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Boeing Frontiers
March 2004
Volume 02, Issue 10
Boeing Frontiers
Main Feature

Keen eye for details helps contain risks

Mike Wallace

Mike WallacePeople view test pilots as heroes—men and women ready to take unbelievable chances to take aerospace one step closer to the future. But the reality is somewhat different, said Boeing Integrated Defense Systems test pilot Mike Wallace, who flies the T-45 Goshawk, the F/A-18 Hornet and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

"It's not as glamorous or as dangerous as that," said Wallace, who works primarily at Boeing test facilities at Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River, Md. "We have a lot of built-in safety."

Today's test pilots fly only after a rigorous buildup process, which could include days or even weeks of preflight testing and analysis, time spent in simulators, and working with the test team to get an idea of what to expect when airborne. The test pilots' motto, learned from flight-test mishaps, reflects that: "Plan the flight, and fly the plan."

Still, there are risks. "Part of our job is to do things that other pilots aren't supposed to do—things that the aircraft manual specifically prohibits," Wallace said.

The difference between the "cowboy" image and reality is that while today's test pilots have to be daring and willing to take chances, those chances are minimized as much as possible by science, said Wallace, who joined Boeing in December 2001 after 15 years as a U.S. naval aviator.

An integral part of that risk mitigation rests with the characteristics of the test pilots themselves. They have to be adaptable, have a solid technical background, and a well-defined sense of attention to detail.

"All pilots have to pay attention to detail," he said. "But test pilots have to pay even closer attention than the average aviator." That level of attention is vital, he said, because that's what allows a test pilot to effectively evaluate the aircraft or weapon system.

Another characteristic Wallace said is critical in his job is being intuitive.

"The role of a test pilot often is to point out what's wrong," Wallace explained, "and sometimes, the data looks OK, the engineers are telling us it's OK, but we need to be able to sense when things are not right and explain it. [Test pilots] have to be satisfied" before the team can declare a test complete.

—Kathleen Cook


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