Becoming a Test Pilot
Lessons learned from a Lancair Super Legacy and Dick Rutan.
At Reno 2013, Andy Chiavetta asked me if I would be available in the coming months to help him with a bunch of work he was hoping to finish. During the winter and spring of 2014, Andy would be delivering two Lancair Super Legacys—both clones of Darryl Greenamyer's champion aircraft. These fire-breathing monsters would need to be tested, and while Andy has the pick of the litter when it comes to test pilots, he wasn't sure he would have enough pilots to get him through the coming year. I had dreamed about this moment since I was a boy lying on the living room rug listening to Reno On Record, and cradling my brother's plastic P-51.
The Lancair Legacy was designed in the late '90s as the next iteration in the line of Lancair touring aircraft. From the Lancair 200 to the Lancair 360, Lance Neibauer built a name and customer base on high-performance, two-seat, kitbuilt aircraft that would take you and a friend to your destination fast, and look good when you got there.
At a distance, the Legacy looks similar to the preceding generations, but is in fact a whole new airplane. With a new Greg Cole wing, a bigger tail, a roomier cockpit, more baggage space, and of course, more power, this airplane was a step change in expectations for the industry. The airplane was barely on the market when Darryl Greenamyer hatched a plan to turn a Legacy into a dominating force in the new Sport Class at Reno. He recruited a then budding fabrication talent, Andy Chiavetta, to shoehorn twin turbos and intercoolers into the airplane. Darryl's Race 33 went on to dominate Reno for four years. The Super Legacy, as they ended up calling the final version, has become the staple of a line of services offered by Andy's company, Aerochia. To date, seven copies of the aircraft have been built.
A couple weeks later, Justin Gillen and I flew to Thermal, California, to check on Andy and the fleet of Legacys he needed tested. I looked over the recently modified Race 77, the recently completed N357AW, and the champion itself, Darryl's Race 33. After seeing the airplanes, it was even clearer that this was an opportunity I couldn't let slip by. In lieu of time in type, I tried desperately to find some way to prepare for the ride. We are very lucky in Mojave to have access to quite literally the best in the business, so I asked everyone for their thoughts. Pete Siebold, Dick Rutan, Matt Jackson, Darryl Greenamyer, Lee Behel, Will Whiteside, Len Fox…the airplane became a great excuse to ask technical questions of heroes.
The backbone of the Super Legacy is the hybrid engine that Andy and Darryl worked out through years of long summer nights building up to Reno. Larger aftermarket turbos replace the stock Continental ones. The oil pressure regulated wastegates are replaced with automotive-style pneumatic wastegates. The propeller governor is cranked up to 3000 rpm, as opposed to the more conventional 2700 rpm. Spray bars cool the outside of the engine and anti-detonation injection (water/methanol) cools the inside of the engine. There are fuel cocktails, obscene manifold pressures, and in general, enough motorhead voodoo to get any race freak through a week of Nevada sunsets. It's a true fire-breathing dragon.
I flew Race 77 in March of 2013. It was the first time I had flown an Experimental aircraft in Phase I as a hired gun test pilot. The airplane is a madman. With flaps, gear, and full rpm, it would glide at 4/1. That's about half of SpaceShipTwo's L/D.
The takeoff acceleration is distractingly rapid. The brakes will not hold the airplane with more than about 200 horsepower on the crankshaft, which forces final power application to happen on the roll. That will keep you busy. And, oh man, will it go! For the engine setup on Race 77, we had domesticated the turbo package to less than 400 horsepower, but that was enough power to climb at greater than 3000 fpm and cruise at over 300 KTAS. As I taxied the airplane back to Andy, I tried to act like it wasn't a big deal, even though, in fact, it was so freaking cool.
After Race 77 was delivered, we started on N357AW. Known internally as The Green Dragon, 57AW is the economy Super Legacy, built to be cheap and simple. The airplane has no interior, and a simpler panel than all the preceding Super Legacys. The airplane's owner was on a busy schedule in the military and wanted someone to do the Phase I flight test program for him, including first flight. This was my third first flight and my first on someone else's airplane. It ended up being a gentle and friendly introduction to the airplane. By the time we delivered 57AW, we had run a dozen fuel/turbo setups on it. We had hydraulic pump failures, autopilot runaways, and plenty of other "real flight-test events" to tell at the bar. I started to feel like I knew something.
The spring and early summer with The Green Dragon was in a lot of ways a ramp-up to the last Super Legacy I got to test in 2014, the belle of the ball, Lynn Farnsworth's Miss Karen, Race 44. Back on another Sport Class race team, we had run against this airplane, but over the winter and spring, the masters at Pacific Continental had torn down the engine and incorporated some new whiz-bang go-go bits, all of which needed to be tested before racing at Reno.
From the first engine run, Race 44 intimidated me. The modified motor had a different growl, and you could see a change on Andy's face when he moved around the airplane. Andy is always a blur of focused activity, but with Race 44 and the races drawing near, Andy's whole demeanor changed. You could see him hunker down and bear the load of the coming months. After spending more time than expected getting the engine on 44 ready for flight, we got through enough engine runs that Andy was ready for the airplane to fly. By this time, I had flown for Andy enough times that we could start to anticipate each other's moves, but his cadence was changing, and the change of pace told me that this was getting serious—this was the big dance.
As I taxied out for my first flight in Race 44, the first flight of the new engine, I could feel the weight of the Chia/Greenamyer name. I could see that Andy needed me to be a test pilot at the level of Darryl, and while I knew I was nowhere near that level, I'd be damned if that was going to get in the way.
I added power and did a last-chance engine check. Brake release and set 400 hp, enough power to get a good climb going without taxing the engine too much. Once we got above minimum bailout altitude, the card was relatively low risk: Set power for engine break-in and orbit the field watching the hot-rod engine run. Dick Rutan chased the take-off roll in his modified Berkut; but at those power settings, he couldn't keep up, and soon I was alone at altitude, king of the airport.
Twenty minutes into the flight, at 10,000 feet, four miles south at 300 knots, the engine sputtered and fell flat on its face. Forty inches of manifold pressure became atmospheric, and I found myself out of the glidecone and headed away from the airport fast. The shoulder straps indicated deceleration as I pulled the throttle out. I pointed the nose uphill and dragged the nose around to point back at the airport. I called Andy and told him that we had experienced a significant loss in power.
Pushing the nose over the top of the recovery at best glide speed (125 KIAS), Andy called and asked for temps and pressures. Temps and pressures were good, but without power it was going to be tough to make it back to the airport. I was about to screw the pooch and put the airplane on a dirt road, ending the program or worse. I reached up and slowly fed the power back in. Full throttle gave me 150 hp, enough for a gentle climb back towards airport.
With a second to think, I decided I had likely failed some part of the turbo system. If it was the cold side of the turbo, the biggest issue would be the lack of power. If it was the hot side, the exhaust leak in the cowling would likely start the airplane on fire soon. I had two choices: assume the engine was on fire and bail out, or assume it was the cold side and start working toward a landing. In the meantime, the engine was making enough power to make some time, and I nursed the airplane back toward the airport, toward Dick, Andy, and therefore external eyes on the airplane.
I arrived over the airport at twelve thousand feet, listening to the airplane. If I wasn't going to bail out, I needed to shut the unhealthy engine down and start descending, after which I would quickly be too low to bail out and a fire would be worse. Dick called that he was waiting for me at low key, and Andy couldn't see me yet. It was time to make a decision. I really liked this airplane and didn't want to jump out of it, but I didn't have a whole lot else to go on. So I decided to take the risk and try for a landing.
Pulling the throttle back to idle, I extended the gear at altitude to confirm the change in configuration didn't make the airplane unflyable with whatever damage might have been done to the lower cowl. Handling checked good, and as I flew over the airport, Andy caught a glimpse of the airplane. He called that he saw the plane and it was smoking.
There are a lot of different kinds of smoke. This was the light wispy smoke that happens when oil hits the breather and streaks the belly on its way out of the airplane. I was, of course, immediately presented with the mental image of the other extreme, big black billowing smoke with licks of yellow and orange flame. Is that what Andy meant? Luckily I spent too long thinking about it and quickly was below minimum bailout altitude, and I needed to get set up to land. Dick met me as I reached low key for 26. He confirmed I was still smoking as I turned final and started the pre-flare. I landed and rolled down to Andy at the end of the runway.
Fifteen minutes later both airplanes were in the hangars, Andy and I were tearing into the airplane for a peek at the engine, and Dick showed up. Dick walked into the hangar and I immediately started talking about the airplane, about what we had found since we started tearing into the airplane, to which he showed no interest. I saw a side of Dick I had never seen before, and it stood out because I was still amped from the mayday.
Dick walked slowly, but firmly, and pulled me away into a corner of the hangar. He wasn't talking much, but I could tell he wasn't in the same place I was. He calmly asked me to tell him about the emergency. We talked through the whole flight, every decision I made on the way up and on the way back down. We didn't talk about the airplane; we talked about the flying, about risk, and decisions. We talked eye to eye as test pilots.
As a part of flight training, we all spend a lot of time being instructed, so the posture was very comfortable, but the topic was different. Dick Rutan was instructing me on being a test pilot, not based on some hypothetical, but based on the events that had just happened. We walked through each decision, what was known at that time, and what was not known. He brought real criticism based on his broad experience as a test pilot, criticism that was tough to hear.
Dick asked why I had let myself get out of the glidecone in the first place? Why had I swung the gear so early? Why did I not secure the engine as soon as I was back in the glidecone? I gave my reasoning, and he responded with cold facts and figures of what could have happened, and where I had been very lucky. It was the other side of the dream occupation, and the other side of the hero suit and magazine covers. It was pure flight-test gold in a cold and painful package.
As the program went on, I had that exact emergency two more times, and I never made those mistakes again. I made different ones, but not those.
The high point of the program was during Reno when Lynn asked me twice to test the airplane during evening sessions over Stead. In that moment, as I put the airplane on that magnificent high-altitude left-hand orbit over the race course, running race gas and ADI, I was in a small way similar to what I had seen Lockwood, Darryl, Penny, Skip, and so many other hired guns do. It was what I had dreamed about as a boy, lying on the living room floor listening to those recordings.
I was living the yarn. But even now, when I think about that triumphant moment over Nevada, I get that feeling in my gut, the feeling I got when Dick laid down the law. I think about the cold lessons I learned on that program, lessons I learned eye to eye with other test pilots, heroes turned into colleagues. This is good work that we do—cold and unforgiving, but good.
Elliot Seguin is a homebuilder, engineer, and test pilot based at the Mojave Civilian Flight Test Center in California. He is a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and each year he competes in Wasabi, the IF1 racer he designed, at the Reno National Championship Air Races. He is also a Test Pilot for Aerochia Performance Aircraft and is a project engineer and flight test engineer at Scaled Composites, founded by Burt Rutan.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Kitplanes magazine.