Does the product meet the customer requirements?
Is the product fit for purpose?
Does the product represent value for money?
These are the same questions you’ll consciously or sub-consciously ask yourself whenever you do any personal shopping of your own. In fact, from figuring out how to make a good cup of coffee or brew the perfect cup of tea, to playing about with the controls of the hire car you received, you’ll be trying things out in the hope that you can find a way to make your life a little bit better or easier. It is human nature, it’s the way we are genetically programmed to think. Humans are naturally inquisitive. This innate curiosity has made us the most successful species on the planet and has landed us on the moon! But as much as we succeed, we also fail in equal measure and both are as vital to our progress. That process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t and then documenting it so that it can be improved is Test and Evaluation (T+E).
In the aviation world we’ve been doing recognisable T+E since the Wright brothers made over 200 wing designs and tested them in a homemade wind tunnel on the journey to their first sustained, powered flight in 1903. One of these designs is pictured as the header image on this blog: the Wright Flyer in 1904 (taken from www.wright-brothers.org). Their first flight only lasted 12 seconds, the aircraft travelling 120ft at an average groundspeed of almost 7mph, but it was hugely significant. 115 years later and T+E is ongoing for Virgin Galactic (the first commercial airline to take fare paying passengers to space), the SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ holds the manned airspeed record of 2200mph and B-2 ‘Spirit’ bombers fly nonstop 30 hour missions from their home bases in the USA to the Middle East and back. In all of these cases, and as with generations of aircraft before them, Test Pilots and Flight Test Engineers were the first people to have taken these aircraft to the edge of their performance envelope and, in the pursuit of progress, sometimes knowingly beyond.
Bell X-1, first manned aircraft to surpass the speed of sound in level flight.
Image: Wikipedia, NASA
It wasn’t until the rapid development of aircraft following the outbreak of World War II, and the tragic loss of life testing them, that it was decided to formally train Test Pilots and so the UK founded the World’s first Test Pilot School at RAF Boscombe Down combining maths and aerodynamics tuition with flying skills practice. Even so, the cost was high; of the 11 graduates of the first course, 5 would die testing aircraft soon after, but the evolution had begun. The rocket and jet powered pioneering years of the 1950s saw tremendous leaps in aviation technology but also took the largest toll on aircrew numbers; it is said one Test Pilot a week was killed during flight testing. Fortunately things have changed dramatically since then; we are far more intolerant of unnecessary risk and far more capable of investigating the unknown using powerful computer software, aerodynamic modelling and modern engineering techniques. However, flight test remains inherently risky and flying to the limit of our understanding is part of the job and so we still regularly read stories of the tragic loss of life.
The skill and courage of the record breaking Royal Navy Test Pilot Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN was ground-breaking.
Image: www.navywings.org, Captain Eric Winkle Brown Remembered
It was through the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s that perhaps the greatest Test Pilot of all time, Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, chalked up 487 different aircraft types in his logbook, completing the first landing of a jet aircraft on an aircraft carrier, testing captured experimental Nazi warplanes and transiting a helicopter between RAF bases solo after simply ‘reading the manual’, amongst many other mind-boggling feats. This golden age of flight test heralded some incredible advances in aviation technology and set the foundation for all modern aircraft up to and including the RAF’s current fast-jet fleets of Typhoon and F-35.
41(R) Test and Evaluation Squadron flying trials with UK F-35 from NWAS China Lake in California.
Image: Lockheed Martin
At Inzpire we are fortunate to have a wealth of T+E experience on a host of aircraft types, with some personal flying experience almost stretching as far back as Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown! The couple of hundred thousand hours airborne, every flavour of flying qualification and the breadth of operational experience within the ranks of Inzpire are truly invaluable, irreplaceable and unique amongst our competitors. It allows us to be effective, relevant, and respected. It also means we are very well placed to support the T+E demands that the RAF face today.
The evolution from the multitude of switches, knobs and dials of older aircraft into the infinitely adjustable and user definable touch screen displays of today replaces one problem with another. (Jaguar GR3 top, F-35 bottom)
Jaguar GR3 image: Jerry Gunner, Flickr (via Wikipedia)
F-35 image: Lockheed Martin
The design complexity of modern aircraft is not easily compatible with human limitations especially in the sometimes hostile environment of a fast-jet cockpit and, when cutting edge technology is capable of overloading or misleading even the most experienced aircrew, it is important to provide an operational influence to focus equipment and software design as early in the procurement process as possible. Ever more complex avionics, sensors and weapons demand increasingly complicated and expensive flight test programmes to fully exploit capability. Not only do modern aircraft need Developmental Test to ensure that they perform aerodynamically but they also need Operational Test to optimise ’settings’ for the many on-board systems for every theatre the aircraft may operate in, and these mission data settings come in their thousands. Inzpire are greatly experienced, with proven delivery, in all of these areas. In addition, every moment of every flight test is meticulously recorded, every parameter and databus message generated and transmitted along the many miles of aircraft wiring by the avionics systems is written to solid state drives, sometimes hundreds of times per second. This results in Terabytes of data through which Technical experts can scour looking for anomalous behaviour, decoding the streams of values as if from a scene of The Matrix. The final part of the Evaluation is left to experienced aircrew and aviation experts who are responsible with translating all the resultant facts and figures into Tactics, Techniques and Procedures to follow in every complex airborne scenario the crews are likely to be faced with and then design exercise scenarios to train for them. Again this is an arena, at the heart of the RAF’s processes, in which those at Inzpire are entrusted to provide critical support.
Multi-role Typhoon on display at Farnborough.
Image: Chris Pocock
So what is the the ideal outcome of all the T+E, analysis and training? The ideal outcome is that a crew, flying a mission in poor weather over hostile territory, facing air and ground based threats, know that their airframe and engines won’t fail; that every button pressed will work and do what it is designed to do; that everything displayed to them in the cockpit is true; and that what they’ve been taught, and rehearsed in training countless times, gives them the best possible chance to complete the mission and get home safely. The staff of Inzpire (over 80% of whom are ex-military) won’t be the people in the cockpit during that mission anymore. However, they are proven to be integral to the T+E and training processes and we will continue to do everything we can to help the people who are flying that mission. We genuinely care about looking after our previous colleagues and current friends and it is that personal bond which elevates Inzpire beyond the average defence industry company and differentiates Inzpire from the rest. That is why I joined Inzpire, to continue the evolution of Test and Evaluation and the Revolution in Defence.