With a new weight and balance, all the panels and systems, including the electrical system, all functionally checked, and after numerous taxi checks, we were ready to get airborne. Our limitations were received from the FAA, and all the paperwork was approved, at least giving me a ‘learner’s permit’ to fly it for 60 days. Since there were no trainers, no instructors, and no previous Harriers flying in the civilian world, much was left to me to come up with a safe and viable plan to get the airplane airborne and flight tested – -within very strict and stringent FAA boundaries.
Powered Lift was then a new category of flying machine added to the FAA regulations and the Harrier fit perfectly into that category, but much of that was political. That category applies to certificated airplanes, not Experimental certificated airplanes. Again, everything we were doing was the first time it had ever been done, so we agreed to walk slowly and in direct step with the FAA. All eyes were upon us – – literally!
I wrote a very limited test plan for the first couple of flights to evaluate the handling characteristics of the airplane, especially for operating from a very, very short landing field. St. Mary’s County is only 4.000 feet long, and it’s ALL ASPHALT. Harriers eat asphalt almost as quickly as jet fuel. In addition, there are residential areas very close to the airport. We had already gained much attention from the locals because every time we started the Pegasus engine, everyone in three counties knew it. We were going to have some trouble keeping this much of a secret.
We had several dates planned for the first flight, but weather and technical issues prevented us from actually getting airborne on those dates. Remember, we really only work in earnest on the weekends, so we continued to slide the first flight from week to week. All the time, we’re answering the question, “when are you guys going to fly?” The universal answer, and the subject of many jokes, was “Two weeks.”
Finally, the sun, moon, stars and high tide all aligned for the first flight. A test card written and vetted by other test pilots and the team, and a safety chase airplane was available. Experienced test pilot, Ricardo Traven (chief experimental test pilot for the Boeing F/A-18) volunteered his time and personal Beech Baron aircraft for a photographer and safety chase. A ground safety team would be in place, with two-way radio communication, and a truckload of fire extinguishers, in addition to the local Hollywood Fire Department, were physically on site. We thought we had covered every possible contingency.
Our plan was to get the safety chase airplane airborne, circle the field once, then swoop down for what we call an ‘airborne pickup.’ This is when the safety plane just passed the test plane during its takeoff, so the test airplane can safely and efficiently join with the chase plane in formation. When done correctly, the two airplanes are in formation (with the test airplane in the lead) by the end of the 4,000 foot runway.
Ricardo took off and turned downwind in his Barron, with a photographer Tim
Wright in the rear seat, and cameras rolling. I took the small runway in takeoff position, with the engine checks complete and holding at 55% RPM, ready for his call to slam full power. Joe Anderson was acting as LSO on the ground, with the maintenance team at his side, in case needed for any ground emergency. All radios and checks were normal.
For the next few seconds, I had a chance to think and uttered the Test Pilot’s prayer – “Please Lord, don’t let me ______up!”
Nearing the point for my throttle slam, Ricardo transmitted, “10 Seconds!” on the radio. Throttle slam was my point of no return. Up until then, I could just stop everything and take if back to the hangar. But once that throttle goes forward, there is little chance of a successful abort and I’m probably going flying, unless Sir Newton says differently.
For a brief few seconds, I thought about not going flying. Flying is risky. But in those few seconds, I realized that I had done this thousands of times, spent numerous hours in this particular cockpit, had studied this particular airplane, the systems and emergency procedures, and there was no one in the world better prepared to do this than myself.
Three, two, one, SLAM full power!
The Pegasus roared to life, as only a Pegasus can, and I was rocketing down the runway. I reached 110knots, which was my target airspeed, in a matter of only a very few seconds and a few hundred feet. My left hand went from the throttle to the nozzle lever. At the target airspeed, I rotated the nozzles and the airplane was airborne.
Ricardo passed on my right, just as I lifted off – – a PERFECT pickup!
We planned to leave the gear down, just in case the first landing had to immediately follow the first takeoff. We didn’t want to take a chance and perhaps ‘forget’ to lower the landing gear. Forgetting to lower the gear has been done by far better pilots than myself, so why take a chance? Leave them down for the whole first flight, which we did.
I noticed immediately, that the airplane was a bit ‘squirrelly.’ It was sloppy and loose, in all three axes, and there was a RED LIGHT on the left console. Red lights are never good, but this one was for the auto-stab system. Thank goodness for all that cockpit time, because I knew of the light, and knew what the correction was — turn the auto-stab system to the OH-EN position (ON). Problem solved and the light was OH-YOU-TEE. (OUT). The airplane settled down and started flying like a normal, well-behaved Harrier.
I also noted that there was a decided lack of chatter on the radio, as in none. The radios were perfect before takeoff, and now there was nothing. Fortunately, a No-Radio approach was considered and the chase airplane made all the appropriate radio transmissions.
I completed the tasks, as briefed and returned to the airfield for landing. You may have heard Navy pilots describe their first carrier landing as landing on a postage stamp. My first view of the 4,000 foot strip from the Harrier cockpits gave me the exact, same impression. The airfield looked EXTREMELY small!
I turned downwind to set up for a variable nozzle, slow landing, targeting a 90-knot touchdown in the first 500 feet of the runway. I was proud that I hit both of those test targets and could have easily turned off at the mid-field mark, with 2,000 feet remaining. Not wanting to skid tires or waste valuable brakes, I slowed all the way to the end of the runway and turned off.
WE HAD DONE IT! Good Ole’ Boys from St. Mary’s County had now successfully flown a Harrier under civilian registry! Although this had been done years ago in the UK with the British Aerospace G-VTOL company demonstrator, no one had done this in the U.S.
After a quick, post-flight debrief and quick celebration, we prepared the airplane for a second flight, the next day. That included removing all the extra comm gear that caused the no-radio situation, fixing a fuel leak that we suspected would happen at full power. Once they were fixed, we put the airplane in the hangar and adjourned to the bar for a proper celebration.
A proper celebration included not only dinner and drinks, and toasts to the greatest civilian Harrier Team, but also to the United States Marines. The first flight just happened to take place on the MARINE CORPS BIRTHDAY, 10 November, 2007.
The next day, we convened for our second test flight, which was a whole different story…