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Testing Times: NAVAIR Flight Test Tales

 

By the time Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) was established in 1966, testing and evaluation of naval aircraft, weapons, and systems was a rapidly maturing field. In the five decades since the command took responsibility for this exacting work, the Navy flight test community has become supremely professional – a group dedicated to delivering the most capable weapons systems to sailors and Marines with safety as their highest priority.

Done properly, the business of flight test should be efficient, productive and yes – boring.

The test hop was to take place over the water just east of the air station with both aircraft flying a south-north racetrack pattern with the release on the northbound run. There was a slight difficulty, however. The test called for jettisoning the VER rack and dummy bomb at a speed on the margin for the two-seat Skyhawk.

Under NAVAIR’s watch, flight testers have proudly achieved that professional distinction. And understandably, this tight-knit community is reticent to talk about “exciting” test flights. But even the most meticulous and the most prepared are occasionally overtaken by the unexpected.

The two following tales, nearly a decade apart, marvelously illustrate the razor-thin edge between the known and the unknown.

 

Filming the Unexpected

Few aerial photographers are as well-known within naval aviation as Randy Hepp.

Hepp spent 30 years at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland, documenting flight tests though the lens of a variety of still and film cameras, initially as a photographer for McDonnell Douglas, then as senior photographer at the air station. Logging more than 4,700 hours in a host of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, Hepp even lectured on the importance of Safety Chase to pilots and engineers at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School.

Shortly after going to work with McDonnell Douglas at Pax, Hepp experienced one of the most widely known cases of the “unexpected” in modern flight test history. On Sept. 30, 1981, he was seated in the aft cockpit of a TA-4J Skyhawk, filming a weapons separation test.

The Skyhawk was flying chase on an F/A-18A to capture what occurred if the then brand-new Hornet had to jettison a VER (vertical ejector) rack and Mk. 82 bomb in an emergency. Lt. John B. Patterson was piloting the TA-4J with McDonnell Douglas test pilot Bill Lowe flying the Hornet.

a-4 bw

View from the F/A-18’s camera as the heavily damaged Skyhawk begins to roll out of control, spewing fuel.

“We were testing the separation of the auxiliary emergency jettison (AUX) release – a mode in the F/A-18 where if you pushed a weapons release button and nothing happened you had a secondary emergency release option,” Hepp recalled.

In AUX release mode, the VER rack and bomb were not ejected from their wing station. They simply flew off. Hepp, Patterson, and Lowe launched “to see if weapons would separate as we predicted.”

The test hop was to take place over the water just east of the air station with both aircraft flying a south-north racetrack pattern with the release on the northbound run. There was a slight difficulty, however. The test called for jettisoning the VER rack and dummy bomb at a speed on the margin for the two-seat Skyhawk.

“We briefed the flight and the release point was at 535 knots,” Hepp said. “This was a TA-4J with the early (J52-P6A) turbojet, not the later, more powerful engine, so it could barely do 535 knots straight and level. In addition, we were going to be on the outside of the turn to set up the weapons release run – short of knots to be in position after the turn for the straight and level release.”

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Jan Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...