South Africa’s TSFA provides a valuable service to nations requiring flight test qualified personnel. MS&T’s Europe Editor Dim Jones visited the academy.
During the latter half of the 20th century, South Africa became increasingly internationally (and, therefore, militarily) isolated, as result of its apartheid policies. This resulted in a culture of self-reliance that in many ways has endured beyond the nation’s restoration to the international fold in 1993. One example of such self-reliance is the Test Flying Academy of South Africa (TFASA), which is to be found near the town of Oudtshoorn, in the Klein Karoo, some 400km east of Cape Town.
Until the late 80s, South Africa had sent its would-be test pilots to commercial training centres overseas, including the US National Test Pilot School (NTPS) in Mojave. Satisfying an aspiration towards a national school, NTPS SA formed in 1998 at Thunder City in Cape Town, as a division of the US parent organisation with a remit to train overseas students as well as SA nationals. In 2002, NTPS SA received expressions of interest from China through the South African embassy in Beijing; however, this liaison proved diplomatically uncomfortable for the US State Department. As a result, NTPS SA was shut down and, in 2003, TFASA opened as a wholly-South-African-owned commercial organisation, free to pursue business with China.
Those nations which do not have their own test pilot schools must necessarily seek the training elsewhere. There are 4 main military test pilot schools in the western world – the USAF school at Edwards AFB and the USN school at NAS Patuxent River, The Empire Test Pilot School (ETPS) in UK and the French Ecole du Personnel Navigant d’Essais de Reception (EPNER) at Istres. Additionally, there is the Indian Air Force TPS at Bangalore, the Russian Ministry of Aviation school at Zhukhovsky, and the Brazilian EFEV at Sao Jose dos Campos. Places at these schools are greatly sought after, and an alternative for those who cannot secure them is a commercial organisation such as TFASA, which is a Corporate Member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
The TFASA Group comprises 2 main organisations: Operations, which includes the TP School; and the AVIC International Flight Academy (AIFA), a commercial aviation training school, which is a joint venture between AVIC-International (a Chinese company which has a 70% stake), and TFASA, which holds the remaining 30% share. AIFA is involved in training Chinese airline cadets, which is a highly-regulated activity in China, and for which there are only 28 accredited schools worldwide; AIFA conforms to both SA CAA and CAAC requirements. Training is ab-initio up to CPL(IR) equivalent standard, and is conducted on the latest glass-cockpit Cessna 172 or Piper Warrior aircraft, followed by Piper Seminole. The course finishes with a 20-hr introduction to airline operations on the King Air, and an AIFA graduate will typically leave RSA with about 250 hours. AIFA training takes place at 3 locations: Oudtshoorn, George and Beaufort West. George is also host to Blue Sky Aviation, a TFASA subsidiary, which trains civil helicopter pilots up to CPL/IR(H), ATPL/IR(H) and Instructor standard; Blue Sky specialises in advanced training for SAR and Police pilots, including Hoist, Cargo Sling and Night ratings. Initial SAR training is carried out on AS350 aircraft.
Returning to the Operations set-up, this comprises Operational Training, the TP School, Flight Test Services and Support Services. My hosts at Oudtshoorn were Jean Rossouw, CEO of TFASA Group, and Petri Van Zyl, the head of the TP School, both of them extremely experienced ex-SAAF TPs, Jean mostly on fixed-wing and Petri on RW, including time as the Project Test Pilot for the Rooivalk attack helicopter. Military Operational Flight Training includes an ab-initio course (up to a well-documented ‘Wings’ standard, endorsed by the SACAA) on the Blackshape Prime single-piston (to be replaced in 2017 by the turboprop version). Rotary single-engine conversion is conducted on Robinson R22 and R44 aircraft, single turbine on the Bell 206, and twin-turbine on the BO105. If required, a jet conversion, and post-graduate courses such as the Fighter Weapons Instructor Course, can be conducted in the customer country and using customer aircraft. Flight Test Services supports all aspects of TP operations, and Support Services provides personnel and administrative back-up.
The TP school trains all those involved in test flying: from pilots and Flight Test Engineers (FTE) through Flight Test Instructors and FT Managers, fixed- and rotary-wing, both military and civilian personnel, for whom the course content will be broadly the same; TFASA does not teach people to fly, it teaches them to evaluate, and provides them with a ‘toolbox’ of skills to be adapted to whatever may be required of them in the future. The aircraft flown on the course - typically 12 different types for fixed-wing and 8 for rotary – will be more role-specific. TFASA owns a variety of aircraft, selected for their individual flight characteristics and utility as teaching vehicles for various aspects of the syllabus. Fixed-wing aircraft include the Lear 24, Baron E55, Strikemaster, German Ikarus C42, the Extra 300 (principally for aerobatics and spinning), the Australian Jabiru SP120 and the Italian Blackshape Prime; RW students will initially fly the Robinson R22 and Eurocopter Bo105. For more advanced tasks, TFASA leases various aircraft to suit individual requirements: a fast-jet pilot may fly the Hunter or Cheetah, a RW pilot the Eurocopter Squirrel or Agusta Westland 109, and a commercial pilot the F28 or a Level 5 737 or A320 simulator.
Most of the aircraft are fully instrumented for air data, control position and body-axis data collection, with on-board recording for ground playback in support of training exercises. Several of the aircraft also carry telemetry systems for real-time data transmission through a ground telemetry station, allowing in-flight conduct of test plans and safety monitoring. Some of the equipment has been developed in-house to meet specific requirements for light weight or low volume. An example is a simple cockpit-mounted camera system for tracking control-stick position.
TFASA has also developed in-house a Variable Stability Simulator (VSS), which provides an invaluable teaching tool in support of FW stability and control, handling qualities and systems training courses. The VSS is based around a re-configurable cockpit, which can represent an airliner left seat or a single-seat fighter cockpit. The fully-programmable control stick can be adjusted for a wide range of mechanical characteristics, and can be positioned to the left, centre or right side of the pilot, to allow for detailed ergonomic and handling evaluations. The touch screens can be configured with very accurate primary displays from the Boeing 737-800, Airbus A320 or a variety of military jet types. The high resolution visual display allows accurate evaluation of closed-loop handling tasks. The control laws are fully variable, and can be adjusted to demonstrate all the variable characteristics related to handling qualities.
TFASA has a “pool” of 27 test pilots, flight test engineers, design engineers and academic staff. All Test Pilots are ex-military aviators with extensive operational and training experience, and all are graduates of a major western TP School. Staff pilot experience includes development flight test on Eurofighter, Gripen, JSF, Hawk, Tornado, Rooivalk, Apache, Tiger, Merlin, Mi24, and numerous fighter trainers and civil aircraft, including most Boeing, and Airbus, Dornier, Bombardier and even Concorde. The engineer staff are mostly senior design and development engineers from the aerospace industry or the military, covering all engineering disciplines, with particular skills in FCS design and development, handling qualities, aircraft flight model development and data regression, and simulation. The TFASA Aircraft Maintenance Organisation (AMO), which supports both Operations and AIFA, is approved by South African CAA for the maintenance of all the aircraft, and the design and implementation of the modifications typically required in test and development programmes.
Each flying location has its own operating area – there is a lot of airspace in South Africa – but TFASA aircraft can use any of them, and there are user agreements with Bisho airport in the Eastern Cape, and with Mafikeng, west of Johannesburg, which boasts the fourth longest runway in the world (4499m/14760ft); neither of these has any commercial traffic to conflict. When required, TFASA also has access to the Overberg Test Range (OTB) at Armiston (Bredasdorp). The weather factor, especially at Oudtshoorn, is extremely supportive of both training and flight test flying, and South Africa is a low-cost environment in which to conduct these operations, although there is no doubt that the busy flying operations from the airfield (which is contiguous with the urban area) has some impact on the town.
As well as the full graduate TP and FTE courses, TFASA provides a range of modular short courses – Performance, Handling Qualities, Flight Test Instrumentation, Weapons and Avionic Systems, Introduction to Flight Test, Flight Test Management, Digital Flight Controls and Upset Recovery Training – plus bespoke courses to meet specific client needs. One interesting facet of the training available is a collaboration with Calpan Corporation of Buffalo NY to use their Learjet In-Flight Simulator, which features an onboard-programmable Fly-by-Wire or Variable Stability System; this can take commands from a pilot on the flight deck, a sensor operator in the main cabin, a UAV operator on the ground, or an autonomous control algorithm, and can essentially be used to replicate programmable control system and aerodynamic characteristics not normally associated with the Lear. TFASA use it for handling qualities evaluation, the study of advanced flight control systems, and specialist subjects such as pilot-induced oscillation (PIO), side-sticks and upset recovery.
TFASA Flight Test Services provide civil and military flight testing across the spectrum. These have included: testing of the Hongdu L-15 trainer (an aircraft not dissimilar to the Alenia M346); simulator evaluations of Shenyang aircraft; high AOA and spin programmes for LE500 and AC500 light aircraft, and the Seagull 300 amphibian; and engine-off envelope expansion for AC311 and AC313 helicopters, the latter being a derivative of the Super Frelon, and the largest civil helicopter made in China.
In sum, TFASA provides a wide range of test flying and training services, from a purpose-built hub at Oudtshoorn. Its staff are extremely well qualified, and its dedicated aircraft are highly instrumented, featuring real-time air-to-ground telemetry, in-flight data display and playback, and lightweight in-house developed FTI. The company can also deliver courses offshore, using customer facilities if required. TFASA is not tied to any government or major aerospace company, and takes pride in its independence. The South Africa government remains politically neutral, maintains good relations with both West and East, and approves of TFASA’s business relationships. There is no doubt that TFASA’s close links with China have been beneficial for both parties; in particular, the close teamwork of TPs and FTEs at Oudtshoorn – where the FTE is an integral member of the airborne flight test team, rather than a ground-bound data processor - has been responsible for something of a culture shift in the Chinese flight test world, and resulted in a marked rise in the relative status of the FTE in China. It is also true that these links have been the source of some sensitivity. However, as the company points out, it provides a service; it does not sell anything, all activities are approved by the RSA National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), and most of them take place within the country. Lastly, and on a more parochial note, there is also no doubt that any impact which TFASA’s flying activities may have on Oudtshoorn and its population are largely mitigated by the economic benefits, not least through company-owned student accommodation, which it has conferred , at a time when the town’s two principal industries – ostrich-farming and tobacco - have been in temporary or terminal decline, the former due to culling consequent on the avian flu outbreak, and the latter the result of a global market downturn.
TFASA (www.tfasa.co.za) provides a varied, valuable and professional service to those nations requiring flight-test qualified personnel which either cannot, or choose not to, secure places at the established military test pilot schools.