Category Archives: Test Pilot

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,

This time next week I’ll be sitting in class!!!

I have some more fiberglass work to do today that requires me to leave the house and pick up some materials and supplies over at TAP Plastics. With stuff in hand I can finish the big patch of repairedness by the front door and move on to the next spot tomorrow. There are three spots I have not gotten to yet. If I can get one more done before school starts that will be good. The rest will need to be done on weekends. before the wet season begins.

Not nearly as many projects got finished over the summer as I had planned, and nothing got done on the airplane mostly due to buttstucktochairwhileoncomputeritis; eh, it happens. With any luck being at school will help motivate me to work on weekend projects and if I chunk them down into smaller pieces like paint a wall and not the paint the entire stairwell including floor maybe I can find and keep my motivation to get them done.

It’s kind of funny how I am great at planing and running projects and events in the real world but when it comes to maintenance around the homestead I seem to get stalled-out. Not sure why that is, but I have ideas. We have been here 15 years as of April 1, no joke, that’s our anniversary date here, and I have been itching to move on for several years now. Not like it’s a bad gig or anything, on the contrary, it’s a really good gig that has saved our butts through bad times and has given me opportunities to pursue my own business interests, learn a ton of new skill sets in the outside world, and is now allowing me to go back to school. I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

Speaking about stalled out, the last few weeks have been one of those weight loss plateaus that picks at your resolve to hold fast and keep on track. Well I have kept on track and I am starting to see results again. I am within a few tenths of a pound of my lowest weight in several decades and a few pounds from reaching a benchmark goal. I am still logging my food and exercise and plan to continue with that. A friend recently gave me a bike so now the wife and I can go hit some of the bike trails before the weather turns, in all of my copious amounts of free time of course.

I have made a two year commitment to complete my FAA Airframe and Powerplant mechanic certificates which will be followed with some real world work experience, with any luck anyway. The plan is to start cultivating the contacts and experiences in the restoration world that will position me as a vintage/warbird restoration specialist.

There are other certificates and ratings I want to pick up along the way, most notably a senior parachute rigger certificate which ties in nicely to test piloting aircraft I restore. Another thing high on my list of certificates is to finish my flight instructor and instrument flight instructor tickets. It’s all part of the master plan that I have been working on since 2006.

Sometimes it is hard to believe I have been a pilot since 2004. I want to finish of my first decade as a pilot by reaching several aviation goals but time is quickly slipping away. The AMT program will wrap July of 2013, that will give me till ether April 24 2014, the anniversary of my first flight as a student, or October 11 2014, the date I earned my private pilot certificate. Most likely I’ll run with the October date. That will give me 15 months to reach my other goals after earning my A&P. Hey, all it takes is money and time, right?

FlyBoyJon’s First Decade of Flight Goals

As you can see I am a little better than half way there. It has certainly been an an interesting decade for me and I am looking forward to several more with a lot more aviation.

✔ Private Pilot
✔ Instrument Rating
✔ Commercial Pilot
✔ Advanced Ground Instructor
✔ Instrument Ground Instructor
O Airframe & Powerplant Mechanic
O Flight Instructor
O Instrument Flight Instructor
O Senior Parachute Rigger

As always my friends, blue skies and tailwinds,

life on campus…

Back in January I made some decisions about major changes in my life. I know that making more than one big change in life(style) has consequences and it usually makes it more difficult to succeed in any of the proposed areas of change. Having this information going into this year I set up several goals for myself.

First off was the decision to pursue my aviation career whole-heartedly. I have a large and complex design of what that means, but this is not the forum to go into great detail on that, let’s just say that much of it comes down to credibility, and developing that credibility. Step one is to do the traditional credibility builder and get that sheepskin.

For me the sheep skin includes finishing a distance learning program I started in 2006 for an AS in Aviation Operations, second is to go back to school full time while still working the day job. I enrolled in classes back in January for a GE AA at San Jose City College that fulfills transfer requirements to San Jose state where I intend to earn a BS then MS in Aeronautical/Aerospace Engineering.

Another big change/goal is to get back on the weight loss train and get down to a weight more acceptable for a test pilot and competitor in aerobatics competitions. I set up an ambitious but very doable plan to loose 150 pounds in a about two and a half years, 60/50/40 ponds a year respectively. To do this I am using the calorie counting method.

So far school is going well as is the weight loss. I have a mid-term 4.0 at San Jose City College, and I just wrapped my first quarter with a 15 pound weight loss. I am tracking weight loss success by quarter rather than daily or by month, it seems more practical.

What has not gone so well is that I have not been getting as much done on the day job as I would like. School has been taking up much more time than I had anticipated, mostly due to the way I scheduled classes. This is something I can fix relatively easily. Changing my schedule next term and knowing how much time I need for study I will be able to make better use of my time.

Another goal that has not gone as well as planned involves building the Volksplane. It has been several weeks since I last posted here and it has been longer since any work was done on the airplane. I have been keeping up with my time-cards which points out vary clearly just how poorly I have been doing in this area. Frustrating yes, but I am not stressing out on this one, I know life happens and I know I am trying to do a lot all at once, so this is not a huge surprise. With any luck this too will be fixed with my scheduling changes next term.

Things that have just not happened are, getting up much earlier consistently to get personal stuff done and any last minute homework before classes, and going for daily walks and stretching. I also toyed with the idea of starting ether yoga or Ti Chi as part of the early morning regimen. Here again, not all that stressed out. These were set out as part of the over-all move towards getting fit. As long as the weight loss continues, I have time to add these in as I get closer to my goal weight.

As you can see, I am 2 for 6 as of now. It is still early though, the second quarter of the first year of a ten-year plan has just begun. All things considered, I am pleased with how things are shaping up. I hope to have my goal ratio up to 4 of 6 by the end of this year.

There are still lots of things in motion and school is a very fluid thing, being engaged with three institutions and having opportunities from outside my major come up keeps the decision making cycle in high gear. Right now the major stress is figuring out the particulars.

As Cornelius Robinson would say “Keep moving forward!”

Until next time, blue skies and tail winds,


One of my favorite movies is Flyboys (2006) by Tony Bill. Some of my favorite scenes in the movie are the ones where the pilots gather in the Ready Room, aka the pub. They celebrate their successes and remember their losses in a way that many non-pilots can’t truly understand.

Viper (Tom Skarret’s character in Top Gun) said it best: “A good pilot is compelled to always evaluate what’s happened, so he can apply what he has learned.” From outside the aviation world it may seem as though pilots are obsessed with death and accidents, and very callus about these situations. In one sense we are; from the day we start flight training, we are constantly exposed to aviation accident reports. Like most pilots with a few hundred hours, I know pilots who have died in an airplane, or been involved in a reportable event. More often than not the cause of the crash or event was Pilot Error.

Pilot Error seems to be the NTSB’s favorite phrase in accident reports, it appears in almost all of them. Sadly, it’s a legitimate statement in those reports far more often than not. This is why we read the reports; if that guy did it, I might do it, too. I have to pay attention to that. A well educated aviator might push the limits, but they know exactly where those limits are and how they affect the situation.

I am still in the planing phase of my aircraft build project but I am thinking about the Flight Testing phase. Before I can develop a Flight Test Program I need to have a good understanding of the Volksplane’s flight characteristics from other builders and pilots. I plan on asking a lot of questions on the boards and lists but if I want to ask intelligent and directed questions I need to know what to ask. My first stop in researching flight characteristics is the NTSB Aviation Accident Database.

According to the FAA’s Registration Database there are approximately 512 Volksplane variants currently registered in the U.S. Since the plans for the aircraft were made available in 1969 there have been 45 Volksplane accidents; 17 none/minor injury, 19 serious injury, 9 fatalities, they break down by decade as follows.

  2000 1990 1980 1970
Fatal 1 2 2 4
Non Fatal 2 4 9 21

Not all data fields add up numerically, mainly because the NTSB’s data in not always complete so keep that in mind before you pull out that calculator. In the case of our accident pilots only 44 were reported with a certificate status, 38 had a pilot certificate and 5 did not. I broke down pilot age into three groups. The under 30 set included 8 pilots, in the 31-49 group we found our majority with 22, the over 50 group claimed 12.

Let’s take a look at total pilot in command (PIC) hours and hours in type.

  ≤50 ≤100 ≤250 ≤500 ≥500
TTL Hrs 1 4 11 8 19
  ≤5 ≤25 ≤50 ≥50  
In Type 24 9 4 5  

Yes, that’s right. A couple of our intrepid certificateless pilots had reported over 100 hours.

A majority of the reports involved a loss of control in the air, 25, with several on the ground, 16. One (1) incident was due to weather and one (1) was due to a propeller failure.

18 incidences involved some kind of power failure, 8 from unknown causes, 10 from fuel issues, 5 of which were caused by fuel starvation, 2 of those from just old fashioned running out of gas.

There were 15 incidents of builders not installing parts, installing parts wrong, ground testing with known problems that ended up as unintentional in-flight problems.

Most of the mechanical stuff and incidents of pilots without certificates occurred in the 70s. The disturbing part is pilots with low total times and no time in type are more common in recent decades. It seems as though we have gotten better in the building part but more impatient about getting the bird in the air.

My conclusions from this basic data are that as a builder it is of the utmost importance to take your time and check everything thrice. As a test pilot, take your time, inspect everything, understand the flight characteristics of the aircraft, expected and otherwise, be current, in type if possible, and take each step of the test flight program with absolute attention to detail. Considering every flight as a test flight up to 100 hours is not a bad idea ether. There was only one incident over 100 hours. Attention to detail and planning could have prevented all of the 45 incidents with possible exceptions for 2 of them.

Did I learn anything I didn’t know? No. Did taking the time to do the research make me think a bit more about how to prevent failures and what might go wrong? You betcha! Will my standards in the build process be better than if I had not taken the time to do this research? Probably. How about flight testing standards? Yeah. I think I will be less ambitious with the test flight schedule.

Until next time, blue skies and tail winds,

BTW Just in case you are wondering, I have been known as FlyBoyJon since 2003.