Test Pilot

Aviation Week Video/Aviation Week & Space Technology, Volume 3; number 2. Approximate running time 70 minutes, £12.99.

This is one of a series of videos produced by Aviation Week and is of a high technical standard with good, informative commentary and unobtrusive music. Unusually for an American production, it is not entirely about US aircraft and pilots. The worst feature for me was the inclusion of three advertisement slots, albeit brief and entirely related to aviation.

After the introductory footage of an F-14 Tomcat mission, with the appropriate music, the commentary leads easily into the historical view of test pilots. The makers rightly credit the Wright brothers as the first of the breed (excluding those who had gone before in un-powered aircraft) — they designed, built, ground tested, and then flew their aircraft. They understood it inside out, but were experimenting on the edges of their knowledge, and beyond. Interestingly, they pointed out that, while observation of birds was safer, you had to take some risks to find out by actually flying.

A whole succession of famous pilots followed — Casey Jones (barnstormer, stunt and test pilot), Jimmy Doolittle (the first academic test pilot), and Charles Lindbergh who followed the Wright brothers’ tradition and helped to design and test his record breaking Spirit of St Louis. In fact, Lindbergh continued to test aircraft and even shot down a Zero when doing the job in the Pacific arena! Chuck Yeager was the first to fly supersonic in 1947.

There follows a series of interviews, interspersed with action footage, of various test pilots and their philosophy and ideas behind their jobs. Interestingly, the first was Bill Bedford, Hawker’s test pilot involved with the P1127 project. Others included Scott Crossfield, who helped design and then flew the X-15, Bob Smythe (F-14 Tomcat), Neil Anderson (F-16 Fighting Falcon) and Heinz Frick (BAe Harrier). A theme that runs through their interviews, is that the test pilot is the translator between engineer and operational pilot, they lest the envelope and extend beyond, they test every conceivable situation and more, they understand their aircraft.

Some of the risks are discussed, with dramatic footage of real incidents — the X-15 exploding when ground testing the engine (the pilot in the front section was blown forwards 30ft/9m and survived), the spectacular crash of the second Tomcat when control was lost on finals (both crew escaped unharmed despite ejecting almost over the fireball).

The video is not limited to jets though, and a Westland test pilot explains some aspects of rotary wing testing in a modern helicopter, the agility and responsiveness of which approximates to that of a jet fighter.

Mainly, however, the jets are the main subject and we see some excellent shots of the MiG-29 display at Farnborough and the Rafale programme.

The test pilot schools feature in the final part of the film —some of the necessary skills are discussed, and we see a mission in which the student puts a T-37 into a roll-coupled inverted spin. On the screen this looks awful enough, but he describes the negative g force in such a nonchalant manner that he makes it even more impressive.

Overall, this is a well-produced, interesting and informative video which covers a large topic dramatically but not in great depth.

Philip Belsham

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