Friday, May 10, 2019

Life is a test; fly it

“One of the greatest charms of test-flying is that you can fly any aircraft!” says Group Captain Ajit Agtey (Retired), the pleasure behind his words palpable over the phone. He and my father were friends from the decades they spent in the Indian Air Force — both were fighter pilots — but also part of a smaller group of elite aviators. Various stints in Bangalore over the years, where the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) is situated, had let me grow up around this fascinating community of pilots. Test pilots fly various aircrafts over their careers, pushing the envelope to ensure that the machine is put through its paces and ready for operational use. It is a profession that is challenging and rewarding, thrilling and risky, though test-flying has grown safer over the years with technological advancements. India was the fifth country in the world to have its own test pilot school. And with alumni such as India’s only cosmonaut Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma (Retired), the passionate and highly motivated pilots who are trained here wear their accomplishments and skills lightly (which is true of most armed forces personnel). They admit that there is pressure and complexity in their roles, but they all choose to be there for the sheer passion of flying and being part of a group that only a few make it to.
These are experienced aviators — a glorious blend of pilot, aeronautical engineer and scientist — who are trained to fly and evaluate experimental, newly produced or modified aircraft using certain manoeuvres called flight test techniques. They are trained to fly any aircraft and need to adapt to varied cockpit environments — from fighter jets to passenger planes, transport aircraft to microlights. Teamwork is essential, working closely with flight-test engineers to create an end product that can safely be inducted into operational use. Production test pilots test new machines that come off the assembly line. An experimental test pilot has these qualifications, but also the more nuanced skills to test prototypes and is involved in the process right from the time the first line is drawn, their inputs critical to the designing of the machine. With excellent communication skills, they need to be able to think from the perspective of not just a pilot, but also an engineer. My father compared it to getting a PhD in aeronautical engineering.
The original test pilot schools are military establishments, but many experienced military test pilots go into commercial aviation to test passenger aircraft. The oldest, the Empire Test Pilots’ School, is in England, and there are a few others across the world. India was the fifth country to establish its own test pilots’ school. “With the fourth-largest Air Force in the world, it’s not surprising that we have our own test pilots school,” says Group Captain Agtey. With a boom in the production of commercial planes, there was a need to train more test pilots and a number of private schools have emerged.
When the IAF was established in 1932, there was initially no requirement for test pilots but post-Independence when the first jet fighter type, the de Havilland Vampire, was acquired, an Aircraft Testing Unit (ATU) was set up in Kanpur. Over time, new aircraft and system-upgrades required local flight-testing capabilities. The first two test pilots from India were sent to the Empire Test Pilots’ School in 1949, but the training abroad was expensive and only a few were sent over the years. As the work continued to grow, the Aircraft and Armament Testing Unit in 1972 was upgraded to the Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE), with the additional responsibility of training flight test crew. ASTE shifted base to Bangalore to be close to aviation, defence and space research organisations. Most new aircrafts and major aviation systems must get ASTE approval before they can be used in India.
10/10/19 The Hindu