Testing aerospace vehicles is one of the most demanding and hazardous occupations one can aspire to. For as long as our species has attempted to mimic birds and achieve the ability to fly, people have been constructing- and test flying- devices by which to conquer the air. Only in this last century has the concept of an ordered, certified discipline been established….. Aerospace engineering and flight testing.
In 2009, I was pulled aside one day in my squadron building by a fellow navigator who’d been asked to sit in on a meeting. He recommended my name to our superior officer when a requirement was ordered for aircrew to participate in an upcoming project. Uninterested and assuming I knew more about it, I replaced him in future meetings regarding the project. The project was nothing glamorous- it was a fly-off between several contractors hoping to secure business with the Air Force reserve components to design, build, and install a datalink system on C-130 tactical transports (like the ones I’m currently flying onboard)
I took part in the fly-off, and made my recommendations to the service. Having flown on another air force aircraft equipped with datalinks (The Boeing E-3 Sentry “AWACS”), my participation in this phase of the project was fortuitous. Less than a year later, I was asked to return as part of the project by the leadership of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command Test Center, better known as it’s less cumbersome acronym “AATC”. This time, I had a larger role, consulting on the design on the device to flown, features of its software, and even participating in the flight testing.
The program, known as RTIC, which stands for “Real Time In the Cockpit”, was initiated to develop, test, and field a situational-awareness map display and datalink for C-130 aircraft. From the beginning, the contractor team and my peers in the Air Force sought to rapidly move the program from an idea to a flyable piece of hardware. The program began because of an urgent need to make C-130s a more effective airdrop platform during combat operations in Afghanistan.
My background isn’t in engineering, and I’m not an acquisitions officer (a career field in the Air Force which officers work with contractors to select new weapons systems). But for a brief moment, I was immersed in the world of aerospace engineering and test flying. And I loved it.
As an aviator, it is impossible to avoid the stories of the daring exploits of test flying airplanes. From Doolittle’s first instrument flights, Yeager’s supersonic dash, Scott Crossfield, Milt Thompson, Don Mallick, and so more- every development in aviation has arisen from aerospace engineering and flight testing new aircraft. Every knot of airspeed and every foot of altitude has been achieved because men and women diligently, precisely sought the solutions to make it possible.
I wasn’t educated as an engineer, nor am I a graduate of any of the esteemed test pilot schools. But for as long as I’ve been professionally involved in aviation, I have read every book, paper, journal or blog about flight testing I could. The process of moving an idea from concept to hardware is incredible to me. Learning what I can, my goal was to be able to better apply myself to the RTIC program – and any other test flying projects that may arise.
After the initial development phases were complete, the contractors delivered test articles of the avionics to the AATC in Tuscon, Arizona. Long, thorough planning ensued- everyone participating met to determine the specific performance we hoped to achieve while testing the RTIC devices. With the engineers, the flight crews and I planned a number of increasingly complex flight plans we intended to fly using RTIC on our C-130.
Testing the equipment added a new element to flying. With the engineers and representatives of the contractors aboard our plane to observe, my crew would take off and fly to the designated airspaces over the Arizona desert and put RTIC through the wringer. Every feature was tested again and again, with the crew and engineers noting data points on test cards. After each flight, lengthy debriefs helped the contractors learn how the avionics performed, and what needed to be revised before the next test flight. From high altitude range tests to low-level tactical routes through the mountains at night, we test flew every scenario we could. And it was an incredible feeling to see something that once existed only as a vague idea turn to reality before our eyes.
Its been four years since that initial meeting I went to, and after many more meetings, ground trials, software bugs, and logging over 30 hours of flight test time, I am proud to know that the avionics project I helped with is now being installed as standard equipment across the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard’s C-130H, C-130J, and C-17 fleets. My experience is no way comparable to the amazing feats of airmanship attributed to great test pilots in history, but for me, it was worth it just to take part in a flight test project. And I suspect it won’t be my last.