It is the sort of job that features high on the career wish list for thousands of teenagers. For a generation raised on Hollywood blockbusters, its swashbuckling image has been fuelled by memories of Tom Cruise in Top Gun and Ed Harris in The Right Stuff.
The reality of being a test pilot, however, is in stark contrast to such images. The gung-ho spirit of flying a fighter aircraft beyond its performance envelope, risking life and limb for that all-important breakthrough is, in modern aircraft development, a myth.
One of the most technologically advanced fighters in development is the Eurofighter, and involved with its development is deputy Eurofighter project pilot, Keith Hartley.
Hartley entered the RAF via Cranwell College, graduating as a fixed-wing pilot from the Empire Test Pilots School in 1976. He moved to Boscombe Down as part of the RAF’s fast jet fighter, bomber and trainer test squadron, becoming project pilot for the Hunter, Jaguar, Lightning, Phantom and Buccaneer. He joined BAe in 1979, initially piloting the Jaguar and then becoming project pilot for the Tornado.
In 1988 he joined the International Test Pilots School at Cranwell, managing a test flying/development consultancy before rejoining BAe in August 1994. Here he was an experimental test pilot in flight operations, allocated to the EFA cockpit group, before taking up his present position. `What I do now is very different to what I was trained to do,’ he says.
For today’s test pilot, flying is only a minor, though still critical, part of the equation. Advances in technology and design tools have expanded the areas in which test pilots need to be proficient. At the same time they have retained their traditional responsibilities of keeping the programme and themselves safe.
`Now we can build extremely good computer simulations. You can test each aspect individually, gradually adding other elements,’ he says.
`This means that although the process starts in the traditional way, you can set the concept up on the simulator very early in the design process and let the aircrew assess it. Even better than that, you don’t just let the maker’s aircrew assess it, but the customer’s as well.
`Only when both teams are happy with the design do you document it and progress to the next stage. You can predict with great accuracy the handling of an aircraft long before it flies. When I first flew the Eurofighter it was uncanny. The only thing we cannot simulate are the g-forces and stresses,’ he says.
To enable test pilots to cope with their new responsibilities has meant changing how they are trained. They must now have a basic understanding of the technology.
`Traditionally, pilot involvement in the design process involved answering specific queries about technique and flying style. What you were not expected to do was give any input into how the pilot would like things to work: our role was to reactively assess designed systems and try to iron out the bugs,’ he says.
`What we do now is input directly into the design stage. Even the most cynical engineer will agree that the quality of the designs that emerge has improved enormously because of pilot input.’
Hartley is unequivocal about the new role of the test pilot. `First you need a test pilot to provide operational input about what goes on in the aircraft when it is in action. Second, you need a guy that has got all the push and drive in the world but knows how to work as part of a team, because no one person has all the skills that you need to do the job.
`It is not easy. Because you are a fighter pilot, you are not likely to be noted for quiet balanced behaviour,’ he says.
The chief dilemma, however, is the lack of authority. `One of the problems with the job is that pilots have a huge responsibility in driving the design forward yet are given no authority. So you have to do it by persuasion. The only way to gain any credibility with the engineers and project managers is by having a very good technical knowledge,’ he adds.
`If you get the balance correct between commercial, technical and operational pressures you are likely to crack it’.
Keith Hartley at a glance
Training: RAF College Cranwell; advanced flying training at RAF Valley and Chivenor
First job: Project pilot of Lightnings at RAF Binbrook
Current job: Experimental test pilot at BAe Warton
Interests: Chief pilot of a Hunter air display team and a member of two other teams, flying Jet Provosts, Vampires and Hunters. Delivers aircraft to South Africa for a private owner.