The Pilot's Lounge #73: A Test Pilot's Story

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As the WWII generation ages, we begin to lose details from the days when flying turned from novelty to a true industry. Among many recent books of dubious value, a gem is found in a self-published memoir by Al White, one of the most self-effacing test pilots of his time. Rick Durden reviews it from the Pilot's Lounge.

The Pilot's Lounge

Over the years, I've found that the Pilot's Lounge here at the virtual airport is one of the better places to sit and read aviation books, particularly of an evening, after things have quieted down. Sitting in the big, fat, old recliners, there are times that I read something about flight that strikes me, and being able to look out of the window at the taxiway and runway lights twinkling in the darkness makes it that much more meaningful. There is a certain magic to good books about aviation, and there is magic in reading them of an evening in a place where I can look out at the sky that transports me into cockpits far away in time and space that I would otherwise never have a hope of visiting.

I've just finished reading The Times of My Life, A Pilot's Story, by Al White, and I'm sitting here wishing it were longer. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not objective about Al White -- who was a test pilot's test pilot -- for I've known him professionally and socially for over 25 years. I think the world of him, but I had no idea of the depths and accomplishments of the man that I'm honored to call a friend until I read his book.

In the past several years I've been making a concerted effort to read books written by those of the World War II generation, such as the one by Al. Maybe it's because both of my parents served in the armed forces in that cataclysm, or it is my reaction to the fact that we are rapidly losing the men and women who served in uniform and as civilians during that war. I think it also goes to my bent for understanding the history of our world and the stunning effects that the World War II generation had on it. The war itself was monumental enough; yet, as with all wars, the side effects were greater than the quarrel itself. It caused virtually every industrialized country to place its very young men and women into positions of great responsibility and authority, in trying conditions, and then returned them to civilian life. Having served in circumstances that gave them supreme confidence in their abilities to go out and change the world, those young men and women proceeded to take that confidence and the college educations they obtained, and make the most radical technological changes of any generation in history. Al White's test-pilot years for the Air Force and then for North American Aviation in the century-series jet fighters and the Mach 3, XB-70 "Valkyrie," certainly put him in the category of those who helped change our world.

Gem in the Rough

There have been a lot of books written by and about survivors of that generation in the last 10 years or so, perhaps as many of them perceived the reality of their mortality. Some, such as Flights of Passage by Samuel Hynes, are incisive, accurate in their detail and wondrously enjoyable to read as they provide a detailed recreation of a slice of the world as it was. Unfortunately, some, such as the recent bestseller Flyboys, are lousy, in my opinion. For example, this one contained glaringly painful, technical errors on the most basic level, such as calling the B-25 "Mitchell" bomber the "Billy." One wonders whether any of the other details were correct, obscuring and ruining what otherwise could have been a fascinating story of all that is good and evil within humanity at war.

Fortunately, I think Al White's book is going to be classified among the good ones to come from that generation, not just because of its technically complete descriptions of military and civilian flight test -- or its multitude of well-captioned pictures -- but also because it vividly recreates a full life from growing up during the Depression, through college in the 1930s, military flight training and combat in Europe, and finally the world of flight test on the cutting edge of technology.

XB-70 Valkyrie

Professional flight test has been the subject of a lot of popular press, much of it just plain wrong. It is rarely as glamorous as portrayed; it involves a lot of hard work and long hours at all levels; and there are different types of test flying and test pilots. I have been lucky enough to work and socialize with a number of professional test pilots. Because of that, I learned that there are generally (and I mean generally) four different types of test flight for new aircraft. They are (working in reverse order of when they occur):

  • "Production" -- flying the airplanes when they come off the assembly line to make sure they were put together correctly and comply with the actual design and perform according to specifications;

  • "Service" -- where the airplane is essentially in production configuration and is being flown in various profiles to try and see what parts will break first in the real world;

  • "Certification" -- in which the airplane has been defined and the developmental testing is mostly complete, and it is being put through its paces to make sure it complies with the certifying authority's or the military's requirements (as well as the usually tougher requirements that the manufacturer may put on it);

  • And finally, to the pinnacle, the most demanding and most dangerous: "experimental" or "developmental" flight test.

During experimental flight tests, the pilot straps on an airplane that may or may not have been flown before and goes out to see whether the engineers got their sums right; or, nowadays, whether the computer model was accurate. Prior to the advent of computers there were serious questions as to whether the airplane would fly or hold together at various points in its performance envelope and would be free from flutter. (For the best read on how hairy this could be, find yourself a copy of famed test-pilot Frank T. Courtney's book, The Eighth Sea, and learn about his experiences test flying in the 1910s and 20s.)

I found that the test pilots who truly were engaged in experimental work from day to day were the ones who usually were the quietest, because they knew it didn't always go right. And every single one of them had not only had those moments where the successful outcome of the flight was in doubt, but had lost friends when something went horribly wrong despite all the best efforts of good minds. That hesitation to trumpet one's abilities comes out in Al's book, for he reports of some very exciting events -- when things did go wrong -- in almost prosaic prose, giving the facts and readily admitting that he got a little nervous as it was happening, but never patting himself on the back for making some heroic save.

A Very Quiet, Very Thorough Man

As I read Al White's book, I found myself thinking back to the first time I met him, in 1979 when I was a young lawyer assigned to help out on an aircraft accident case in which Al had been retained as a consultant. I knew he had flown the XB-70, and that he had been in combat in World War II, but that was all. He had come to Cessna, in Wichita, for a series of meetings on the case, and I noticed that -- during a long break between meetings -- the experimental test pilots at Cessna gravitated to him. I knew the Cessna test pilots and deeply respected them, for they were very good at their craft. If they were seeking out someone and spending all the time they could with him, then this Al White guy must be something special indeed.

However, Al was so very quiet that he puzzled me. I wanted to know who this guy was, but I wasn't getting far because he would turn conversations around to other subjects when I asked him about himself. My puzzlement increased a day later when an odd series of circumstances lead to me being assigned to give Al a checkout in a Cessna 402B to satisfy an insurance requirement for some demonstration flights he was to make in the airplane. He asked me to show him the preflight on the airplane. That preflight took every bit of an hour. He wanted to know absolutely everything. He had me go over such details as the mechanism by which the ailerons were hinged and how the hinges were retained to the structure because he had lost a test pilot friend when the aileron hinge on a test airplane had failed, leading to catastrophic loss of control. He examined everything that could possibly be visually inspected on that airplane and I was asked for detailed information on each component. It was exhausting, yet when Al gave the names of friends or acquaintances who had died in test flights because of failures of those parts or systems, I came to realize that he insisted on intimately knowing an airplane he was about to fly because ignorance could mean death. I also figured out that it would be wise for me to do the same. Even though I was "checking out" Al White, I found that it was I who was learning. What I experienced in that hour forever changed the way I preflight an airplane.

Once we were inside the airplane I did not presume to tell Al what to do. I sat in the right seat with my mouth closed and eyes open. Over the next 45 minutes or so I watched as an inanimate collection of airplane parts was brought to life and truly flown. I thought that I knew 402s -- after all, I'd flown freight in them during law school in crummy weather and I had a pretty high opinion of myself as a skilled freight dog. Hah. With Al White, I discovered what flying was. Al didn't move the controls, he silked them; and that airplane responded like a greyhound, not the freight barge I had shoved through the sky. At one point Al rolled us into a 45 degree right bank that he held through 720 degrees of turn and then smoothly and quickly (I learned at that moment that rapid control inputs do not have to be jerky or forced) rolled into a 45 degree bank to the left, which he held. Throughout the maneuver the altimeter on my side of the panel had not moved. Not at all. In fact, after the two right circles and the first one to the left I had become convinced the altimeter was stuck, so I reached up and tapped the panel right beside it. (I'd learned never to tap an instrument face after a friend broke one.) The altimeter wasn't stuck -- it just hadn't moved. Good grief, I was very happy if I could that maneuver within plus or minus 50 feet; I later learned that Al would get miffed at himself if he went as much as 20 feet off altitude.

Details of Death and Life

XB-70 test flight, seconds before the mid-air collision

As the '80s passed, I was fortunate enough to see Al from time to time and discovered that he had a soft spot for Trader Vic's restaurant in Chicago; and if I bought a couple of Navy Grogs I could find out about test flying the F-100 and F-107 or hear a few stories about his friends. For instance, he told of the time one shot off the nose of the F-86D he was testing when a new air to ground rocket launching system malfunctioned rather spectacularly so the friend got to deadstick a damaged fighter into Edwards Air Force Base and still make beer call. And I learned about that horrible day in 1966 when Al was in the left seat of the XB-70, ship number two, during a formation flight. Something caused Joe Walker to let the T-tail of the F-104 he was flying come up and hit the underside of the right wing of the XB-70, causing Joe's jet to pitch up and roll left violently. It went across the top of the XB-70, where it sliced off one and a half of the two vertical stabilizers, killing Joe instantly and driving the XB-70 into a series of vicious rolls. The XB-70 shed its left wing and entered a flat spin from which Al was the only one to successfully eject.

One of the subjects of those evening discussions with Al was a certain disappointment because he had left a very close family in rural California in 1941; and while his path lead to a deeply rewarding career living and working on the very cutting edge of aviation technology, it been very difficult to have any family life, and he had not been able to share much of what he did with his family. It seemed to me that he wanted to find a way to explain why "Dad" was away from home so much of the time.

Write It Down, Al!

A few years ago Al told me he was going to write it all down for his family. He had copies of the cockpit tapes of the test flights in the XB-70 as well as the test reports he had written for it and other airplanes he flew. He also had a massive collection of photographs because he had the foresight to both take photos and keep copies of ones taken by others. As I thought about it, I figured Al could overcome the shortcomings of so many books written by those who had lived great events because he had records that were made contemporaneously and he had the education and knowledge to understand and report accurately about what he observed. I had also seen Al's demand for accuracy in all of his dealings, probably growing from the fact that lack of accuracy in flight test could be fatal.

It took a few years, but Al did write a book for his family. He sent copies to a few close friends, notably the estimable Robert Buck, author of Weather Flying, and those friends encouraged Al to revise it for those who are interested in aviation history. Thankfully for us, Al did just that, and it's on the market.

The book includes many stories I never coaxed out of Al when we were together, such as the fact that he learned to fly through FDR's Civilian Pilot Training program (CPT) free of charge in a Luscombe 8A and a Cub Coupe. His record of the events is so accurate that he is always able to set out the specific type of airplanes involved, not just a generic "Piper Cub" that characterizes so many histories.

Al's photographs and detailed recollection of the time immediately before and after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor helps put our country's reaction to being at war in better perspective. The parallels between the nearly hysterical reactions of politicians and Army brass to the Japanese attack are startlingly consistent with what happened after September 11, 2001. He describes an attempt by the base commander to erect a barrier across the gravel road used by a farmer to gain access to his fields adjacent to the base. The farmer was an American-born citizen who happened to be of Japanese descent. Faced with the barrier across the road, the farmer simply drove around it, to what appears to have been the deep satisfaction of the cadets assigned to build the barrier.

As an Air Force test pilot he found that little of the work he was doing was "experimental" and what he truly wanted to do was work on the development of a new aircraft, something that is the province of the test pilots employed by the manufacturer/contractor. Al recognized and describes the clash between military test pilots and contractor test pilots, having been one of the few who held each job. He states flatly that there are good pilots in both slots and -- but for large egos -- there would not be a conflict.

Al stays completely out of the issues raised by other writers about the efforts of General Boyd at Edwards to make sure that all the credit for record setting flights went to military pilots, but he does allude to the fact that when a military pilot set a speed or altitude record, the same flight had been made a few days before by a pilot employed by the aircraft manufacturer to make sure it would be successful; however, the official observers were not invited to watch that first flight.

Al had told me a little about the XB-70 program, but the book has many more details. For instance, Al was the first to take the XB-70 supersonic, and that was on its third flight. Even today that's pretty amazing. Within a short time it was through Mach 3, and both ship one and ship two made the magic 2,000-mph number. As part of the program, Al flew the airplane at Mach 3 for over 30 minutes, hand flying it at all times, at altitudes in the 70,000-foot range. The copilot controlled the variable inlet ducts -- a nearly full-time job once above Mach 2. Any error could lead to an engine "unstart," which yawed the airplane dramatically. Al's description of the effects on the airplane and crew of unstarts on both sides while at Mach 3 is a model of understatement, as is the way he describes a total loss of pitch control at Mach 2.4 due to another hydraulic malfunction. What is read between the lines is that a complete understanding of every system and the possible failure modes of those systems are essential to longevity in a test pilot.

See For Yourself

As I said, I'm not completely objective, because Al White is a friend. I am not getting anything from his sale of the book and I purchased the copy I reviewed. Nevertheless, I like it and wish it were even longer. Yes, I do have criticisms: As with many self-published books it could use additional editing. Al is a good technical writer but there are grammar and syntax errors that are a bit jarring, and Al sometimes goes a little overboard calling things "great." However, it reads just as Al speaks: frankly, without hype; and Al has written the book in the manner he desired to write it. As a whole, the book is a superb recounting of the life and times of someone who saw a healthy slice of aviation history unfold.

If want to read about a test pilot without having to put up with a lot of hype, you can order the book from Al. The cost is $25, plus $3 for shipping and handling in the U.S. or $7 outside the U.S. Send the check to:

Al White
14254 N. Fawnbrooke Drive
Tucson, Arizona, 85737

Tell him hello for me.


Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.