Britain's Ultimate Jet Set: Inside the Empire Test Pilots School at Boscombe Down

April 7, 2013

An edited version of this piece ran in the final edition of the Mail on Sunday's Live supplement on April 7, 2013.

A Gazelle takes off from Boscombe Down on an Empire Test Pilot School flight. 


We're a couple of thousand feet above fields and trees when Simon Sparkes decides to make this flight in a modified two-man Gazelle helicopter a little bit more interesting.   

If you leave a Gazelle to its own devices as it's flying straight and level, it'll start to slip a little to the left, because of the amount of thrust produced by its tail rotor. If the lateral motion isn't corrected, the aircraft can begin to snake through the air, and could end up out of control.

To compensate, the aircraft's designers have installed a computer to automatically make the frequent small corrections required. Called the Stability Augmentation System, or SAS, it ensures that the pilot is free to concentrate on the other things that might need their attention - avoiding other aircraft, trees, birds, power cables and bad weather, say.

Cleary, the SAS is a pretty important bit of kit - and if you're the half of today's "crew" that can't fly a helicopter, you're probably fairly keen for the person sitting beside you to be using all the electronic help he can get. So it is a little disconcerting when Sparkes reaches his hand up to the instrument panel and flicks the SAS control. 

"Obviously," he says cheerily, "we need to switch that off."

Cmdr Simon Sparkes (left) and the author in the cockpit of the ETPS's Gazelle

It takes a moment or two but, soon enough, the Gazelle starts to slowly change direction. With its electronic blinkers removed, the aircraft has acquired a mind of its own. Suddenly, you're very aware that you're sitting in a rattly glass bubble suspended by four thin bits of metal spinning at 400 times a minute above your head; and you're forcibly reminded that a cynic's definition of a helicopter is "a bunch of spare parts flying in close formation."

But Sparkes isn't finished yet. As he starts doing the job of the SAS by continually making a series of small movements on the cyclic - the stick control that sits between the pilot's legs - he turns his attention to the collective. This is a handle to the left of his seat which looks like a hand brake in a car: it controls the angle of the rotor blades, which dramatically affects how the helicopter behaves in the air. 

"Normally, you want the collective to be at 40%," says Sparkes, explaining what he's doing over the helmet intercom in breaks between talking to his air traffic controller. "If we change the collective to 50%, the helicopter climbs..." And as he makes the adjustment to the lever, the Gazelle's nose lifts.

"Now," Sparkes continues, "if we set the collective to 30%, the helicopter dives and rolls." And as he moves the lever again, the Gazelle gently but very firmly pirouettes to the left, and starts aiming itself at the ground.

It's not the sort of thing you'd want your helicopter captain to do while you were enjoying a pleasure flight across the Grand Canyon or being taken on an island-hopping experience in the Caribbean - but Sparkes is no ordinary pilot. A Commander in the Royal Navy, his current posting is one of the most senior and singular flying jobs in the British armed forces: he is the commanding officer of the Empire Test Pilots School, where he is in charge of turning highly skilled military aviators into an elite within an elite.


The sign at the entrance to the ETPS building

To train test pilots, the ETPS takes the best-of-the-best and shows them how to re-think their flying skills from - no pun intended - the ground up. By turning off all the complex electronic gizmos that make modern aircraft so easy to fly, the student test pilot will be forced to operate it from first principles, understanding absolutely all the fundamentals of flying. And that deeper understanding of how aeroplanes work will only be strengthened by gently and cautiously pushing at the edges of the aircraft's flight envelope: by experiencing what happens when you ask the collective to do too much, you'll have a better chance of recognising that something is going wrong and being able to correct it before anything bad happens. Doing these things will keep everyone safe.

That, at least, is what I keep telling myself as the countryside near the ETPS's headquarters, at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire, keeps on getting bigger and bigger through the Gazelle's windscreen.

An ETPS Hawk (rear) and Alpha Jet flying above the airfield at Boscombe Down

The public image of test pilots was shaped by the journalist Tom Wolfe in the book (and subsequent film) The Right Stuff: they're either ice-cool man-machines like Neil Armstrong, who set the Apollo 11 module down on the moon with less than a minute's fuel left and barely broke a sweat, or they're gung-ho risk-takers who live for the thrills and spills of going higher, faster and further through the air than anyone has done before.

"It's not all going out and trying to break the sound barrier - although, deep down in some of our hearts, there's still a tiny bit of that in every test pilot," chuckles Group Captain Chris Huckstep, the Royal Air Force's Chief Test Pilot, and Sparkes's boss, over a mug of tea in his office overlooking the flight line at Boscombe.

On a shelf opposite, between pictures of his family and an extensive library of books on the history of military aviation, there's a curious kind of trophy, which looks like a giant ring-pull mounted on a wooden plinth. This is the handle Huckstep grabbed hold of on August 8, 1992, when his Harrier GR5 suffered a mechanical failure at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire. His Martin-Baker ejection seat activated, flinging Huckstep out of the aircraft a mere 25 feet above the ground. It is believed to be the lowest-level ejection from a Harrier anyone has ever attempted.

Group Captain Chris Huckstep in his office overlooking the flight line at Boscombe Down  

"What we do is interesting - we don't use the word 'dangerous'," says Huckstep. "Test flying is not dangerous, but it can be challenging, and the risks need to be understood, thought about, managed and mitigated as much as possible."

To get to be a pilot on a front-line British squadron - whether you're flying fighter jets for the RAF, Apache gunships for the Army or any of the Navy's range of helicopters - you're already a well-above-average aviator. But that doesn't automatically mean you'll be a good test pilot. The job isn't just about skilfully and bravely flying the aircraft - it's about understanding why it works the way it does, analysing how it could do its job better, and being able to explain it all to anyone who might need to know.

When someone buys a new car they can just put the key in the ignition and drive around as they please; but when the military buys a new aircraft it has to be exhaustively tested to make sure it will successfully and safely complete all the missions it was bought to carry out. And, unlike the car owner who can put their vehicle through a Pimp My Ride-style transformation and still drive it without any real worries, whenever the military make even the slightest modification to an aircraft, the changes have to be certified as effective, airworthy and, above all, absolutely safe. The job of ensuring that the aircraft work and are safe to fly falls to the military's small number of test pilots.

So a test pilot has to be part engineer, part aerodynamicist, part aerospace designer and part military tactician. They also have to be patient, meticulous and methodical, happy working as part of a team yet motivated and devoted enough to push themselves to complete lengthy written reports to tight deadlines on their own. The job may have the kind of glamorous aura that makes it look to be the pinnacle of an aviator's career, but it's not something everyone skilled at piloting will necessarily be able to do.

Commander Simon Sparkes in his office in the ETPS building

"Fundamentally, we're teaching a way of thinking," says Sparkes, safely back on the ground in his office in the ETPS building near Boscombe's long runways.

Every year, the School takes ten or a dozen of the best military aviators from across the services and gives them what amounts to a Masters degree in critically evaluating and meticulously assessing aircraft. They already have the flying skills: at Boscombe they learn to get inside the mind of the aircraft's designers and work out how to unpick and improve the flying experience.

"For example," says Sparkes, "in Nissans, the indicator control stick is on the opposite side to 90% of all cars. If you're not used to it, you'll go to indicate and end up turning the windscreen wipers on. That might not be a dangerous problem in a car, but something like that could be an issue in an aeroplane. What we would say to a test pilot is, 'Don't tell me that's wrong - tell me why it's wrong'."

This process - turning a competent, confident, highly experienced military pilot into the kind of analytical aviator the test pilot's job description demands - begins before long before the year's new intake of students enrol at ETPS every January. The selection procedure is complex and ever so slightly mysterious: you have to apply to the school, but chances are, by the time you do, the brains trust at Boscombe have already had their eye on you for a while.

"We look for people who have credibility, good operational background, above-average flying skills, and who are good communicators," Huckstep explains. "A test pilot has to be above-average flying skills, because he needs to be able to fly very accurately and not with his whole capacity. He needs to be a good frontline operator with credibility, in terms of his past experience dropping bombs, fighting wars, whatever you've gone and done - so that the guys flying on the front line squadrons trust the test pilots who are making the recommendations which they'll have to live with. And he needs a good academic ability, to understand aerodynamics and coefficients of lift and drag and thrust and some of the wacky equations they come up with now."

Jamie Hunter, with ETPS jets to his rear

The course is arduous, but rewarding: and for many pilots, the trade-off for all the long hours studying arcane manuals of aerodynamics and the physics of flight is the opportunity to spend a year flying a greater variety of aircraft than they'd normally get their hands on in an entire career.

Students are pre-selected for their specialisms - there are so many places per year for trainees on fast-jets, "heavies" (fixed-wing aircraft with more than two engines) and helicopters - and a small number of flight-test engineers are also trained up alongside them. These are usually drawn from the ranks of "back-seaters" - navigators or weapon specialists from jets like the RAF's Tornado GR4, or computer systems operators from heavies such as the E-3D Sentry radar aircraft.

The culmination of the course is the daunting week-long set of presentations called Previews that take place every December. The students are put in pairs and sent off to complete the kind of task they might end up being given in the real world. They are presented with an aircraft they've never used before, and are given a scenario - usually, that the military is considering purchasing the aircraft to do a particular job - and have to report back on whether it's suitable or not. The students then have a fortnight with the aircraft in which to design and execute a flight-test programme to answer the question.

They present their findings in the Preview, in an enviroment that feels like standing up in a school assembly, only scarier. They present their report to their fellow students, the entire faculty of the School, and a hand-picked selection of outside experts, possibly including regular users of the aircraft they've been testing and maybe even people involved in designing it. After their presentation there are 30 minutes of gruelling questions.

Live was invited to attend some of 2010's previews. One of the teams had spent a fortnight in Stornaway, assessing whether a Sikorsky helicopter presently used by the Scottish coastguard would work as a military search-and-rescue platform. Although perfectly acceptable in its current job, they found a number of issues that would make it a poor choice for war zones. The biggest concern was that this particular Sikorsky needs to be very level when it lands; in a combat situation, where a pilot might have to quickly put the aircraft down to avoid enemy gunfire and may come in to land with the nose higher than the tail, the rear rotor could end up hitting the ground. The assessment was that it would be unsuitable for the job.

Barely 20 minutes after the question-and-answer session concludes, Sparkes convenes a meeting of eight senior ETPS tutors. Projected on a wall is a spreadsheet of the team's marks, broken down into 15 categories. In a brisk, businesslike session, the tutors agree on what marks to award the students under each heading. There is occasionally a minor disagreement over specific ratings - one tutor may lean towards "above average" while another feels that "high" is more appropriate - but these are talked through, reasons given, and agreement reached quickly. The final marks are entered on the spreadsheet and the team's fate is sealed: they have passed, with flying colours - though they won't be told until the graduation ceremony the following week.

A mug and patch bearing the ETPS crest

An important part of the job of a military test pilot is putting brand new aircraft through their paces and working with designers and technicians to iron out problems in prototype airframes before the latest multi-million-pound project goes into production. Involving test pilots as early as possible can save billions.

Sometimes the problem isn't with the aircraft, but with the requirement - the document drawn up by the MoD which specifies exactly what the aircraft has to be able to do. "The contract for the Mk I Merlin said that it had to be able to detect a submarine's periscope at 50 miles," one Boscombe insider tells Live. "It did it, but the problem was, it couldn't detect a supertanker at two miles." Testing by the end-user will help ensure that whoever's made the mistake, it's rectified before the entire fleet of aircraft is delivered.

While there are ETPS graduates busy working on new platforms today - in the USA, a number of ETPS alumni are helping ensure the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter enters service towards the end of the decade in as near perfect a state as is achievable - if this was all test pilots did there wouldn't be many of them needed. But the lion's share of the work is done on aircraft already in service.

When the Ministry of Defence decides that it needs to fit a new missile to a jet, or when a new software upgrade is in the works to improve the performance of the Chinook helicopter fleet, it has to make sure that everything works properly and that the new kit is safe to use. Every modification - from the most comprehensive aircraft overhaul down to the tiniest bit of tinkering with the placement of equipment inside the fuselage - has to be declared safe. And it is the job of the test pilots to make that call. Doing it involves designing and carrying out the appropriate tests, and making the key recommendations that will result in the issue of the Release to Service certificate that means the modified aircraft can be flown safely, and legally, by the front-line pilots.

Graduates from the ETPS course go to one of four Test and Evaluation squadrons: the RAF's Typhoon and Tornado jets have a test squadron each, based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, while Boscombe Down plays host to the other two units. Those are 206 Squadron, which does development, evaluation and test work on the RAF's heavy aircraft - anything with more than one engine and which doesn't fly faster than the speed of sound, such as the Hercules and C-17 transport planes or the E-3D Sentry radar jets - and RWTES, the Rotary Wing Test and Evaluation Squadron, a tri-service outfit which handles modifications on every helicopter type operated by the British military. There are also three parallel units that do test work on mission systems and weapons themselves, additional to the effects those pieces of equipment might have on the aircraft's handling and safety.

A modified Merlin readying for take-off as part of the BERP programme

Across on the far side of the Boscombe airfield from Sparkes' and Huckstep's offices, the RWTES building would be eerily quiet, were it not for the racket from the large Merlin helicopter on the pad outside, whose pilots are readying it for a test flight of some new rotor blades developed as part of the British Experimental Rotor Programme. (There's nothing wrong with the technology or the testing, but clearly the top-secret committee that decides on military acronyms was having a bad day at the office when they came up with BERP).

"You walk down this corridor now and there's half a dozen people around: sometimes there'll be no-one," says Colonel Crispin Orr, an Army pilot who is the commanding officer of the RWTES. "That's because they're all out doing stuff. I've got people down at Westland in Yeovil today flying the Wildcat, which is the next generation of the Lynx: we've got guys out on a ship doing landing trials with that as we speak. I've got people down in the south of France, at Eurocopter, flying the Puma II. And as you can see, we're flying the Merlin here today, with BERP III blades - these are the latest evolution as they continue trying to make the blades provide more lift and less drag."

Orr's team are also involved in a host of other ongoing projects, from a comprehensive overhaul of the Lynx helicopters which will see the aircraft flown in Afghanistan given new engines, sensors and weapons, to release-to-service clearance of the latest additions to the Chinook fleet, the Mark IV variant, which features the latest in "glass cockpit" flight-deck instrumentation.

Inside the 206 Sqn hangar at Boscombe Down

It's a similar story elsewhere on the base. In one of Boscombe Down's largest hangars, 206 Squadron's commanding officer, Wing Commander Simon Seymour-Dale, shows Live around a C-130J Hercules which is being fitted out with special flight-test equipment.

The safety and performance of the aircraft isn't simply a matter of test pilot opinion: test flights generate vast amounts of data, which are then checked, measured and assessed to establish the precise effects of each and every modification. And if you have to go to the considerable trouble - and expense - of attaching all the monitoring equipment to an aircraft, you might as well do as much testing as you can before you take the instruments off again.

Wing Commander Simon Seymour-Dale in the cockpit of the modified C-130J

"There's a bunch of C-130J tests that need to be done, for which we need an instrumented aircraft," Seymour-Dale says, "The most effective way to do that is to take one of them off the front line, instrument it, and do the tests all in one bang."

The instrumenting process takes up to two months - it would be even longer, but the complex business of inserting test equipment into the four engines is being carried out by Rolls Royce, who are going to bring engines fitted with strain gauges to Boscombe Down and swap them for the ones currently in the Herc. Devices are being installed in the wheels to measure brake torque and tyre temperature; the head-up displays in the cockpit will be filmed.

Once all the measurement systems are in place, the tests will begin. First up is a programme to clear the aircraft to take-off and land on sand, gravel and clay surfaces - "funnily enough, all the terrain you find in Afghanistan," Seymour-Dale notes - with heavier loads on board than it is currently permitted to carry.

"It's cleared to a certain mass at the minute, but they want to be able to extend the mass range so they can take more kit into austere airfields," the Wing Commander explains.

The test aircraft will also have external fuel tanks fitted, because, while other countries that have C-130Js already fly using these additional tanks, very little test evidence has been collected, and the MoD wants to be sure it's safe. After that, it is hoped that the test aircraft will carry out air-to-air refuelling trials with the British military's newest aeroplane, the Voyager tanker, which is still being tested by its manufacturer, Airbus Military, before being handed over to the RAF.

Part of the instrument panel in the cockpit of the modified C-130J

Just like Orr at RWTES, Seymour-Dale is in charge of a small team, many of whom spend a lot of their time elsewhere. One of 206's pilots is about to go on a course to perform safety checks on the three modified Boeing passenger jets that are expected to enter service soon under the name Airseeker - a surveillance aircraft already in use by the US Air Force (who call it Rivet Joint), but which will still have to be shown to meet stringent British military aircraft safety standards. Pilots from Boscombe will soon be involved in testing the new A400M transport aircraft, currently under development by Airbus near Madrid. There are upgrades to the Sentry fleet, and further work to ensure the C-130Js can do all the same jobs the older C-130Ks presently carry out before the Ks are retired from service.

There are two other aircraft in the hangar today, which underline another aspect of the test work carried out at Boscombe. The aged Andover 646 and BAC 1-11 aircraft are flying laboratories - test beds onto which experimental new sensor equipment can be fitted and flown. They will shortly be retired, with a new RJ-100 aircraft, capable of carrying out the lower-level Andover flights as well as the higher-flying 1-11 sorties, intended to take up the slack. But in today's environment of cost-consciousness, with an unaffordable defence equipment programme continually being reassessed and refined by the MoD, there are concerns over maintaining the more speculative research-and-development capabilities.

"They need a business case for an aeroplane to make the investment," Seymour-Dale says, "but R&D is notorious to pin down. Usually, R&D business rolls in about a year in advance, but business [plans] look five years ahead - and it's really hard to find guaranteed business looking for the next five years to justify the investment. It's a chicken-and-egg thing: if you don't have the platform you won't get the customers, but if you don't have the customers you won't get the platform."

Commander Simon Sparkes performs pre-flight checks on the Gazelle

Business cases and financial implications weren't part of the Boscombe Down language when the base became the UK's flight-test hub in 1939. Through British aviation's "golden age", the airfield saw more than its fair share of history - from the first flights of the prototype of the Lightning fighter and the TSR-2 interceptor, to the November, 1954, crash of the supersonic Fairey FD-2 - the last British jet to hold the world speed record - which test pilot Peter Twiss miraculously was able to walk away from. But the world has changed, and Boscombe has had to move with the times.

In 2001, the British military spun off its flight test operations into a public-private partnership with Qinetiq, the private defence contractor which was itself once part of the MoD. The arrangement is complex but in essence, while the UK government still owns the airfield, Qinetiq own the aircraft that are based at Boscombe and are in charge of running flight test operations - including the ETPS - under a 25-year contract. While the bulk of the personnel on the test squadrons and in the school are serving members of the military, there are a large number of Qinetiq's civilian staffers also working at the base, in roles that range from administrative support to hands-on technicians and scientific advisors.

"It's always interesting for servicemen to mix with civilians, and there are lots of benefits to it," says Commander Tony Tite, who is in charge of the mission systems test unit for helicopters. "There's more than one way to understand leadership. The sergeant major shouting and bawling doesn't work here - you need to be able to cajole and persuade, and to argue without losing your temper, because the civilians here don't fall under the rank structure. It's a much subtler form of leadership you have to learn."

There are a number of things that might, at first glance, seem obvious ways for the public-private partnership to bring in more money; and offering places on the ETPS course to fee-paying students is one of them. While the course is open to trainees from outside the British military - the "Empire" of the name isn't just a historical throwback; students from Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada are often to be found on the course - there are a number of important considerations that limit its potential as a generator of profit for the MoD.

While ETPS was the first school of its type in the world, other nations now have their own versions. The Americans have more than one, including the US Air Force's test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the place where Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947 and where many of the Apollo astronauts learned the test-pilot trade. There are certainly countries around the world who would like to send trainee test pilots to the ETPS, but it seems unlikely that the MoD would be happy to give Chinese or North Korean aviators a close-up look at experimental sensors or next-generation modifications to the current UK aircraft fleet that a year at Boscombe would provide.

Similarly, the School does train civilians - one of the students Live watched deliver the Preview presentation on the Sikorsky helicopter was a Qinetiq staffer - but here, too, there would be tensions. The whole point of the British military having its own test pilots is so that it can make an independent assessment of the aircraft and technology that industry supplies to it. Aircraft manufacturers have their own test pilots, many of whom are ex-military, and most of the time, everyone agrees with each other. But when there are differences of opinion - when the manufacturer thinks a particular modification has been completed adequately, but where the military customer thinks more work is required - the military test pilots provide a vital last line of defence to the British military, and to their paymaster: the UK taxpayer.

"I'll have to be really careful what I'm saying here," says one Boscombe staffer, "but if the UK wants a test and evaluation capability, it has to fund it. It's one of those defence choices, like whether we want aircraft carriers and an expeditionary force. If we don't, then the UK will have to buy its aircraft off-the-shelf, like a lot of other nations do. But if we do want to have our own aeroplanes, doing the bespoke tasks as effectively as we've always done, then we do need test pilots, and we do need ETPS: so we have to pay for it."

Commander Simon Sparkes (left) and the author after the flight in the Gazelle

* Since Live's visit to Boscombe Down early in 2011, Cdr Sparkes has moved to a new job in the Military Aviation Authority, which oversees military aircraft safety. His replacement as Commanding Officer of ETPS is Commander Mark Macleod.

More items in features

Cluttering Up Space

The Spies Behind Your Screen: Hacking Team, International Law and the New Cyber Arms Race

Inside Britain's Quick Reaction Alert System

The Roots and John Legend interview

The Last of the Few

Ultramagnetic MC's - Critical Beatdown: An Oral History

Thriller appraisal

Terry Callier interview

Gnarls Barkley interview

Hank Williams III interview





photo gallery


mailing list