Functional check flight pilots prepare aircraft for students

  • Published
  • By SSgt Amanda Mills
  • Public Affairs
The instructor pilot pair ran the T-1 through a rigorous ground checklist. Aircraft balanced? Check. Wheels working? Check. Instruments operational? Check.
The pilots then used more experience and expertise to complete additional tests while the aircraft was airborne. Shut down. Restart. Still operational. The plane is clear to return to pilot training.
When maintenance has repaired an aircraft, it is given to functional test pilots. The craft is then put through several tests to ensure it is in working order before it is returned to student pilots.
There are 27 pilots currently serving as functional check flight pilots for Vance Air Force Base. Lt Col Chris Nichols, 71st Operations Group FCF chief, heads the program with 26 other highly-qualified instructor pilots who volunteered or were nominated and trained to be one of Vance's flight test pilots.
"Flight testing takes highly-experienced pilots, preferably with many different planes under their belts," Colonel Nichols said. "The program seeks out these 'best of the best' to ensure the planes are safe before returning to training."
On one occasion, maintenance personnel discovered a T-37 that would not balance on its own center of gravity, Colonel Nichols said.
"The plane could possibly not fly like anything we were used to and cause some real trouble for a brand-new student pilot," he said. Aircraft maintenance determined that an additional five pounds were needed on the tail.
"It is common to have to add weight to a plane, but not that much," he said. "So flight test, working with aircraft maintenance, did much research and had many discussions to determine the best way to solve the problem, performed a check and then Lt Col (Dan) Smith flew it successfully. It's now back out doing its job."
Another test pilot, Maj Larry Earls, 32nd Flying Training Squadron, recalled one of his own experiences.
"We were performing a usual functional check flight and shut the engine down to restart it," he said. "We shut the number two down, but then during restart it lost electricity. After it stabilized and recovered electricity, we decided to perform the check again. The flight became a heavyweight, single-engine, no flap, emergency extension of the gear with inoperable pitch and rudder trim, without normal breaks. However, we did eventually land safely, checkride complete."
Although flight testing seems harrowing, the pilots are not usually in any real danger, Colonel Nichols said. To lessen the possibility, testers must be thorough, often looking for discrepancies not listed in a book, and use past experience to read between the lines.
Some even see many benefits to the duty.
"It's fun at times, getting to do things you can't normally do, like just shut off the engine," Colonel Nichols said. He said many of the test pilots wear their test patch proudly, because they know it shows they've been proven as one to keep calm in stressful situations. They are able to keep their heads together to make sure the aircraft is safe before turning it over to the squadrons for student training.
"It's also something different than pilot training," said Maj Brian Tucker, 32nd FTS. "It's nice to fly with another instructor, and it's also a good feeling to be a part of a different mission - with flight testing, instead of training the pilots, I'm ensuring that the aircraft they're flying is safe to return to training."