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1998 Speeches

Harry C. Stonecipher

President & COO

The Boeing Company

"Pushing the Envelope of Flight: A Tribute to the Test Pilot Community"

Presidents' Dinner

42nd Symposium of The Society of Experimental Test Pilots

Beverly Hills, California

September 24, 1998

When Lord Kelvin -- the great physicist -- was invited to join the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1896, he responded with these words:

"I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning, or of the expectation of good results from any of the trials we heard of. So you will understand why I would not care to be a member of your society."

A couple of years later, the greater inventor Thomas Edison voiced the opinion, "It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane . . . have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere."

And in 1901 -- two years before Kitty Hawk -- Wilbur said to Orville -- "Man will not fly for 50 years."

These stories prove Casey Stengel's point that "Predictions are difficult, especially about the future." But my reason for citing them is to point up a larger truth. Even the Wright brothers -- who were the first to use a wind tunnel to make precise measurements of all the forces operating on a model wing -- could not know exactly what to expect until they took their invention into the air. And from that day to this, despite all of the progress that has been made in wind tunnels, computational fluid dynamics, and other forms of ground-based research, no one has been able to figure out in advance all of the surprises that Mother Nature holds in store every time we attempt to build an aircraft that marks a significant advance in the state of the art.

As a result, the crucible of invention and progress in our industry is the flight test regime. Flight test is . . . and always will be . . . a critical laboratory in which new ideas and new procedures are developed, refined, perfected or rejected.

As someone who has never piloted an aircraft . . . but who has spent 43 years in this industry . . . "piloting" programs and companies . . . I would like to pay homage tonight to those of you who are the real "pioneers" of flight. I stand in awe of the kind of leadership that is exemplified by the members of your society and your profession. You lead in the truest sense of the word -- being the first to go into unknown territory . . . putting your skills and lives on the line in blazing a path for others to follow.

Our industry was founded and built by experimental test pilots. It began even before the Wright brothers with the contributions to the young science of aerodynamics made by Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute in designing and test-flying the first gliders.

It continued after the Wright brothers through the work of such people as Bill Boeing, Glenn Curtiss, Anthony Fokker, Howard Hughes, Glenn Martin, James McDonnell and Igor Sikorsky -- to name a few of the entrepreneurs who both built and tested airplanes in the course of creating great companies.

What other industry has contributed so many heroes to the folklore of our nation and the world? If you think of the automotive industry, there is but one name that comes instantly to mind -- that of Henry Ford. But if you think of aerospace, there are more than half a dozen -- Wilbur and Orville, Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Dolittle, Eddie Rickenbacker, Amelia Earhart, Chuck Yaeger, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. And all of them, of course, including the astronauts, were experimental test pilots.

Neil Armstrong once paid tribute to Lindbergh, saying. "He did it alone. We had a cast of a million."

That may be true, but it is also true -- to quote an old aphorism -- that the more things change, the more they remain the same. There is a wonderful continuity to the story of experimental test piloting. It is the old story of man against the elements. More than that, however, it is the story of people who are consummate professionals in both senses of the word -- both in the sense of possessing great mental and physical skills . . . and in the sense of pursuing a real calling.

Lindbergh frankly admitted that he tackled the New York-to-Paris challenge out of a sheer love of adventure. But he was also powerfully motivated by another objective -- moving aviation from a form of entertainment into commercial practicality.

That is why he moved from stunt flying to airmail before his historic flight. And that is why he went on a 48-state tour following his return -- landing at 2 PM at 81 airports.

People might write the transatlantic flight off as nothing more than a great adventure, like being the first to climb Mount Everest . . . but two PM at 81 airports . . . that was solid proof of the idea that aviation had arrived as a reliable means of transportation.

Obviously, there is no comparison between the airplanes of old and the airplanes of today in terms of complexity and performance. Nevertheless, the bond between the people who design advanced aircraft and the people who test-fly them is an enduringly close one.

We have about two dozen experimental test pilots at The Boeing Company, and I can assure you we bring them in at the front end of the design and development process, not just the back. A team composed only of deskbound engineers can design an airplane that flies; but a team that includes the experimental test pilot / engineer is far more likely to design an airplane that is superior in terms of how well it responds to being flown or piloted with a human being at the stick.

This is not to underestimate the importance of flight test in the final stage of design and development. The test pilot has the awesome responsibility of making a new aircraft safe for other (to be frank) less gifted pilots. That means taking the machine to the edge -- and beyond -- so that others will have an idea of what to expect and how to respond in the event of any one of dozens of emergencies.

What's more, there has never been the perfect "paper" airplane . . . or even, in our computerized age, the perfect "paperless" airplane. From Kitty Hawk to today, with every advance in aircraft, there have always been significant modifications and improvements made during flight test. Again, through his communication with the engineering team, the experimental test pilot doubles with the designer as co-inventor of the aircraft in its final design and integration.

Just as Orville briefed Wilbur after that first flight (telling him, among other things, about a fault with the elevator), so, in years to come, will test pilot and designer continue to work together in pushing the envelope of flight.


It has been a real honor to address this meeting of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. In looking around this room, I know that I am in the presence of real leaders, including, I suspect, some of the people who are destined to become the Glenn Martin's, the Jimmy Dolittle's, and the Neil Armstrong's of tomorrow. May you all -- in your personal endeavors -- continue to have shiny side up and greasy side down!

In the spirit of the evening, I will close by reciting a few lines from aviation's Homeric poet, Gill Robb Wilson. It seems to me that they capture some of the practical realities of test flying as well as some of the romance:

Ten thousand grand for a dozen g's,
And no one can take thirteen of these,
And all I do for this princely dough
Is climb as high as the ship will go,
And dive until the needle hits the pin
In the gadget that shows how far I've been.
Then throw her in reverse control
To see if I and the ship stay whole,
If the wings stay on and the fittings tight . . .
I climb again with like intent
To prove it wasn't an accident,
Pick up g's with a spinning fall
To see if she's weak that way at all,
I loop for balance and stall for glide
And whipstall hard with flaps out wide,
And spiral and slip and slam about
In landings rough as the tank can stand
To prove each step the designer planned.