Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Meet a Test Pilot

  • Posted 02.04.03
  • NOVA

Navy Commander Philip "Rowdy" Yates knows how to fly fighter jets. He has accrued over 2,000 test and tactical flight hours, mostly in F-14s and F-18s. He has made more than 300 landings on aircraft carriers. Most significantly, he served as the Navy's chief test pilot on the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, conducting test flights of Boeing's experimental X-32 fighter plane. In this interview, hear from Yates on what it's like to hurtle straight towards the ground at 575 miles per hour, why he strives to make his job as boring as possible, and why he doesn't mind that the plane he flew, Boeing's X-32, lost the JSF competition to Lockheed's X-35.

Navy Commander Philip "Rowdy" Yates in the cockpit of Boeing's X-32 experimental fighter Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Philip Yates

Flying high

NOVA: What's it like to fly something that nobody's ever flown before?

Philip Yates: The highlight of every test pilot's career. Dream come true. You can use all those trite phrases. A lot of my peers and contemporaries were probably pretty jealous of what I was able to do with the X-32. I don't know how to say it any better than just that it was the highlight of my career.

How did you prepare yourself for your first test flight of the X-32?

Well, test pilot school is a year of intense flight training, engineering, and report-writing, and that instilled about all I needed. It's clear that having a little more experience helped, but as far as getting trained for X-32 flights, it's just becoming familiar with an airplane that you're not familiar with. That's about the best you can do, and you can learn that at test pilot school. It doesn't matter whether it's an airplane that's never been flown before or an airplane that has been flown before but just not by you.

"Most guys that are successful test pilots are successful because of their conservatism."

Did you lose sleep before that first flight, or was it just business as usual?

It was certainly exciting. I can remember driving into the Boeing plant in Palmdale, California, on days leading up to the first flight and trying to imagine what it was going to be like the day of. I don't think I lost any sleep. I woke up excited and looking forward to the day, both the day of the first flight, during which I was a chase pilot, and the day of my first flight.

In general, test flights are not really something I worry too much about. We work hard to predict the behavior of the aircraft, to understand what's going to happen when I go out and do the test maneuvers, so I feel pretty good.

Yates takes his first flight of the X-32A during early flying quality evaluations. It's only the plane's fourth time in the air. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Philip Yates

Blending courage and caution

Test pilots have to be both daring and conservative, I guess.

Very much so. And daring I think is probably too strong a word. There's a quote I like to use, which I'd like to claim as mine but I can't! It's from a test pilot friend of mine, whom I have tremendous respect for. He says, "We work real hard to make test flights as boring as possible." The daring part of it—anyone that wants to be a test pilot just takes that for granted. On the outside, folks probably think it's daring, but from the very beginning we say, "It's not daring, it's just going out and flying airplanes." In fact, I would argue that most guys that are successful test pilots are successful because of their conservatism.

Besides this conservatism, what else characterizes the best test pilots?

I'd say an ability to synthesize new information. We're aviators, we're engineers, and we're communicators, and it's the ability to be all those things successfully at once. When a light comes on in the cockpit, or a "situation" presents itself, and you have the ability to say, "Oh, I think I know what I need to do here," and then you do it—that is the mark of a good test pilot.

It's not something that only I or any of the other Joint Strike Fighter test pilots have. It's something that is taught at test pilot school, and it becomes second nature for folks who are good test pilots. That's true whether they're flying a brand new airplane or one they've flown more than any other in their careers.

So is a test pilot made or born, or a little of both?

A little of both. In my case, I've had a strong interest in aviation and engineering since I was 12. So to some extent, at least speaking personally, it's innate. But you can't just go out and do stuff test pilots do based on a strong desire. It takes a lot of effort, study, and training, so in that regard I'd say they are probably made more than they're born.

The F-18, here preparing for take-off on an aircraft carrier, is one of several fighter planes that Yates has flown during his career. Enlarge Photo credit: © U.S. Department of Defense

The right stuff

What advice do you have for those interested in becoming test pilots?

First, you need to have that engineering sense. There are guys who are music majors or political science majors who become successful test pilots, but you need to be able to understand what makes airplanes fly and what makes systems work. The flying part of it—there's a pretty big spectrum of piloting ability. There are guys in the fleet who are safe but not as adept as other folks. So you need to have some above-average stick and throttle skills. I think there's a certain maturity, too, that's looked for when recommending guys in the fleet for test pilot school. They need to be able to conduct themselves in front of large groups of people in a way that connotes credibility and intelligence.

You fly for the Navy. Do test pilots tend to specialize in either commercial or military?

Well, before there were test pilots there were just fleet guys, Navy or Air Force guys who got picked because they were kind of smart and good pilots, and the military said "Okay, we need you to do this stuff on a new airplane." Then the services decided that that was probably not a good way to go about it. They needed to provide test pilots with formal training. So they developed test pilot schools in the Navy and the Air Force.

For the past 10 years or so a commercial test pilot school has been offered out in California—the National Test Pilot School. I believe they train a lot of foreign nationalists out there, and to some extent the major contractors will send folks through, including a lot of engineers. But mostly it's the military that generates qualified test pilots. The French and the British have schools too, all managed by their militaries.

As an interesting side note, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, did not go to test pilot school. He was not a military test pilot school graduate.

And yet he showed his cool there, landing the Eagle with less than 30 seconds of fuel left...

Totally. He definitely had what it took.

Flying at over 270 mph at an altitude of 20,000 feet, Yates brings Boeing's X-32A into contact with a KC-10 Extender during a flight test. Enlarge Photo credit: © Boeing

Life in the sky

As a test pilot, how much say do you have in how to go about testing a new plane?

Quite a bit. We work very closely with the flight test engineers in developing test plans and how we're going to carry out those test plans in the air and then in reporting what was done in the air. Ultimately, we test pilots have 51 percent of the vote, because it's our butts in the airplane!

"Nothing gets a pilot's attention faster than an airplane not doing what the pilot's telling it to do."

Makes sense. Have you ever had any scary moments?

From a test standpoint, no. As an F-14 guy coming from the fleet, I was strictly air-to-air; I didn't do any air-to-ground work as an operational pilot. But immediately after test pilot school, I did get into air-to-ground weapons separation testing, where the profiles were 60-degree dives at 500 knots [575 mph]. That took a few hard swallows, and "You want me to do what?" But that was standard operating procedure. Nothing happened in the air that caused my heart to race because, say, something didn't work. They just said "Point your nose at the ground, go 500 knots, and at 10,000 feet push the button and then pull up."

In the X-32, we had two flights in which we had some lights come on in the cockpit. Nothing gets a pilot's attention faster than an airplane not doing what the pilot's telling it to do. But in both cases the airplane was flying the way it was supposed to fly; it was completely controllable. So once I realized that, which took about half a second each time, it wasn't that big a deal. I flew back and landed.

How about crossing the sound barrier? What's that like?

Fairly uneventful, I'm afraid. The general public makes a lot more of that than we pilots do. With the F-18 and F-14, you just light the afterburners and go faster; there's no sensation in the cockpit. Sometimes some aerodynamic things happen to the controls, so you get a little feedback in the stick that maybe you're going through the sound barrier and that shockwaves are forming.

An F-14 Tomcat, one of the fighters that Yates has flown, sits in its catapult, ready to take off from the deck of a carrier. Enlarge Photo credit: © U.S. Department of Defense

You don't hear a sonic boom?

No. There's really no perceptible change in the noise. It's not like all of a sudden you don't hear the sound of your engine anymore because you're going faster than sound. It's fairly anticlimactic. You look down at the airspeed indicator, and you're going 700 knots instead of 650 knots, that's all.

I've taken engineers flying for the first time, and they come down and say "Oh, that was great." I say "Well, was it what you expected?" And they all say "No." They thought it would be a lot more exciting than just going faster.

Have you ever had to eject?

No, thankfully. A lot of friends have had to, but I've never even had a thought of reaching for the handle. Airplanes that I've flown, fortunately, have always stayed together for me.

Flying on the ground

How many hours do you spend in a simulator before you fly a new experimental plane?

Well, I think Fred Knox, who was the lead Boeing test pilot for the X-32, had 150 hours prior to the first flight. I had over 100. And that's important. It's something that we're able to do these days that guys in the past did not have have the luxury to do. It makes a big difference in our confidence when we get in the airplane. One of Knox's main comments after that first flight was how the X-32 flew just like the simulator.

Will computer simulation or unmanned fighter planes ever make test pilots obsolete?

In my lifetime I don't think so. But we're not too far away from a culture in which we have UCAVs—Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles. We're going to find that we're capable of controlling combat aircraft from the ground, especially as weapons become more precise and controllable. It will become less and less necessary for a pilot to fly into harm's way to deliver those weapons. So, conceivably, yes. I think we are still several iterations of technology away from it, but I think in 30 or 40 years it may be part of the culture. Certainly those of us who are cockpit guys aren't crazy about it, but it's probably inevitable. And as we look at it, it's the way to go.

Following his maiden flight of Boeing's X-32, Yates gets the traditional dousing. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Philip Yates

Piloting the X-32

So what has been your most memorable experience as a test pilot?

Without a doubt, my first flight in the X-32. Knowing I was the second guy ever to fly the airplane. (It was flight number four in the vehicle.) I still remember going down the runway and getting the thing airborne and just the sensations—what I was hearing and what I was feeling. The way the airplane was flying. I won't forget that in my lifetime.

Did it handle a lot differently than other fighters you've flown?

Boeing's designers derived a lot of the X-32 control laws from the F-18. So to some extent it was just like flying an F-18. There were differences, of course, but either because it was like the F-18 or because of the time I spent in the simulator, it seemed familiar. I thought, "Okay, I know what I've got here."

A close second as most memorable, though, was the very first flight of the X-32, even though I was a chase pilot in an F-18. All the hard work that went into getting a brand new piece of metal off the ground for the first time, all the hours that went into the verification of the control laws and the manufacturing, all the reviews that took place to get everyone in agreement that the airplane was going to be safe and do what we wanted it to do (and it did)—it's hard to describe the feeling of achievement.

"It was extremely exciting—tears in your eyes and everything."

It must have been pretty amazing, too, to watch that X-32 come to a stop in midair the first time.

Oh, yeah. I was not on the program at the time, but I knew they were planning that test, so I got up early and drove into the base. I'll never forget it. It was a sunny morning. It was extremely exciting—tears in your eyes and everything.

Yates found that the X-32 flew a lot like the F-18, from which Boeing's engineers drew much of the Joint Strike Fighter's control laws. Here, Yates flies the F-18 chase plane during a field carrier landing evaluation of the X-32. Enlarge Photo credit: © Boeing

So what will become of the X-32? Will it be used in any way?

Probably not. There were two vehicles, the X-32A and the X-32B. Boeing has the X-32A back at its Palmdale plant. Fred Knox flew it there on the last flight back to Palmdale from Edwards Air Force Base, where we did all the test flights. The X-32B is at Patuxent River here in Maryland. It's also in a hangar, and I'm told it will go into the flight test museum we have here.

Were you disappointed when the X-32 didn't get chosen?

Absolutely not, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I am very proud of what we as an X-32 flight-testing unit did in a short amount of time, conducting a safe, efficient flight test program that helped the government identify the best product for the program. Looking at the big picture I'm very proud of that, and nothing's going to ever take that away from us.

The other thing is... You know, I was not part of how the government made its decision other than providing input on the airplane as I knew it and flew it. But I think the government made the right decision. The X-35 outperformed the X-32 in some areas, and ultimately I think that's what the government emphasized in the source selection. So I was not disappointed. I don't regret anything. I am proud of what we did.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Battle of the X-Planes.

Interview of Philip "Rowdy" Yates conducted in December 2002 and edited by Peter Tyson, editor in chief of NOVA Online

Related Links