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Where eagles dare

If you want to become an aviation super-specialist and test the limits of the latest flying machines, become a test pilot, advises Pranab Ghosh.

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:45 IST
Pranab Ghosh

They were senior test pilots and as a young fighter pilot he was very impressed after interacting with them. Finding their work “very challenging”, he decided to go in for test flying. “This is one profession where you get first-hand experience of many facets of aviation that many just get to read about,” says Gp Capt C Subramaniam of the Indian Air Force (IAF), who is working on deputation as deputy chief test pilot, flight operations (fixed wing), at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), India’s only government-owned aircraft production unit.

Subramaniam, who holds an MSc in defence and strategic studies from Madras University, says, “A test pilot is a super-specialist in the field of aviation.”

According to Gp Capt (retd) Kapil Bhargava, IAF, “a test pilot is an aviator who flies new and modified aircraft in specific manoeuvres, allowing the results to be measured and design evaluated.” A test pilot checks newly designed or overhauled aircraft to determine quality and ensure safety for operations, says Bhargava.

“The Indian aviation industry is one of the few rapidly expanding industries in the world of aviation. A number of new aircraft and systems are in the pipeline,” says Subramaniam. As a result, test pilots in India have a lot of scope to fly a prototype (newly developed) aircraft or a production (already in service) aircraft, or work in advisory roles connected with aviation activities based on test flying experience.

International experience too is a possibility. “There are no rules preventing an Indian test pilot from working abroad,” says Subramaniam.

Military aviation is in expansion mode around the world today, especially when it comes to electronic systems, air-launched weapons, sensor fusion technologies etc, and “test pilots can contribute handsomely in these fields”, says Subramaniam. However, as of date, Indian test pilots have worked abroad

“only on behalf of the government of India, on deputation”, says Bhargava.

Becoming a test pilot is not easy. “It is not possible for just any qualified pilot to become a test pilot,” says Bhargava. In India, an IAF pilot from either the fixed-wing stream (fighter or transport aircraft) or the rotary-wing stream (helicopters), “after attaining a set of minimum experience in flying can apply for the entrance examination conducted by the Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE), in Bangalore”, says Subramaniam.

The selection of a test pilot is done based on eligibility and performance as a pilot. He has to undergo rigorous tests, which assess flying capability, maturity, technical knowledge and aptitude for flight-testing. A few are selected to undergo a 46-week course conducted by ASTE. Once he completes the course, “he is cleared to become a test pilot capable of testing any aircraft,” explains Subramaniam.

The job has its own challenges. Test pilots are required to keep themselves up-to-date with changing technology. “Rapid technological advancements and very high performance aerial vehicles are putting the test pilots under pressure to keep pace with the knowledge growth and acumen requirements,” says Subramaniam. And challenges like these have made the profession both “interesting and thrilling.”

What's it about?
A test pilot is part scientist, part engineer, as well as an experienced pilot. He is required to test all kinds of aircraft – from microlights to fighter jets, to large passenger aircraft. His knowledge of various systems and aircraft has to be impeccable and is qualified to give judgment on their adequacy.

Since a pilot has to stretch the limits of an aircraft, there is a degree of unpredictability and risk associated with the job. Therefore, he needs to be mature enough to take calculated risks based on experience, learning and knowledge base

Clock Work
Test pilots seldom have a fixed schedule. The timetable for an IAF test pilot would be entirely different from one working in HAL. Here’s a typical schedule of a HAL test pilot:
8.15am: Reach office
8.30am: Attend briefing session where the chief test pilot discusses findings of the previous day’s test flights and plans the day’s flight schedule
10am: Analyse data collected during test flights
11.30am: Take part in simulation tests
12.30pm: Break for lunch since I am not scheduled to fly
1 pm: Commence flights
2.30pm: Attend debriefing sessions; discuss with designers
3.30pm: Conduct lab tests
4.30pm: Call it a day if there’s no other work

The Payoff
Financial emoluments usually don’t make a difference to test pilots as they are in the profession for the thrill of performing at levels not many dare to reach. The money along with extra allowances help a pilot get by comfortably

Skills
. Being a skilled flier, quick on the uptake and extremely adaptive to new and different cockpit environments
. Should have a technical and analytical bent of mind
. He should be able to put himself in the shoes of an aircraft designer and understand his point of view
. Maturity and ability to take the right decisions under pressure
. Good communication and excellent interpersonal relationship skills

How do i get there?
Take up physics, chemistry, mathematics in Class 12. Apply for the National Defence Academy, conducted by Union Public Service Commission. If you get selected, you have to train for three years and on the basis of your performance, you get selected for the Indian Air Force and earn your wings after one-and-a-half year of training.

You can also take the Combined Defence Services (CDS) route after completing your BSc. If selected, opt for IAF. Become a pilot following the requisite training.

Once you have acquired enough experience as a pilot, you can write the entrance examination conducted by ASTE. If selected, you will have to undergo a 46-week-long course to become a test pilot

Institutes & urls
There are no institutions in India that can coach someone to become a test pilot. In India, the IAF has the only school (one of six around the world), the Air Force Test Pilots School, at Bangalore to train test pilots after a very careful selection process.

The route to this school is open only to military pilots at the moment

Pros & cons


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Extremely enriching and satisfying profession


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The learning process never ends; you become an aviation super- specialist


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Immense satisfaction in seeing an improved product after it’s tested by you and your recommendations have been implemented


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Element of risk involved

More test pilots will be needed

A veteran test pilot talks about the risks and challenges in the profession

What is the scope of work of a test pilot in India? Can an Indian test pilot work abroad? What’s the scope there?
In India we have only one government aircraft production unit, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), Bangalore. At the moment, Taneja Aerospace in Hosur, Tamil Nadu, is also producing aircraft for private use. More units are likely to come up soon, started by Mahindra & Mahindra, Tatas and Larsen & Tubro. Test pilots will be needed to clear their aircraft.

Indian test pilots can work abroad but so far such work has been done only on behalf of the Government of India on deputations. The IAF deputed me to three aircraft companies in the UK and one in Egypt. Most countries prefer to use their own citizens for (flying) military aircraft, but for civil aircraft, employment is possible, though rather unlikely.

Does India have enough test pilots?
We do have enough numbers of test pilots, though not always in the right places. Today, we have perhaps around 120 trained test pilots in the defence services. While they are not all working as test pilots, the services would be reluctant to release them. By definition they are some of the best pilots available to them.

How safe is test flying?
There is a general belief that test flying is extremely dangerous, more than most types of flying. This is only partly true as demonstration flying close to the ground is perhaps just as dangerous. But for the careless and lackadaisical pilot, test flying is almost invariably fatal. But similar to other adventures, successful coping with the job gives unmatched satisfaction. Lately, with simulation and constant real-time monitoring of critical flights, there is a remarkable improvement in safety.

As for all flying, or even driving, etc, anticipating problems and being ready with solutions is the main method of ensuring one’s safety. It is known as, ‘Failure-mode Analysis’ or in simpler terms ‘what ifs’. In this activity, all possible problems must be foreseen and the action (including bailing out) must be pre-planned. After this, the main challenge for a test pilot remains to be able to retain his medical fitness.

What is the difference between a test pilot working in the IAF and one working in HAL? How does the test pilot contribute to the organisational growth?
A test pilot in the IAF mostly tests proven aircraft but with changes introduced to it, after a major overhaul or installation of new equipment. Tests are also carried out on the equipment itself and weapons used on the aircraft or fired at the ranges. These pilots are not specifically employed for testing newly designed aircraft at their prototype stage, though their training is geared for it. However, at present many test pilots from the navy and the IAF are flight-testing the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) named Tejas.

Experienced test pilots in HAL fly new aircraft from their very first (maiden) flights to certification. In addition they undertake all other testing similar to the IAF. The test pilots of HAL need to integrate into the early design process of the aircraft to ensure optimum design and safety with desired operational capabilities. This is a difficult task but immensely satisfying if the final product is good. Their work is vital to the health of the company.

Gp Capt (retd) Kapil Bhargava, IAF interviewed by Pranab Ghosh