Monday, August 9, 2010

Chapter 30: Full Circle

For a few years this was my corner office, and many enjoyable hours were spent flying the brightly painted Robin Sport, which introduced many of my students to the world of flight test and aerobatics.

Once again I was immersed in the demanding world of fighter design, and teaching aircraft design to a new generation of enthusiastic university students. My weekends now gave the opportunity for flying a variety of smaller aircraft. All were challenging in their own way…

I eased my stick a fraction to the right to level my wings as our two aircraft came out of the gentle left hand bank where we had been circling out over the channel between Los Angeles Harbor and the island of Catalina, just visible between banks of low stratus. With the wings leveled, I scanned the sky through the bubble canopy of my French-built Robin Sport, carefully checking for other traffic, then looked back at the aircraft riding off to my left. Propeller shining in the sun and resplendent in a red, white and blue sunburst, it was a mirror image of my own aircraft. Twenty feet off my left wingtip fellow pilot and aerobatic instructor Rick Remelin was grinning across the intervening space.

A product of the eighties, the little Robin could give a creditable account of itself in basic aerobatics, but had enough avionics to make it capable of transporting me through the intricacies of the Californian Air Traffic Control system in comfort, yet still be a fun machine to fly. It was a useful way to introduce my aero engineering students to the basics of flight test, without having to incur the exorbitant costs of a more sophisticated machine.

As my logbooks slowly filled with a variety of aircraft, looking back I was struck with the thought that as I gained in experience the differences seemed smaller. The aircraft were, after all, just machines. It was fascinating to see how engineers and designers had solved different problems. But the aircraft themselves were just contrivances of metal, wood, fabric and composites. They were tools to do a specific job.

It’s the pilots who make the difference. Pilots as a breed tend to be rather matter-of -fact. They fly for a profession and sometimes look askance at the notion that anyone would think their way of life out of the ordinary. But listen sometimes to test pilots, bush pilots or instructors as they let drop some nugget of experience. I’m still learning. I’m indebted to those military and civilian pilots with whom I’ve shared cockpits around the world.
In particular I thank former US.Navy Test pilot Joel Premselaar. Joel started his career being catapulted in a floatplane from the deck of a battleship, and rounded off his military career flying some rather hairy test hops in Navy jets. Now there is a story. Joel took the time to show me how to really fly a Bonanza. Some of the tricks are not in the book, but as aids to survival, they are good ones.
As one who now spends his working life designing aircraft that will be around for many years, I have asked myself where the future may lead us.

What next? The aircraft designed by competing teams are now very similar in behavior, with handling qualities determined by the computers of their fly-by-wire control systems, rather than the idiosyncrasies of aerodynamics which drove former generations of designers and flight test engineers wild with exasperation. Aircraft shapes are changing dramatically. Powerplants are more powerful and more reliable. The areas of the unknown are shrinking in aircraft design.
But pilot physiology is still very much the same, and it is a fact that the pilots cannot take as much g-force as the aircraft. So the emphasis is changing in that field and unmanned vehicles will be increasingly popular on the military side at least. Pilots must now master complex systems rather than the techniques of stick and rudder as in former days.

But the challenges are still there in different forms. Flying of itself is a series of challenges. First solo, gaining the various ratings and advancing to more complex machines are all rewarding. Flying a Piper Cub down to a crosswind landing is just as challenging as scorching across the landscape at a significant fraction of the speed of sound.
I have had an enjoyable opportunity to sample a wide variety of flying machines. All of them unique in their way, from jets to sailplanes.
Vintage airplanes and warbirds are again different, nostalgic and in their own way just as challenging to fly as more modern machines…
But that, as they say, is another story.

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