Using the Sky as a Laboratory

Flying qualities research, especially in the jet age, emphasized a new kind of professional: the test pilot, both skilled at stick and rudder flying and familiar with engineering.

The Wrights designed, built, and flew their own aircraft, as did many of the early aviators. In effect, the Wrights were their own test pilots, though the term did not exist in their day. In the decades before World War II, test pilots occupied a unique position between those who designed the machines and those who flew them. During the 1930s, the test pilots began to specialize: corporate pilots, who tested aircraft coming off the production line of a manufacturer; service test pilots, who tested aircraft and weapons in the military; and research test pilots, who worked with research engineers developing the fundamental ideas and technologies of flight.

A 1938 Hollywood movie, Test Pilot, starred Clark Gable, just one year before he was to portray Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, as a similar character operating outside the normal social world, always pushing the limits of his profession. In his best selling book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe portrayed test pilots as reckless risk-takers, cowboys who could not fit into traditional professional molds and who made a living pushing aircraft to their limits, often at the cost of their lives.

Perhaps some of them were, and they did place themselves at risk, but Wolfe's image misses their essential feature: although skilled craftsmen, intimate with the feel of their aircraft, test pilots worked as research engineers. Their goal was to collect data. As the historian Richard Hallion has written, ''A research airplane essentially uses the sky itself as a laboratory.''34 Increasingly over the course of the twentieth century, what it meant to be a test pilot was not only one trained in flying airplanes, but also one trained in engineering. Despite his prominence in Wolfe's account, Chuck Yeager belonged to an older breed, neither college-educated nor engineering-trained. ''He was very good at flying aircraft and doing aerobatics,'' recalled Neil Armstrong, ''but he seemed to have less interest in precision and getting information and drawing conclusions from that.'' By contrast, one Ames engineer described test pilot Joe Walker as ''the most cautious man I ever met.''35

Test pilots spent much of their time evaluating flying qualities, always in close touch with engineers on the ground (a feature of flight testing carried to extremes in Apollo). Test pilots understood not only how an airplane flew, but also why it flew. In addition to their cockpit skills, test pilots were also professional storytellers, experts at narrating and recounting their experiences. In the 1950s, as noted at the start of this chapter, they formalized their profession.

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