AIN Blog: Test Pilots Push the Envelope So the Rest of Us Don’t Have To

 - April 8, 2011, 6:06 AM

As a general rule, AIN does not discuss aircraft accidents with reporters from the general media for the simple reason that we can’t really add much more than background information to what the NTSB and FAA report. We have also found, as have many others, that speculation about the cause of any accident, as is often reported in the general media, is usually pointless and often harmful.

So when JoAnn Merrigan, a reporter for Savannah, Ga., television station WSAV, called AIN on Monday, April 4, to talk about the Gulfstream G650 fatal accident that had occurred during a test flight in Roswell, N.M. on Saturday, April 2, I picked up the call with reluctance. Merrigan was polite and apologetic. She said she had previously done stories on Gulfstream, which is based in Savannah, that she understood about aircraft accident investigations and that she was interested in talking about the company itself, and not specifically about the accident. I agreed to talk with her.

After some 15 minutes of conversation, Merrigan asked if I would be willing to record a few words about the possible effects of the accident on the G650’s flight-test program and on the company–nothing speculative about the cause of the accident itself. I agreed, and for about five minutes she asked me questions about things we had just discussed and I answered them as best I could.

What came out in the WSAV video report included about 20 seconds of my recorded answer to Merrigan’s last question. She had also talked to Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group and quoted him, too. In the print report of the story for online, she used more quotes from us both. I was grateful that Merrigan’s report appeared well researched, accurate and balanced.

One topic we had discussed in length, but which she used little of in the article or video, was about flight testing itself. I have great respect for experimental test pilots and engineers, I told her, because they, like flight crews in combat, really do have to put their lives on the line when they fly. They do their jobs so that other pilots, who will fly the aircraft after it is certified by civil authorities or approved by the military, will know the performance and operating limits of the aircraft and thus, if they observe these limits, will be able to fly their aircraft safely in normal and emergency situations.

Thinking about the G650 accident later that evening, I recalled a conversation I had long ago with a young C-130 Hercules line pilot, about a year after I had completed Air Force flight training. “I never get creative in the cockpit,” the pilot told me, meaning that he stuck religiously to the often burdensome and seemingly unnecessary procedures imposed by myriad Air Force regulations relating to aircraft operations. I was at a point in my flying career when I was starting to cut corners where I could. This pilot’s comment impressed me and I never forgot it.

Test pilots are superb, careful and precise pilots and sticklers for procedures. That’s the nature of flight test, I have learned. But there are times when they have no choice but to get creative. They don’t know when those times will happen, so they must always be ready for them. It takes real guts to do this day after day in the normal course of one’s job.

A couple of years before my conversation with the C-130 pilot, I visited Edwards Air Force Base, home of the USAF Test Pilot School. I remember thinking that flight test sounded really cool. Then, as I rode around the base in a blue school bus with other soon-to-be pilots, our tour guide, after pointing out the names of streets and buildings, asked, “Do you know where Edwards gets these names?” None of us could guess. “They are the names of test pilots who were killed in accidents here,” he said.

It was a sobering moment for all of us.

The crash of the G650 was another sobering moment.

To the families and friends of experimental test pilots Kent Crenshaw and Vivan Ragusa and technical specialists David McCollum and Reece Ollenburg, who died in the crash of the G650 flight-test airplane, I send my heartfelt condolences for your loss.

And to all the flight-test pilots and engineers among us, I thank you as sincerely as I can for the jobs you do and the sacrifice you are willing the make to help ensure that the aircraft you test and approve are as safe as they can be.