Pilots Opinions

One way to distinguish the SETP as a professional society and not an ''advocacy group'' was through publication, and it began publishing a quarterly review in the summer of 1957. The papers published here and in the SETP's newsletter and then-magazine The Cockpit (many of them transcribed banquet talks), are a window into the dreams and anxieties of this distinguished group of aviators on the verge of the space age.

If we learn about technology development only from academic journals, then the picture is biased toward the viewpoints of engineers and researchers. If we study only newspapers and magazines, then the public account is all we see. Rarely, however, do the people operating the machines themselves have a voice outside the public, heroic accounts. Crystallizing that voice and making it heard were the goals of the SETP. The opinions in its pages do not all agree, and some weather the years better than others, but all reveal what it meant to be a test pilot in the 1950s and 1960s, and what the prospects for the future seemed in those exciting but uncertain times.

The SETP's first Quarterly Review came out just a few months before the inaugural banquet where General Horner questioned the survival of the pilot. It contained four papers. Only one, ''The Trend in Escape from High Performance Aircraft,'' addressed safety, the SETP's primary concern. The other three raised issues that would come to preoccupy the SETP and its members in coming years: the appropriate role of the test pilot, the rise of automation, and how those issues played out in current flight testing programs. For the next decade the pages of SETP publications traced the technology and its social implications.

Consider George Cooper's ''Understanding and Interpreting Pilot Opinion.'' Cooper, an engineer and test pilot at NACA's Ames Research Center in California, expanded on Gilruth's flying qualities work. Cooper noted the importance of pilot opinion, rather than quantitative factors, for determining flying qualities.36 This situation, he wrote, emphasizes the critical role of the pilot, because it ''imposes on the test pilot the responsibility for valid and consistent opinions on which design decisions can be based.''

Cooper sought to turn the pilot into a more objective reporter, a kind of human flight instrument.37 Cooper proposed ''a more specific definition of our adjectives,'' a numerical rating system he devised that broke down flight into regimes of normal operation, emergency operation, and no operation. Pilots would evaluate a characteristic according to these numbers, which corresponded to standard adjectives, varying from

''satisfactory'' to ''unprintable.'' A rating of 1, for example, represented ''excellent, includes optimum,'' whereas a 6 meant ''acceptable for emergency operation only'' and a 10 meant ''unacceptable under any circumstances.'' ''The use of the rating system,'' Cooper wrote, ''is not intended to discourage pilots from also using other descriptive—even colorful—words in describing their feelings.''38 Cooper's scale, later adopted as the ''Cooper-Harper rating scale,'' became a standard for evaluating aircraft in both NASA and the military.39

Cooper's scale sought to standardize the pilot's answers, the raw data. Then the flight test engineers needed to weigh the answers and accommodate for the pilot's background and biases. A test pilot for a fighter plane already on the front lines, for example, would be more critical than a research pilot investigating a new technique. Ideally, a given aircraft would be evaluated by test pilots with a variety of backgrounds. Pilots tended to find new characteristics of airplanes objectionable when they were new, but showed a remarkable ability to adapt. Human pilots proved so adaptable, however, that they sometimes actually masked potentially dangerous problems by learning to fly around them. Or perhaps they could master a certain situation, but with a degree of added concentration and distraction from other tasks that created a new problem. Hence, sometimes the pilot's initial impression should be of dominating importance, while other times pilot opinion should be considered only after a period of learning.

Cooper discussed one element genuinely different from the world Gilruth had lived in: the use of ''ground simulators in which a human pilot is part of the loop.'' Simulators created a new role for test pilots: comparing the results of simulations with actual flight. The pilots could fly test flight profiles on the ground before risking their lives in the air and could point out problems for the engineers to help them improve the models and the simulations. Cooper's paper showed that ''flying qualities'' and ''pilot opinion'' defined by Gilruth and others in the 1930s were by no means obsolete in the age of supersonic jet aircraft;in fact they were maturing and becoming more sophisticated as the role of the test pilot evolved as well.

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