THE DISCIPLINE OF FLIGHT TEST - 7 March 2013
Milky Way Over the Rio Grande - Big Bend National Park, Texas
Link To Original Article On "Flight To Success"
Some might perceive a mystery surrounding the flight test community. At least I thought so when I started my test training way back when. I thought by the end of Test Pilot School, I would know all the carefully guarded inner secrets - the clouds would open and a booming voice would reveal all knowledge to those worthy. I have to say I was kind of disappointed at the end of my year-long TPS training. There was no booming voice. There was no sudden clarity on the mysteries of flying. There was just me with a little extra training. Nothing special. What I learned was really just more of what I already knew.
If I can point to any particular thing I learned at TPS, it was this: it’s all about discipline. Before you say, “Duh, that’s obvious,” in the flight test business it’s a little bit different. In regular flying there’s discipline. In flight test, it’s Ph.D. level discipline.
Rules are everywhere when it comes to flying, whether you’re a general aviation pilot, working for a major airline, or in the military. The sheer number of rules is enough to make any normal person crazy. And, you must abide by them all. “Compliance is Mandatory” as it says at the top of our Air Force Instructions.
However, flying is by necessity too flexible to ever have a "total" set of rules. Can you imagine if there were rules for EVERYTHING? The book would be incredibly thick. As we all know, when you encounter a situation where there are no rules, judgment is required. Better yet, good judgment has to rule. The stakes are just too high.
In many cases, our rules were developed as a direct result of someone’s accident, because people made mistakes, or because circumstances overwhelmed them. One point of view is that these rules were designed to keep the guy with the least skills or worse situational awareness safe. As a result, those with more awareness, better skills, or even more knowledge, might think these rules were meant “for the other guy.” That’s okay. We follow the rules, regardless. It’s the way we work in a regulated flying world. We all have to pay attention to the rules regardless of who we are, even when no one is looking. That’s discipline.
The testing environment is a bit different than regular flying. Because of the quality of flight testers, there are fewer rules, constraints aren’t as deep, things aren’t as well sorted out. You’re given more rope to work with so that you can do things no one else can do. That’s the nature of flight test.
What takes the place of the rules? What do you use to keep things “safe” when you don’t have as many rules? Well, there are a couple of things. The first I already mentioned, judgment. But good judgment isn’t enough. That’s where discipline comes in.
Flight test missions are normally extremely scripted. They are not the swashbuckling, scarf-blowing-in-the-breeze affairs where a devil-may-care pilot kicks the tires then takes the aircraft for a spin. That is not flight testing. Typically, flight testing is the final event of painstaking engineering, for which carefully thought out profiles and detailed procedures are the rule. Most of my many flight test missions were excruciatingly boring. Sometimes it was simply me flying a very boring pre-defined path under very mundane flight conditions over and over and over again. Sometimes you want to do a roll or loop just to keep things interesting. After all, who would know? Let me say this, if you’re doing loops or rolls trying to stay mentally engaged, that’s a sure sign you’ve lost touch with flight discipline.
Discipline is an interesting thing. There are few direct rewards for being disciplined. You have to consciously say, “I’m not going to do that though I think it would be fine.” In the long term, we all know being disciplined has its own rewards, though the immediate reward is fleeting.
Here’s another thing. Good discipline will save the day when judgment betrays you. What I mean is it’s very hard for most people to know when their judgment goes bad. Usually those making bad decisions have no idea they’re making bad decisions. By staying the course - being disciplined - most people should get past those moments of bad judgment. That’s the beauty of discipline.
Discipline is an easy idea to grasp though hard to define in detail. The disciplined versus undisciplined path can be especially fuzzy in the flight test business. As a general rule, if you’re going off profile from your pre-take-off plan, you better have a really, really good reason. Otherwise, someone might think you're being that guy with the scarf blowing in the breeze, with the devil-may-care-attitude. That’s never good when flight testing.