“Yes. I don’t know what it takes, but I want to be one”, said the young aviator with stars in his eyes.
All of 29 yrs, his modest log book total belied his aspiration to become an Experimental Test Pilot (ETP).
But for one fact. He never gave up.
The Experimental Flight Test Course
With some trepidation, the Flight Commander signed a covering letter forwarding his application to appear for TP screening at Aircraft & Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE), the ‘mothership’ that nests IAF’s Air Force Test Pilots School (AFTPS) in Namma Bengaluru (then Bangalore).
The Experimental Flight Test Course (FTC) is arguably one of the toughest courses in all of aviation. It’s the Navy SEALS of flying. If you complete the course, you become a ‘tester’ for life. In India, your spouse will get felicitated for putting up with a partner almost at the edge of ‘delirium & death by data reduction’. Your children (& pets) will learn how to live without dad.
Welcome to Test Flying!
The New Millenium had just arrived. A ‘welcome party’ for 24th Flight Test Course (24 FTC) was in progress. Highballs were clinking. Then Commandant ASTE, Air Cmde AK Nagalia (later Air Marshal), remarked wryly to a bunch of us: “this is just for breaking the ice. We’ll formally welcome you if you survive the course.”
‘Admin week’ was on. Bangalore was beautiful in June (still is, despite climate change). There was a nip in the air. Winds whistling through tall silver oaks of ‘Vishwa Vihar’ – abode of ‘testers’ in Bangalore – filled our hearts with hope. Nursing our drinks, we wondered where the Air Commodore drew his sense of humour from.
Something told me to watch out. I was the only oddball: a naval aviator surrounded by experienced air warriors. I had reported to ASTE as a ‘forced bachelor’ with two suitcases, few household belongings and a desktop PC yet to be unboxed. I barely knew how to even turn on that Pentium-2 machine. Madhuri had ‘defected’ to Kerala on summer vacation with our 2-year old son Abhishek.
Soon a honeymoon of sorts started to unfold. It was my nature. I love to get to the roots of everything I touch. I was an unabashed air force fanboy. Here was my chance.
So Much To Learn! And only 24 Hours in a Day!
The FTC gets off to a deceivingly slow start with classes on flight test techniques (FTT), report writing, conversion or familiarisation to school aircraft, anthropometric measurements & so on. Hand-picked students (total 15-20 at best, from all three services) with a heady mix of operational experience, above-average skills, analytical abilities, scientific temperament, & oodles of motivation, join military test pilot schools each year.
Training to fly as crew in any aircraft with a 2-3 hour syllabus is the first thing that knocks you off your gimbal. Folks like me who ‘rose’ from sea level flying over-powered beasts were soon relegated to under-powered Mi-8s / equivalent at maximum all up weight (AUW). Boastful attack helicopter pilots revisited their 2-ton Chetak/Cheetah days. ‘Deep-penetration strike’ Jaguar pilots & Su-30 ‘quick-gun murugans’ toasted on slow-moving ‘Kirans’ (HJT-16).
Instructors drawn from the same crop smiled like Buddha after flying ‘surgical strikes’ onto your confidence.
Slowly, the vice tightens!
A lethal weapon, modelled on ‘classes-task directive-test planning-scheduling-flying-data crunching-data analysis-report writing-exams’, strikes you within four weeks of ‘admin week’. For the second time after bootcamp, you realize there are only 24 hours in a day and it’s not enough. In TP school, there’s far too much to learn, to do, to fly, than can ever be done.
The FTC is actually a lesson in how little you know about what makes stuff fly.
Get Down & Flirty! (Flirty = Fly + Dirty)
Air Commodore Nagalia’s prophetic words started ringing in my ears sometime during that phase. Our Test Flying Instructors (TFI) and Test Engineer Instructors (TEI) were masters at leaving you on the edge of orgasm. Revealing just that much to leave you fired and inquisitive, they forced us to think like never before. ‘Leading questions’ were often staved off with ‘this is test pilots school. We don’t spoon feed here’.
I recall an open-book exam on ‘Performance’ where the Q-paper prepared by TEI Charles ‘Darwin’ had us seeking solutions from 9AM till midnight with test flights (& more exams) planned next day. Finally, Officer Commanding (OC) TPS stepped in, and truth ‘darwined’ on us many moons later!
So Much To Learn And Fly!
Problem, in the main, is that figures and formulae don’t fit-in where they should. There’s physics, kinematics, thermodynamics, mensuration (without a T, though agony is the same), and ‘basic aerodynamics’ that breaks you down without shock absorbers. The same intimidating concepts you ran away from to join military come back back to haunt you. Bernoulli’s Theorem, Boyle’s Law, Saint Venant’s Equation – the whole damn shoot. And you have nowhere to hide.
Hey, did you just sign up for it?
What’s more, you have to translate theory to practice. Plan, fly, collect data, reduce data, analyse, meet esoteric ‘task directives’, write analytical reports, re-chart flight manual graphs, pick holes, question the unquestionable, make recommendations – all the while correlating theory with flight test data, fielding exams, presentations and debriefs.
All Messed Up With Nowhere to Go!
Well, what inevitably follows is an endless, 3-pronged cluster-fuck of Preparation, Flying, Reporting.
Ah! Rhymes nicely with the post flight reports (PFR) that you write after every sortie? With sleep deprivation to boot.
An innocuous exercise called ‘Cockass’, standing for ‘Cockpit Assessment’ (but figuratively and sadistically summarising what lies ahead) soon leads into an intense struggle against deadlines, insomnia and test flights that differentiate ‘flyboys’ from ‘testers’.
Error Under Pressure or Pressure Error?
The very first flying exercise, Pressure Error Correction (PEC) – where you execute tower fly-bys to gather data on pressure error calibration – justifies the existence of something as ‘mundane’ as pitot & static sources you always took for granted while flying on the line. Want an example of what theory (one in several pages) goes into that?
PEC exercise is flown early in the mornings. Winds are relatively calm, Bangalore feels like heaven. Folks are out on morning walk while a bunch of wannabe TPs learn the meaning of ‘stabilized test point’. When collected data turns into graphs, you’ll be reminded about that bad bout of measles from childhood (they call it ‘data scatter’ in TPS). No amount of post-flight ‘match fixing’ helps. The instructors have seen it all.
You are only as good as the data you bring back
By now, you’ll be busy planning for the next phase. Whoever told you “To fly is human. To hover, divine” never went to test pilots school. You’ll soon realise it’s not ‘divine’ to hover, especially when you have to cater for a wide spread of ‘m/σ’ and bring 12-ton machines to free air hover at the edge of aircraft envelope. Read my experience here.
Then follows level flight, climb & descent, ceiling climb (or climb to an altitude where the aircraft can climb but no more), and many ‘staff debriefs’ and ‘full reports’ in between.
That’s just the introduction. Soon, ‘flying qualities’ phase follows where you’ll be introduced to aircraft ‘attitudes‘ that are more complex than what you ever saw at home!
‘Courage Under Fire’ & the ‘Bravery of Being Out of Range’
What I remember most from those days is the acute, almost crippling, lack of sleep due to quantum of work that had to be balanced against high-workload flying with hardly any room for error. Student engineers, often from disparate stream (some from air defence background), flew with you in single-pilot flight tests that bordered on the semi-insane but for the astute preparation that went into each sortie.
Chopping throttles and gliding to mother earth with a crew combination that sticks together unto death, with preparation & knowledge of the science behind it all – that’s ‘tester’ stuff.
When, if ever, it fails, we eat dust. Then we will rise again. In that deathly bargain, the magic of flight soars a little higher.
Back to the FTC
One can do any amount of hardwork and burn midnight oil if you don’t have to fly next day. That’s the biggest challenge in FTC. Here you will fight sleep, make each minute count, fly daily, break down the sortie second-by-second with the test engineer, rehearse the flight, prepare documentation, fly as per plan (always keeping guard up for surprises), fly best you can to ensure data integrity, bring back data within the slender flight test hours allotted, and then actually get to work when the lights go out.
In AFTPS, you will do all this while concurrently reporting on an exercise flown last week & planning for an exercise next week. In between, there will be exams, other tests, and familial commitments. Quote me a better example of time management while at the controls of an aeroplane.
Lost Some, Gained Some
I missed 9/11 coverage & a Pink Floyd live concert during my FTC. I can never forgive myself. I cried on my pillow the night the Twin Towers fell. It was a painful choice between ‘Us & Them’.
Eventually, I ‘passed out’. At the 24 FTC Graduation Dinner, Air Marshal TJ ‘Tester’ Master (RiP) & ASTE Commandant ‘Chopsy Turvey’ Anil Chopra presided over what Air Cmde AK Nagalia had welcomed us into, 11 months ago. The same ‘side-lawn’ of ASTE Officers’ Mess launched us into the second orbit where the real challenges lay.
Flight. Machines. Dreams. Test crew bridge them all with Precision & Excellence.
I am proud to be one. Like Sid & Sam.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Graduate badge belongs to AFTPS, ASTE, AF. Pictures courtesy ASTE, AF archives.