Throughout the year, MS&T’s Dim Jones has been following the Course of 2019 through the Empire Test Pilots’ School (ETPS) at MoD Boscombe Down, the first involving both a new syllabus and a new aircraft fleet.

As the Fixed- and Rotary-Wing (FW/RW) pilot and Flight Test Engineer (FTE) students near the end of the course, this third instalment covers their final exercises, and reviews how these changes have affected the delivery of the ETPS course.

The final course project is Exercise Capstone, for which the students are formed into teams of two, one pilot and one FTE. The format is the same for FW and RW: ten days prior to deployment, the students are told which aircraft they will fly, and where; the next day, they are given the role in which they will be evaluating the aircraft, their detailed tasks, and the deliverables which will be expected at the end of it. They then have a week to come up with a test plan and trials instruction, define priorities, and formulate test cards. During this process, they will liaise with the host unit, through the ETPS staff, to determine whether their plan is acceptable and feasible. They will also be given access to the appropriate flight manuals. The aim is not for the students to qualify on the test aircraft, and they will always fly with a safety pilot.

On their return, they will prepare a report, following which they will have a ‘round-table’ discussion with one or more tutors - the Viva Voce - during which they will discuss their report, and answer questions on it. All that then remains of the course is some familiarisation flying on aircraft of the opposite discipline (i.e. RW in FW and vice versa), preparation for the return to home countries and next units, and the final Dining-In Night, at which various prizes will be announced and presented, including the coveted McKenna Trophy for the best all-round student.

Unlike the Simulator

Aaron, our Australian F-18 pilot, and his FTE partner Marko were tasked with evaluating the F-16 as a replacement for Tornado GR4 in the Close Air Support (CAS) and Air Interdiction (AI) roles, with the (safe) assumption that the F-16 would be superior in the air-to-air arena To achieve the aim, Aaron flew a simulator sortie to practise start and engine handling procedures, carried out a cockpit assessment on the ground, and then three sorties in the front seat of the F-16D. The aircraft was equipped with Flight Test Instrumentation (FTI), through which Marko could monitor the sortie parameters in a telemetry ground station. Marko flew one sortie in the back seat of the F-16, to evaluate the FTI in the aircraft. The team had requested air refuelling (AR) as part of a sortie but although approved a tanker was not available.

Pilot Aaron and FTE Marko were tasked with evaluating the F-16D as a replacement for the Tornado GR4 in its CAS and AI roles. Image credit: Lockheed Martin/Chad Bellay

The air exercises comprised bombing and strafe attacks using the F-16’s Constantly-Computing Impact Point (CCIP) mode on an air-to-ground range, during which the aircraft was assessed for its ability to achieve and maintain the desired attack profile (level or dive), its stability in the dive, and the precision of handling and weapon-aiming, particularly in strafe. Aaron came out with some interesting observations. He thought that the aircraft did not handle like the simulator; this was probably more apparent to someone with no hours in the aircraft than to someone with experience on type, who would subconsciously make compensatory adjustments. Although he found the side-stick configuration comfortable in terms of posture, he found the outward wrist-turning to achieve right roll felt unnatural, possibly as a result of comparison with his primary type, the F-18 - and, indeed, exposure to different control designs is one of the aims of the Capstone project. Interestingly, although Aaron’s 2019 Block 40 aircraft differed somewhat from the 1980 Block 5s and 10s of my distant memory, I cannot recall feeling the same. On completion of ETPS, Aaron will return to the Super Hornet at the Australian Aircraft Research & Development Unit, while Marko will head back to 322 (Polly Grey) Squadron, the Dutch F-16 Test Squadron.

Simulating the Maritime

Meanwhile, US Navy MH-60R Seahawk pilot Taylor, and his FTE team-mate Dave, were assigned the task of evaluating the NHIndustries NH-90TTH (Tactical Transport Helicopter), in the Maritime Utility (shipboard support helicopter) role. The NH-90TTH Caiman is the French Army version, and the team travelled to Valence in southern France, home of the Gamstat unit. One of the key roles of the MH-60R is VertRep (Vertical Replenishment), typically the resupply of a warship from a support vessel using underslung loads. This operation needs to be accomplished as quickly as possible and involves manoeuvring in close proximity to both vessels. Other tasks involved evaluating the nap-of-the-earth handling qualities of the NH-90, restricted area landing, and hover performance in the turbulence often associated with flying close to a ship’s superstructure. The team also looked at the Top Owl Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS), and associated Night Vision Goggles (NVG) and Forward-Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) capabilities.

The live missions were flown over land, replicating as best they could the conditions to be found at sea and commenced with three two-hour simulator sorties, during which Taylor found the simulator to be good preparation for the real thing. The team carried out four flights, totalling five hours, with Taylor in the RHS, a safety pilot in the LHS, and Dave on the jump-seat. The aircraft were standard line airframes, so not fitted with FTI, but the team made use of voice recorders and a GoPro video which was used to record parameters such as cyclic and collective movements. The major drawback was an almost total lack of wind during the exercise period, which made replicating some of the tasks extremely difficult. Taylor reported that the aircraft was good to fly, and - bearing in mind that he was evaluating the Army variant in a maritime role – he noted that some of the autopilot functions were very different from those he was used to in the MH-60R. The Valence detachment marked a milestone for Eric Fitzpatrick, an ETPS RW tutor for 27 years, and my ‘minder’ for my H125 sortie – this was his last ‘QualEval’, and he has now hung up his flying boots, but will continue as a ground instructor.

Project Diversity

Other Capstone projects saw teams deploy to: Calspan at Niagara, to evaluate the Gulfstream G3 as a ‘flying laboratory’; to the US Navy at Point Mugu, California, to evaluate the P3C Orion in the counter-smuggling role; and to NAS Patuxent River, to test the Fairchild Swearingen Metroliner as a weapons-range clearance aircraft. The first required the ability to manoeuvre at all altitudes with asymmetric loads, replicating the fast jets which would eventually carry the weapons or systems to be tested. The second and third would require low level patrol, detection and visual identification capability.

A Successful Transition

The new ETPS syllabus and aircraft fleet have now undergone their first full year of operation. Dealing with the latter first, there have been few issues arising from the switch from the military to the civil register. Where waivers to the normal regulations have been requested, such as the PC-21 exceeding 250kts below 10,000’, the CAA have been supportive. Aircraft availability has generally been good, although temporary unserviceabilities have caused some rescheduling of events.

PC-21 operations in this first year were disrupted by their scheduled maintenance occurring simultaneously but this will be deconflicted next year. The Airbus 125s have performed well, as have the A109s, once the FTI fit on the latter was approved. The most critical issue has been the long-term unserviceability of one of the Grob 120TPs which suffered an engine overtorque, necessitating an engine rebuild (the detent not protecting against inadvertent application of excess throttle). The extended loss of one aircraft has been problematic but the sophistication and systems capability of both 120TP and Pilatus PC-21 have made them excellent training vehicles for ETPS. According to the CO, Commander Steve Moseley, the current fleet of aircraft at ETPS is the right one. Students from fast jet fleets come from aircraft that are systems-rich, fly-by-wire and have glass cockpits. The old ETPS Hawks and Alpha-Jets were the opposite in all these respects. The PC-21 provides a cockpit and systems suite that a modern fighter pilot would recognise, with an instrumentation package that is much more advanced than the legacy fleet. With the fly-by-wire and high-speed elements of the course taught on the Gripen at Linköping, and access to suitable fast-jets for Capstone, ETPS are confident that they now have the right fleet.

Episode One of this saga made clear that ETPS was not changing what was taught, but how that teaching was delivered. Previously, systems work started later, and was fed in the to the syllabus in a more piecemeal way. Now a separate systems course is run from the start. The programme must also be flexible enough to allow scheduling during better weather conditions. Initial impressions are that this timing was not ideally suited to the long-course students, in that it required them to address systems issues when perhaps they were insufficiently experienced to perform both flying and testing tasks simultaneously.

Next year, ETPS are not running a separate Systems Course and so it will not impact the long course delivery. As regards alignment with EASA regulations, compliance with Flight Crew Licensing (FCL) and meeting the requirements of an EASA Approved Training Organisation (ATO) have not presented significant problems.

Knowledge, Skills & Attitude

In terms of T&E qualifications, Class 1 and Class 2 are essentially demarcated by the fact that only the former perform experimental testing. The military Class A and B classifications use the same discriminator, but the ETPS staff view is that all students need to acquire the attributes of Knowledge, Skills and Attitude, such that they can apply scientific rigour to testing in a dynamic environment.

In terms of individual achievement, no student has really struggled, and the workload is judged to have been reduced from previous levels. Whether or not this has also restricted the best to attain their full potential will be subject to review. The established progression from ‘coaching’ through ‘mentoring’ to ‘stretching’ will continue, but the balance may need adjusting. Next year’s course will comprise 13 pilots and eight FTE students plus one upgrading pilot, which will present a challenge. Additionally, ETPS are planning to provide assistance in delivering a practical element to the RAF’s GD Aerosystems Course, hitherto a year-long purely-ground-based event which will undoubtedly test the new system.

A Changing Culture

Even with the revised syllabus and fleet, training T&E aircrew is an expensive business and, since qualified personnel are in great demand in civil and commercial aviation, retention is a major issue. The course is also voluntary, and therefore has to appeal to potential applicants. The demographic has changed fundamentally from days gone by, and the ETPS culture has necessarily shifted with it adjusting to the average age of a UK entrant increasing, family commitments and greater student diversity.

Prestigious Status Maintained & Enhanced

Flt Lt Brodie Kilkenny RAAF receives the McKenna Trophy from inventor and guest of honour Richard Browning. Image credit: QinetiQ.

The Course of 2019 is now at an end; the prestigious McKenna Trophy was awarded to a Flight Test Engineer, Flt Lt Brodie Kilkenny RAAF, for his overall performance across the year and his outstanding demonstration of the ethos of T&E team-working, and the graduates have departed for their follow-on assignments.

There is no doubt that the transition in syllabus, aircraft fleet and governance has presented a major challenge, the more so since there was no fallow period in which to effect it. That this course has completed the syllabus on time is testament to the planning and effort which has gone into the transformation; no course is perfect, but the necessary ‘tweaks’ can now be applied less precipitately.

ETPS is the world’s oldest test pilots’ school, and undoubtedly one of the most prestigious. Thanks to a lot of hard work and a well-founded military/commercial partnership, it looks set to maintain, nay enhance, that reputation.


Synthetic Training

One of the aspects of the course which has changed less than others during the recent transition has been the use of synthetic training. As with flying training there is a move towards increased use of simulation but there are factors in test flying which influence its utility. One of these is that the ETPS fleet comprises 12 types of aircraft, all in small numbers. It is impractical to operate type-specific simulators so when they are required, such as for simulator evaluation, the School will buy in time from whoever owns the appropriate simulator. Among the devices used on this course have been: the A400M Atlas at RAF Brize Norton (Thales); the A109 at Sesto Calende (Leonardo); the Sea King at RNAS Culdrose (HeliOps); the PC-21 at Stans (Pilatus); BA’s Airbus A380 and Boeing 777 at Heathrow; and the Gulfstream 550 at Burgess Hill (CAE). Simulators have the advantages of relatively low cost, availability and that some high-risk exercises can only be performed in a simulator. Examples are the minimum ground control speed and minimum unstick speed exercises performed on the 777 and the engine test performed on the A380.

Image credit: QinetiQ

ETPS does own its own simulator. This generic device was originally manufactured for the former Royal Aircraft Establishment at Bedford, and was used for development flying, for instance to model F-35 flight control laws. When RAE Bedford closed, the simulator was moved to Boscombe Down and ‘re-purposed’ to support the ETPS course. It is a full-motion device incorporating a partial-dome visual system with FOV of about 270o horizontal and +/- 15o vertical, and a relatively low-definition database. It has two interchangeable cockpits which can be changed in about 2 hours. One has side-by-side seating and can be configured to represent fixed- or rotary-wing; it has a HUD and a basic instrument display, which includes an FTI screen. The other is a single-seat cockpit of the Hawk/Harrier genre. The simulator supports several types of syllabus exercises including giving FTEs cockpit experience and supporting their final course exercise. The control laws can be adjusted to provide different effects; for instance, the single cockpit can represent a fly-by-wire Hawk with poor control characteristics, inviting the students to try and improve them. I had a go at manoeuvring around a Voyager tanker, while the simulator instructor tampered with roll-damping, and pitch and roll lag and time delays; this proved vastly entertaining for both us.

The simulator provides a useful stepping-stone between academics and live flying throughout the course, and the staff are continually seeking ways to make more use of it. They are actively pursuing an upgrade that will have COTS components but the requirement to vary the flight characteristics will almost certainly require a bespoke solution.