Ten years ago, I was flying a desk in Naval Headquarters called ‘Aviation Plans’. We had ambitious plans to induct over 300+ aircraft and helicopters over the next few decades. But there was no single agency equipped and authorised to undertake trial and evaluation of naval aircraft and airborne systems. Trials were undertaken by different commands independently of each other, sometimes involving the same equipment. Teams were drawn up on ‘as required’ basis from operational units that had their own share of primary responsibilities. A gentle nudge from then Flag Officer Naval Aviation (FONA) prompted me to put pen to paper to define what capability exists and what could be created (I called it NAFTU, standing for Naval Flight Test Unit). I marked that paper to FONA who sent it to Naval Headquarters with his blessings.
In couple of months, the service paper routed from Goa through the Deputy Chief’s office in Delhi landed back on my own table in ‘A Block’ by virtue of a naval mechanism called ‘on file please’. In due course, I got transferred to the naval Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) project office at HAL, Bangalore. The case followed me there faithfully. Many fine minds & diligent hands have since shaped what stands proud as Naval Flight Test Squadron (NFTS) at Goa today.
Roadmap or Google Maps?
While we were busy writing service papers, attending seminars and sponsored lunches, Google Maps have replaced roadmaps. Disruption and innovation is the new order. Young 20-somethings are minting ideas that go on to become billion-dollar companies. There is an ‘App’ for virtually everything today. Drones, e-VTOLs and unmanned craft are taking to the skies. The globe has shrunk virtually; battles are waged sitting in front of consoles. This is the setting we find ourselves in today. While fundamental principles don’t change, we can ill-afford to hold on to old ideas just because we have become comfortable with them. Nothing is off the table today. Please welcome new ideas, new concepts, even if they fly in the face of conventional wisdom. That’s my opening message.
We have indeed come a long way from No. 5 Production Test Pilots Course (1976) that my panel moderator Adm Arun Prakash, former Chief of the Naval Staff attended, to 24 FTC (2001-02) I attended, to NFTS today. In this long journey, the Indian Air Force, ASTE and AFTPS have been our constant companions. So a small tribute is due for the air warriors without whose support many of us wouldn’t have reached where we did.
Pool Together, Pull Together
As we speak, the three services are pulling in different directions. Even within each service, I see a distinct drift to shrink into narrow silos of excellence.
All three services should avoid creating their own testing infrastructure, duplicating what isn’t necessarily required. The great cost to exchequer aside, what we don’t need are blue, olive-green and white islands of excellence with no bridges between them.
The National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) that could have been a tall edifice of jointmanship in flight testing remains committed to a single-point agenda – LCA.
Setting up of NFTS I hope is first among many steps towards integrating tri-service requirements for sea level testing. Air warriors, how about trying our Mi-17s, Mi-35s, Apaches and Chinooks from naval carriers or the LPD? As NFTS grows in scope and mandate, it should become the catalyst for such synergy. Nobody but testers can either visualise this or make it happen. We shouldn’t let organisational ego or narrow parochial interests come in the way.
There is a widespread, rather unfounded feeling in the service that testers complicate simple things. Actually, it should be the other way round. If you receive a task or suggestion for anything that builds tri-service synergy, please think ‘synergy’ & not just ‘energy’. Why divide or subtract when we can add?
To borrow from the title of writer Arundhati Roy’s famous book: avoid becoming the God of small things. Let me illustrate this with some simple anecdotes.
Avoid Becoming the God of Small Things
Our ambitious tri-service helicopter project ALH Dhruv got derailed many times because we wanted one helicopter to be everything for everyone. Each service came up with their so-called ‘unique requirements’ list. Nobody said NO till ugly design challenges raised their head. Where were the sane voices when the tough decisions had to be taken? Everybody and their Principal Director was a specialist in his own right and nobody wanted to give an inch. As a result of our collective inability to say NO when required – and not support wholeheartedly either – the project suffered. Yet, today we have a world-class helicopter flying. It always fills me with pride when I see them flying over my home in Bangalore. That said, all is not rosy. Today is a good point in time to revisit those lessons.
Another example. A debate on whether to go in for an analog or digital altimeter display for the naval ALH dragged on for years. Navy’s contention was based on legacy analog ‘steam gauges’ that we had gotten used to. A digital readout of radio altitude didn’t cut ice with our ‘experts’ who wrote reams to blockade the equipment. Today, digital altimeter displays adorn all glass cockpits, including those on helicopters that dunk at night. In the process, we lost years going back and forth, even dragging Vice Chiefs into the discussion. Every one had an opinion. But no one had the altimeter.
Similarly, test pilots wrote pages why an analog chronometer is needed on the Chetak (Alouette III) to do Rate 1 turns during instrument flying (IF). Nobody questioned the wisdom of doing limited-panel IF on a basic, VFR-only aircraft; or flying without floats over sea. We should avoid such anachronisms in future.
While astute analysis and role-relation is a must, we should guard against becoming the ‘God of small things’. Our pet theories or gift for the language shouldn’t run riot in programs of scale. Please borrow from your Seaking, Kamov or Sea Harrier experience. But don’t make it your pet peeve, block new ideas or throw out the baby with the bathwater. Examine each new idea, assess it independently devoid of bias, but always with the rich context that separates test crew from the boys in frontline.
That brings me to my next point.
You are only as good as your experience
Your qualifications, what you read, train for or have seen is but one half. The other, more important half, is the length, breadth & depth of your operational experience, particularly when the chips are down – something I fear may fast become our Achilles heel in flight testing.
This is the picture of an AW 139 cockpit. Today, I have close to thousand hours on this machine. There was a time when I had less than ten hours of glass cockpit time, but I was an active, on-duty test pilot. Not that I could help it; the navy simply didn’t have any glass cockpit helicopters. What kind of challenges this can throw up when you are suddenly pitch forked into a full-fledged trial involving modern, fully-automated, glass cockpit aircraft is something I have experienced personally. It takes thousands of hours of operational experience before we can fully comprehend or begin tampering with HMI issues on such aircraft. If we don’t build up that kind of exposure or experience, we run a real risk of repeating the ALH radio altimeter story. Pet peeves may get dragged into the discourse. Years will be lost and programs will meander rudderless.
We test based on our knowledge, experience and openness to new concepts. If we do not induct modern technology in time, our test procedures and understanding of modern concepts will also not keep pace. There is an invisible back-link to our flight testing methodologies and what flies off our frontline. This is yet another reason to look at our fleet composition and much-delayed induction programs more closely. Meanwhile, use every opportunity to expose our flight test personnel to modern technology so that they are neither overawed nor underwhelmed when their acumen is put to test.
Rethink pulling out naval test crew from ASTE soon after the course. There are some key benefits we stand to lose if we do that. Rethink the ‘sea riders’ concept or senior officers making symbolic demonstration flights during airshows. Pass on those (& more) opportunities to our test crew to build up a rich repertoire of experience and exposure.
That brings me to my next point:
Career Management of Test Crew
Completing the experimental flight test course requires an extremely high level of motivation and hardwork. It is arguably the toughest practical course in aerospace worldwide. Aircrew who are selected for the course are well above average and highly motivated.
Since in the navy we ‘also fly’, our peers from IAF and Indian Army have significantly higher flying experience. The course makes no differentiation; it gives no quarter to the weak or less-experienced. The course also adds another year to the already extended training pipeline of the naval aviator. That’s one annual appraisal (ACR) less than their general service peers. Compare this to their general service counterparts who rarely undergo any such extended training between long course and staff course.
After completion of FTC, naval test crew typically spend between 1-2 years at ASTE for initiation into actual flight trials and consolidation. It is an uphill task for naval test crew to leave a great impression either during the FTC or during their stint at ASTE as the odds are stacked against them with respect to experience, qualifications or sheer utility for air force-oriented trials. Of course, there are exceptions and some naval TPs have indeed left lasting impressions at ASTE.
The time spent at ASTE by naval test crew is ‘prime time’ of their career where their counterparts in general service or mainstream aviation are notching up flying hours, afloat ACRs, specialist tenures, staff billets etc. Unknown to naval test crew, the IAF’s marking system (rather conservative, when compared to navy) and above mentioned factors usually get the better of our test crew by the time they exit ASTE for Lt Cdr’s sea time. The high quality of professional experience gained at ASTE and organisations such as HAL/NFTC abruptly rolls to an end with Lt Cdr’s sea time. There is potential for ‘professional disenchantment’ at this stage.
In case the TP has been posting a good professional record, he usually loses out precious frontline or testing time with at least a 2-year break brought about by sea time followed by staff course.
Back in their squadrons, they were again left playing ‘catch up’ since by this time even their juniors would’ve overtaken them in ‘on type’ qualifications and flying experience.
With limited number of TPs, most rotary TPs are engaged in cross-coast or outstation trials thereby being of little practical use in the squadron for their flying or admin tasks. This generates alienation and cannot be expected to yield high ACR returns since most of the good work is being done for agencies who do not come in the reporting chain. At a crucial juncture where staff/ops streaming happens, the resultant situation can work against test crew. It is an irony that such highly trained aircrew, engaged in very specialised, exacting work should run the risk of being marginalised by a system which recognises only time spent outside the cockpit and at sea.
There is no easy solution. As things become more complex, we may have to move away from making everyone a ‘jack of all trades’ and recognise the time and costs involved in creating such trained assets. Such skilled resources cannot be bought or created overnight. But we could lose them overnight if the system does not have a mechanism to keep them engaged, motivated and rewarded.
The IAF has ASTE (headed by an AVM), ACAS (Plans), Directorate of Projects and Dte of ASR in Air HQ which is mostly manned by test crew. How many test crew do we have today in key acquisition directorates at NHQ?
The navy also needs to have certain appointments, including at Flag rank that are earmarked for deserving test crew basis their contribution to flight testing, not by driving ships. Consider that the US Navy has its own Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR, Pax River).
Consider giving test crew an option to remain in flight testing with assured career progression if they excel in that field. Some incentives are urgently required to retain their talent and also to attract right talent into the fold. Of course, we can continue to hold the ‘nobody is indispensable’ view. Who loses, who gains, only time will tell.
That brings me to my next point.
Are good test crew really dispensable?
Can we afford to lose them? Is there a ‘best by’ date for test crew? What happens when they retire? A huge bag of experience is lost. Neither is it fair to stop people from leaving, especially due to lack of career prospects. In all my 23 years in the navy – close to half of it spent in flight testing – I have repeatedly come across a wet blanket called ‘shortage of test crew’, the other being ‘shortage of aircrew’ itself. If so, how come we haven’t thought of engaging their services, even in a limited manner, beyond retirement? Every few years, a test crew or two walks out with his retirement papers. What stops us from enlisting their support for tasks that only need them to fulfil recency experience?
Test crew from other countries like US, Australia, UK, and even small countries like Norway or The Netherlands actively support national projects through a thriving industry and their armed forces’ policies that support such engagement. Our test crew struggle to get a commercial pilots licence and a foothold in civil aviation. Or put on a suit and do business development for companies that are interested in their ‘insider info’ and connections. This ‘spy versus spy’ outlook must change. In the business of flight testing, salt & pepper is gold, even after they have overgrown their cockpit utility.
That brings me to my next point. What kind of higher education must we seek?
Higher Education for Test Crew
Between aircrew like Commanding Officer of NFTS and that elusive flag rank stand courses like DSSC, NDC or War College. The experimental test pilot course comes very close to being a doctorate in practical aviation. But while the Flight Test Engineers (FTE) received an MTech in Flight Testing, test pilots had to contend with a course completion certificate issued by ASTE.
That parchment is very dear to me, make no mistake. But it is not an engineering degree. Sound engineering knowledge is a must for test crew, in my view (a view shared by Air Marshal P Rajkumar, a doyen of flight testing from the IAF and founder-director of NFTC).
With BTech becoming the entry-level qualification for all naval officers, this lacuna has been corrected by the navy. Hopefully, other services too will follow. We must remain ahead of the curve by sending our test crew into higher academic orbits and research, not to browbeat competition or add to an expanding list of honorifics, but because the time has come to question the wisdom of letting Staff Course, Higher Command Course (HCC), National Defence Course (NDC) etc. decide the future of aviation.
We all know Neil Armstrong was an American astronaut and the first person to walk on the Moon. Some of us may even know that he was a naval aviator and test pilot. How many of us know that he was an aeronautical engineer? Do you know he went on to become a university professor? I didn’t know this until Air Marshal Rajkumar pointed it out to me over a casual conversation.
Quoting from Wikipedia, “A graduate of Purdue University, Armstrong studied aeronautical engineering with his college tuition paid for by the U.S. Navy under the Holloway Plan. He became a midshipman in 1949, and a naval aviator the following year. He saw action in the Korean War, flying the Grumman F9F Panther from the aircraft carrier USS Essex. In September 1951, he was hit by anti-aircraft fire while making a low bombing run, and forced to bail out. After the war, he completed his bachelor’s degree at Purdue, and became a test pilot at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics” (NACA, which later became NASA).
In Jul 1969, he stepped onto the lunar surface. After he resigned from NASA in 1971, Armstrong taught in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati till 1979.
It is 2018. Should we still need convincing for higher education for test crew beyond the beaten path of DSSC, NWC & NDC? Maybe a few test crew graduating from IIT or Cranfield might prove to be the proverbial “one small step for man, one giant leap for Indian testers” we badly need. As testers, we must never shy away from going back to our universities and books.
If we all start thinking and behaving like mainstream aviators or ship drivers, there cannot be one from our navy of the mettle of Armstrong. Neither will an indigenous aircraft like SR71 Blackbird ever streak across our skies.
Books. Reminds me of my next point. Where are the rule books?
Where are the Rule Books?
I hope our rule books for flight testing are evolving. A small insert in INAP 2 will not suffice in the days to come. For the longest time in SHOL we have been using free downloads of BRd766 – the Royal Navy’s handbook for shipboard helicopter operations, and US Navy’s Dynamic Interface Manual. Then there is CAP437, CAA’s bible for offshore operations.
One lesson we can learn from the west is to first set the systems and processes right. How far have we gotten to writing the guidebooks for naval flight testing? I am willing to collaborate in any effort towards that end.
I recall an incident from the past. A massive air-sea search operation was launched in the wake of a fatal Sea Harrier crash off Goa. Our squadron helicopters were flying day & night for the rescue. Yours truly, a qualified ETP who had joined squadron after the staff course, had to retire to my cabin after sunset because the prevailing rules didn’t differentiate between test pilots and line pilots. A small, man-made obstacle called ‘green rating’ stood between me and night flying because the weatherman said moon was less than 30% and waning.
My advice: Please write those rule books with an eye on the future. Because first we make the rules, then the rules make us.
The conservative outlook in writing rules is not the exclusive bane of Indians. We all like to form exclusive communities and put up entry barriers just to protect our turf. The British have done it in the offshore industry and we continued that legacy in our own spheres. But while they have moved on to collaboration in place of competition, we have much to change. Lateral osmosis of knowledge between associated fields and vocations is an example.
Encourage Lateral Osmosis of Knowledge
At one time while in uniform, my word carried a lot of weight in matters relating to helicopters. It has taken me four years cutting my teeth in the offshore O&G industry to realise there is much osmosis that can take place between civil offshore flying and naval helicopter operations. It is a win-win situation for both. At one end of the spectrum lies commercial aviation where passenger safety and bottom lines reign supreme. But we hardly talk to each other because we think we know it all. Or maybe, like the lyrics of an old Scorpions’ song “pride has built a wall so strong that I can’t get through” (Scorpions, Still Loving You).
For starters, I encourage some of you to visit Juhu aerodrome where you will see how aircraft in above condition are put together within two weeks and safely take to the skies again! Some of the offshore deck landings we do with skid-fitted helicopters can make you rethink your specifications for future ships and multirole helicopters. The tempo of operations is like a continuous, unending Operational Readiness Inspection. Flying never stops, come hell or high water, till Juhu airfield goes underwater or visibility drops below 1 km. There are no gallantry awards or commendations to be won either. Can we learn something from each other? Yes, absolutely!
As another example of lateral knowledge transfer from offshore to navy, I recall how we revived the flight deck of Floating Dock Navy (FDN) in 2010. Concepts like drop-down height, single engine getaway, performance classes and Category A operations, CAP437 TD/PM markings, obstacle free sector etc. were alien to me then. Today, with four years of civil offshore experience, I can help fix some of our naval afloat helicopter issues. Naval folks have also contributed richly to the high level of safety in offshore helicopter operations. The key operative word here is ‘synergy’. But how many of us really care about that?
Short courses can also fill up some crucial gaps in our understanding. Few international test pilots schools run such courses. A 3-week short course on dynamic interface testing with USNTPS I attended in 2006 ushered in some qualitative changes in the way we integrate helicopters with ships. Similar courses are available with many institutes in the world today. Without looking at it as an expensive indulgence, I would urge planners to seek out courses that are tailor made for our requirements. For starters, why not send some of our Observers and airborne tacticians for a basic methods course in systems testing till such time that the concept of ‘Test Observers’ becomes a reality? The money has to come from somewhere. If finance folks don’t agree, what are we test pilots for?
More Questions, and we are running out of time!
Why is the Indian Navy on Facebook but not on LinkedIn? Why don’t we have a SETP membership? Why aren’t our testers presenting more papers in international flight test seminars? Why, after more than half a century of producing test pilots, we still don’t have a registered society for testers in India?
Many more questions bother me. But i am afraid we are running out of time. No, not for this seminar or my panel. We are running out of time to get our act together and take flight testing, naval flight testing included, to the next, more appropriate level. I don’t see how this can happen without somebody pushing the envelope. It’s time to put pen to paper once again – like i did in 2008.
Let’s talk synergy. Let’s talk collaboration. Let’s talk research, data, scientific methods. It’s not about me, the navy, IAF or the Army. It’s about us.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author is an experimental test pilot and has flown over 25 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft. This paper was presented at the first Indian Navy seminar on flight testing to commemorate the raising of Naval Flight Test Squadron INAS 552 at Goa, India on 20th September 2018. Views are personal.