Enduring Lessons From Flight Test
After decades of working in the field of flight test, I recently rejoined the Society of Flight Test Engineers (SFTE). This well-regarded, global professional society supports learning and knowledge advancement in a very critical career field. My motivation to rejoin at this senior stage in my career was fundamentally technical curiosity. I am inquisitive to see how this field has truly advanced since I last worked in the role in the late 1980s.
I may be a little biased on this viewpoint, but I believe anyone entering a career in aerospace who wants to work on air platforms benefits greatly if they start their career as a flight test engineer.
Flight test engineering, by its very nature, is an incredible learning experience as it requires complete systems understanding, their makeup, and interactions. It drives maturing skills, both technical and non-technical. Technical in terms of understanding aviation systems in detail and their associated interplays (e.g., environmental control systems managed via propulsion bypass airflow), elements like human factors integration with avionics systems design, datalinks and system of systems integration between platforms, sensors, and weapon systems. Non-technical in terms of team dynamics and the interesting mix of civilian engineers with military test pilots.
My career as a flight test engineer started at the Naval Air Test Center Patuxent River, Maryland, on the Navy’s carrier-based F/A-18 fighter attack tactical jet. Transitioning academia as an aerospace engineering undergraduate into the high-risk reality of fighter flight test and as a graduate of the US Naval Test Pilot School was a both a daunting and simultaneously highly rewarding experience as a young professional.
As I started to explore the technical papers on the SFTE website, I reflected on how far my career has migrated and blossomed to where I am now today at Parsons Corporation. A lot of different progressive assignments since my roots as a flight test engineer, but foundationally I realized there was so much I learned back then that I still put into use today. If I had to summarize these lessons, there are three takeaways:
Plan The Test; Test The Plan
Flight test is all about careful preparation and mission execution optimization and knowing your resource limits (fuel state, pilot fatigue, local airspace boundaries, timing of air tanker arrival on station altitude). Lots of moving parts (literally!) to think about before takeoff. This is enduring because task assignments across my career, have always been about defining the complex work effort at hand, breaking it down into executable subcomponents, and allocating team resources to deliver an end-state solution outcome. Rapidly deviate from the plan, and you lose focus, increase performance, schedule, and cost management risk. On the early flight test missions I structured, some were too ambitious; factors such as air traffic deconfliction and real-time data analysis were all real-world degrading factors that I learned to appreciate with experience. I learned to be a better planner, and as a result, execution outcomes improved. This “plan the test; test the plan” still rings true today really on any assignment I encounter. Working at Parsons, this mantra permeates into our business planning and execution rhythms no matter what size of project or customer support effort. The real world can deliver “pop-up” unanticipated challenges – that’s where Risk Management comes into play.
Risk Is Everywhere; Manage It
Flight test is also about systematic risk management. Depending on the “plan”; potential risks exist with catastrophic life-endangering consequences. Probably the most stressful experience as a flight test engineer was when I conducted a F/A-18E Super Hornet “VL” dive for flutter testing. Our test pilot throttling the engines to maximum afterburner, fuel state draining at an incredibly rapid rate, and the jet approaching airspeed design limits – and now we purposely excited an airfoil structural dynamics device to ensure the wing did not frequency resonate and rip clean off. That’s risk! But you could get the job done if risk is managed properly. Risk management is essentially very comprehensive critical thinking. This type of risk identification, monitoring, mitigation, and control thought-effort has been very beneficial for me over time. Good risk management involves a team effort. Integrated teaming is indeed an essential practice in my current assignment at Parsons Corporation. In especially complex activities where we deliver key mission solutions offerings, you need to pull-in experts with diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and opinions to ensure you’ve mapped out the risk landscape. How one goes about doing this entails skills not just on the technical side of assessment, but also the human team interaction as well. Thus, soft skills are the hard skills.
Soft Skills Are The Hard Skills
Lastly, being a flight test engineer, you are at the nexus of many human interaction dynamics. That is, in many respects, more complex than deriving aerodynamic performance curves and stochastic data analysis. Aggressively ambitious military test pilots who bark about your test plan approach, crusty instrumentation technicians who complain about equipping your jet with unique “orange gear” (strain gauges, data recorders, telemetry antennas), grumpy plane captains who must prep and coordinate fueling your test aircraft on cold winter mornings. It wasn’t all that bad in retrospect, but as a young engineer who recently graduated from college, it was undoubtedly a shaping experience. It was a set of encounters where I learned more effectively to deal with so many different personalities, cultivate their commitments, and align the team toward the mission and vision of the test event itself, skills which I readily applied across numerous leadership assignments in so many ways and details. Soft skills to learn to deal with human dynamics, difficult people, the art of persuasion, team collaboration, and communication. All essential skills I continue to build upon and improve, especially managing a widely dispersed team at Parsons Corporation.
These are my early career experience lessons that still reverberate today. Some solid, professional reflections that accompany all the other great, fun memories of the test pilots I teamed with and the unique missions, including the high angle of attack departure resistance, high g maneuvering, precision weapon employments, and those sweet supersonic runs across the clear, blue Southern Maryland and offshore Atlantic skies.