’t require an engineering degree to read the table of contents. This week I finally purchased the book. I am only about half way through and already I have had dozens of ah-ha moments of clarity that merged my pilot brain and mechanic brain in a way that they both benefited from the point.

As I said, I’m only about half way through this reading, I am sure I will be reading this book several more times. The biggest thing I have learned is that a good flight test program begins long before a single part is constructed or reconstructed as the case may be. Since I am inclined to move into restorations what this means for me is that I need to start thinking about the flight test program before I start the work.

By approaching the restoration as a test pilot as well as a mechanic I can head off some of the things that slow down all of the phases of a project, as a mechanic it gives me a closer relationship with the airplane from a systems and structural perspective.

I will be finishing the first read of the book fairly soon and I am looking forward to putting some of this new found  associative knowledge to good use.

Blue skies and tailwinds,