Mojave Desert Test Pilot School

Nerves of Steel: Mojave Desert Test Pilots

words: Andreas Rottenschlager
photography: Jim Krantz

Deep in California’s Mojave Desert, an elite group of fliers is training for aviation’s riskiest role – pushing new aircraft to their limits, and beyond, as a test pilot. Blending ice-cool calm with a love for life on the edge, it’s a job suited to a select few. Meet the million-dollar men on a mission to the edge of control

On his worst working day, Jim Brown was just two tenths of a second away from death. It was a warm afternoon in the Mojave Desert, California on October 10, 2003. Brown, a Lockheed Martin test pilot at the time, was determining the loads an F-22 fighter aircraft could take. It was a routine job, even if the test schedule read like a call sheet for a Hollywood stunt sequence.

Brown first had to break the sound barrier in the $240 million fighter jet, then flip the aircraft upside down, then complete a 360-degree roll, after which he would bring the aircraft to a stop with full opposite control on the stick. Sensors would measure deflection of the wings: a matter of millimetres. The Lockheed engineers back on the ground would analyse the data in real time.

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The then 49-year-old pilot had practised the manoeuvre in the simulator for two hours before taking off from the runway at the Edwards Air Force Base at 1pm. The sky was aquamarine; visibility was perfect. Forty-five minutes after take-off, Brown burst through the sound barrier. All he felt in the cockpit of the high-tech fighter was a slight rumble. He flipped the aircraft upside down. The test engineer radioed through the command: “Three, two, one, go!”

Watch the video to find out what’s on a test pilot’s daily curriculum

© youtube // TheNTPS

When Brown slammed the stick to the right, he immediately felt something wasn’t right. The plane was rolling much too slowly and its nose was pointing towards the ground. Brown was now hurtling downwards at supersonic speed. The barren desert landscape filled his field of vision. He focused on a Joshua tree below, picking out its contours and branches. 

Brown stopped the roll and yanked the stick aft with all his might and 700kg of centrifugal force jammed him into his seat. He managed to force the aircraft back into an ascent, but only just. A momentary hesitation, a sliver of indecision, and the outcome might have been tragically different. 

Once safely back on the ground, he worked out how long it would have been until he crashed. Two tenths of a second. The blink of an eye.

Jim Brown

A GoPro HERO5 shot of test pilot instructor Jim ‘JB’ Brown in the cockpit of a Northrop T-38 Talon. How has he survived? “Instinct, years of training, and the ability to think quicker than the plane”

Mojave, California, 13 years later. Jim Brown, now 62 and an instructor at the National Test Pilot School, stands in front of an aircraft hangar, analysing his near-miss. “Three things saved me back then,” he says. “Instinct, years of training, and the ability to think quicker than the plane.”

A tall man with short, greying hair and features somewhat reminiscent of those of former US president George Bush, Brown is one of the most experienced test pilots in the States, having spent 9,300 hours in the cockpit. He’s flown 152 different types of aircraft – everything from tiny Cessna light aircraft to airliners with 300 passengers on board – plus he has tested the navigation equipment on the iconic F-117 stealth fighter.

If there’s anyone who can tell you about the strength of will, precision and mental acuity test pilots must possess, it’s Brown.

Gaining experience in the outer reaches of physics: a National Test Pilot School T-38 training jet above the Mojave Desert 

The first to put a new aircraft through its paces, test pilots push the tolerances of a plane’s systems in a bid to make them fail, searching for the critical issues that cannot be tolerated in a form of transportation that might go into service on the front lines or ferry millions of passengers around the world. In these arenas, failure is simply not an option. Once the checks are complete, the test pilots go on to co-author the aircraft’s technical manuals, providing precise feedback to the designers.

T-38 Rainbow Canyon

A T-38 over Rainbow Canyon, California. Few people have all the skills needed: precision, courage and specialised knowledge

Or, as Brown puts it, “You have to explain to the engineers that their baby is ugly, without annoying them. We work so that a young pilot can get his plane back to base safely in a storm. We work for the crew on board a Boeing that’s flying families off on vacation.” 

Few people manage to combine the flying skills, detailed technical knowledge and courage required. When Brown left Lockheed in 2016, his mobile began ringing after just two hours. Men with his level of experience are extremely rare. By the end of that telephone conversation, Brown already had a new job offer, training elite test-pilot students.

His employer, the National Test Pilot School, is the only institution of its kind for civilian flyers anywhere in the world. It operates out of five hangars in Mojave, a small town in the desert, two hours north of LA. The town has a gas station, some musty motels, and no one would willingly stop here were it not for the Mojave Air and Space Port, America’s legendary flight-test zone. It was close to here, in 1947, that Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier. It was over the Mojave where young test pilot Neil Armstrong flew the aggressive X-15 rocket planes before achieving immortality as the first man on the Moon.

At the National Test Pilot School, airplane and helicopter test pilots from all over the world learn how to observe precisely, give accurate feedback and keep a cool head in situations where 99 per cent of people would totally lose it.

An L-39 jet over the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The three runways are at the entrance to the Mojave Desert, the most renowned flight-test area in the US

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How do they do it?

“Self-discipline,” says Brown. “Give yourself a moment. Take a deep breath. There aren’t many situations where you have to make decisions within fractions of a second.”

Even in emergencies?

“Especially in emergencies,” he says. “You can make any problem worse by acting in haste. Clear your head. Work out what your greatest problem is. Try to solve it.”

Among those on the receiving end of Brown’s wisdom are the students of the Professional Course: a 50-week syllabus comprising flight theory, simulator training and deployments in 30 different types of aircraft. Successful graduates leave with what must be one of the world’s most expensive Masters degrees, costing close to $1 million. “As you can imagine, businesses and the military only enrol their best pilots for it,” says Brown with a grin. 

So who are these million-dollar students?

“Speak to Marco.”

A helicopter prepares for take-off at the national test pilot school

Marco Lisi is one of the course’s million-dollar men. The 32-year-old, who hopes to become a test pilot for the Italian Air Force, is in good shape, with intense blue eyes and a firm handshake. Lisi is on his way to training: his task today is to make an Aermacchi Impala lose control over the desert and study how the plane behaves in a nosedive. The Impala is a two-seater trainer jet from the 1960s. “You can make them lurch from side to side with relative stability,” he says, coolly.

“People only panic about things they don’t know about. You can break down the panic, step by step. The more secure you become, the broader your window of perception” 
Marco Lisi

There are YouTube videos of the Impala tests where you can see its cigar-shaped fuselage floating high above the desert floor. Then the nose of the plane tilts downwards. The plane starts doing corkscrew turns as it hurtles towards the Earth. It spins four, five, six times before the pilot gets it back under control. 

The really complex thing about all this is that the test pilot students don’t just have to rescue the plane, they also have to stay calm as the plane spirals out of control and mentally log data on how the plane behaves for later download. How fast did the aircraft spin? At what angle? How long was it before the control inputs kicked in?

“People only panic about things they don’t know about,” Lisi explains. “You can break down the panic, step by step. You learn the physics of the Impala. You do the spins in the simulator beforehand. You have your instructor in the seat behind you. You start doing just one spin. The more secure you become, the broader your window of perception.” 

Lisi’s eyes actually sparkle as he talks about the nosedives. Once he completes training, he’ll be testing Eurofighters in Italy. And there’s not a moment’s doubt that he will enjoy the job.

Watch the video to find out more about the aircrafts in NTPS

© youtube // TheNTPS

It’s afternoon, back at the hangar. The most combative jet in the test school’s fleet is the Northrop T-38 Talon, a two-seater, supersonic training plane with a sharp nose and razor-thin wings. Jim Brown and his co-pilot are going to fly it through the Rainbow Canyon today to practise low aerial manoeuvres. 

Brown’s destination is a 5km rift in the volcanic rock in the heart of the Mojave Desert. For 20 years, jet pilots have been using the Rainbow Canyon to practise manoeuvres. It’s the best place in the US to watch low-flying jet fighters.

Aviation fans start setting up along the canyon in the morning, splaying out chairs, gazebos, huge cooler bags. Telephoto lenses are unpacked and screwed to camera bodies. You can spot the real enthusiasts by the radio sets they use to listen in on the pilots’ on-board radio. Soon there’s a rumble in the air. 

To start with, the T-38 is just a small dot on the horizon, before it clears the range of hills and dives deep into the canyon. The spectators look down at the cockpit. Brown turns left, then right, before soaring out of the canyon and over our heads at 800kph and ascending steeply towards the sky. 

Experience air-to-air combat like a fighter pilot

Become a fighter pilot in an Italian SIAI-Marchetti SF-260 at Orange County's Air Combat USA dogfighting school.

The sound alone is enough to give you an idea of the jet’s power. When a T-38 is close to the ground, it sounds like a circular saw cutting through steel, played through the PA of some extreme metal band. By the time the pummelling roar fades, Brown’s aircraft is just a dot in the sky. 

Later that day, we’re in a classroom at the National Test Pilot School. Brown is talking about flying low through the canyon. “You have to anticipate the flight path and dodge any deceptive shadows,” he says. “Your co-pilot radios the speed and G-force. You just concentrate on the landscape and your hand-eye co-ordination. Your job is to not crash into the rock face.” 

Brown says that every experienced test pilot has accident stories to tell. A friend of his died when his jet crashed in 2009. Brown had to knock on his wife’s door to break the news. One way in which test pilots deal with grief is to give intense feedback. There are notes and data for every single one of their flights. In the simulator, Brown flew the manoeuvre that had killed his friend. He worked on solutions, came up with possible causes and analysed the statistics. After that crash, Brown was on the podium at the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, an organisation for test pilots from more than 30 countries. 

Runway marks

Tyre marks on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California

“Sharing mistakes is a basic pillar of being a test pilot, and not just from accidents, but from everyday life and training, too,” Brown told the assembled members. “Your team can make good use of those mistakes. There always have to be learning experiences.”

This is perhaps the most important lesson a test pilot must learn: even bad mistakes offer an opportunity for development. The day’s training complete, Brown takes a walk along the Mojave runway, which still radiates the heat of the afternoon sun. He takes his logbook from his jacket pocket. It contains data, details of the aircraft type, and comments from every flight he’s flown, all recorded in the immaculate script of a primary school mistress. The information is precise and clinical. Brown devoted just three words to his 2003 near-miss: near ground impact. 

He says the experience didn’t make him think about giving up the job for a single second. There’s enough work for test pilots to be getting on with as it is. According to an entry in his logbook, Brown was back in the cockpit eight days later. 

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08 2017 The Red Bulletin

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