Rich Pillans is Boeing’s chief test pilot in the UK. He leads a team of 20 flight test pilots, engineers and operations managers at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire. Pillans helped set up Boeing’s Test & Evaluation (T&E) capability at Boscombe Down in 2014, the first, permanent, full capability test and evaluation team to be set up outside of the USA.
Originally dedicated to rotary wing test and evaluation, led by Pillans, the team at Boscombe Down has diversified into unmanned systems, fixed wing testing and training programs for government and civil customers in the UK and internationally.
How/why did you become a test pilot?
I don’t think I could say that I always wanted to be a test pilot, but in retrospect the decisions I made when younger have very conveniently led me to this career.
I had my pilot’s license at 16, before I had my driver’s license. I’d also always been interested in engineering and was keen to do something that had a specialist element to it, so chose avionics systems engineering at the University of Bristol.
My interest in being a test pilot started during my time there. The degree was a key part of my journey to becoming a test pilot. I was part of a team that built and launched a rocket for the National Rocketry Championships. My role was to build a control system that would help stabilize the rocket, which I ended up using as my final year project. I designed and built everything from scratch – from the circuit-board layouts to the servo-controlled canards. After university and a couple of operational military tours, I could have taken a ‘sunshine’ tour in Belize or Brunei, but instead opted to apply for the Empire Test Pilots’ School [ETPS], and I never looked back.
What was your first job as a test pilot?
Straight after completing the ETPS course, I completed an Apache conversion and went on to conduct high AUM [all up mass] lateral CG [center of gravity] testing and weapon firing to clear new under-wing fuel tanks. Testing the Apache at the extremes of the envelope during high altitude, high AUM landings in the USA and weapon firing in the UK were a great entry to the test world. My journey as a test pilot was helped by the fact that I was following in the footsteps of army test pilot Tim Peake – before his current fame as an astronaut.
What did you learn in the early days of your career?
I was fortunate to have a varied career early on. For one year before university and seven years after, I spent no longer than six months in any one place. I enjoyed two stints in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, two with infantry regiments, flew two different operational helicopter types, and flew in two different operational theaters.
Even after becoming a test pilot, I was honored to serve on the Rotary Wing Test and Evaluation Squadron, where I learned the trade flying with some great test pilots. I also led testing on Apache, Lynx, Chinook, Dauphin and Puma helicopters. The variety of so many flying and non-flying appointments showed me that diversity really is the key to solving problems.
How does the relationship with Boeing in the USA work?
The company has established processes suitable for the US environment, but you still need to respect local regulations. Prior to setting up in 2014, we would parachute people in from the USA when they were needed. Having the UK and other international T&E centers means we can better meet customers’ needs. It’s Boeing’s philosophy to use local staff whenever possible.
Members of my team also support US development programs, including those concerning new commercial aircraft and unmanned aerial systems.
What are you currently working on?
We do most of our flying on Chinooks at the moment. We recently finished an upgrade to its digital autopilot, the Digital Automatic Flight Control System (DAFCS), which, after 450 flight hours on two versions of Chinook, has been shown to be a great success. The DAFCS really improves the safety and capability of the aircraft. We’re now about halfway through modifying all Mk4 and Mk5 Chinooks in the fleet with DAFCS, a job that should see the entire 60 helicopter fleet done by October 2019.
There are various other Chinook, Apache, P-8 and other fixed-wing programs around the corner, so it’s my role to ensure that we have the right people with the right training to support the British Armed Forces effectively. I am also working to support capability expansion and integration across the armed forces with international colleagues as we continue to grow our presence in the UK.
What are the challenges / unique aspects of your current projects?
All flying has to be treated with the utmost respect, and test flying is no different. While you can plan for almost all eventualities, dealing with emergent test requirements is one of the most rewarding aspects of a test team’s role. One of the hallmarks of a test program is that you are testing because you don’t know what the answer is going to be. You can forecast and predict, but when you press the button to go, you’ve got be on your game, because they are just forecasts and predictions.
Conducting additional safety testing requires the test team to keep a clear head under pressure and also helps to refresh lessons learned through training. The challenges are what makes this job unique and what makes my role even more rewarding.
Please describe a typical day at work.
I don’t fly as often as I used to – maybe twice a week. More of my time is spent managing – I work with brilliant test pilots, instructor pilots, maintenance pilots, flight test engineers, instrumentation engineers, safety professionals and support personnel, every day. We work on a diverse range of programs, which I dip in and out of to ensure that we are working safely, compliantly and efficiently. The experience of a diverse early career helps me work efficiently in such a varied workplace!
What influence does a test pilot have over a flight development project?
In many ways, the test pilot can have the most accurate understanding of a flight development project’s issues. The test pilot is often at the coalface of data gathering, especially for qualitative data gathered using criteria like the Cooper-Harper rating scale for handling and assessment of the pilot’s workload. Pilots are also the most knowledgeable about how the aircraft will be flown during operational missions. Test pilots can use their first impression of the flight test data to advise the wider team on its implications.
The test pilot’s role in quickly determining where the issues are can ensure the program shifts focus to target the areas that matter most, before expensive testing opportunities are used up elsewhere. After all, the test pilot is the final component of Boeing’s overall testing program, and so has the most human relationship with how those new designs perform in real-life scenarios. However, with great opportunity comes great responsibility, and so the team must ensure that the flight test engineer’s perspective is also taken into account, in order to provide a check-and-balance.
What has been your favorite aircraft to fly and why?
If I’m honest, I’ve enjoyed nearly all of the aircraft I’ve flown. The Chinook and the Apache are a pleasure to fly, because they are able to do what they have been designed to do so very well. I also fly the Bell-47 Sioux (of M*A*S*H fame) for the British Army Historic Aircraft Flight, which is a joy to fly. I am continually impressed with how the designer, Arthur Young, harnessed straightforward flight physics with the invention of the main rotor stabilizer bar, making it very easy to hover.
What do you like best about your job?
The early phases of an aircraft’s lifecycle are very rewarding. The new or modified aircraft itself is exciting, but also having the opportunity to apply my knowledge and experience to making an aircraft safer, better, or more capable means I get to give something back to the aviation community. I get satisfaction from helping to provide safer and more capable aircraft to military personnel, despite having left the military.
Do you see your job as risky?
There is the potential for extra risk for test flying any new product or design. But there are different risks for different types of flying. We can apply mitigations and control our environment to reduce the potential risks of what we do in a way the end-user cannot. The end-user has different, operational risks to us.
In addition, the significant amount of new product and design testing that happens in our labs – ahead of the eventual flight test – helps us to further mitigate any risks to Boeing pilots. All of this hard work goes toward developing, designing and delivering products to the world that are safe and perform as intended.
What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve been in while testing an aircraft?
The considerable team effort that goes into identifying risks and mitigating them means that my test flying has always had a happy ending. That said, during testing of the low-speed envelope of a helicopter during my time on the military test squadron, I was required to fly the aircraft at incrementally increasing lateral airspeeds. As our flight instruments didn’t show us lateral airspeed, we flew in formation with an anemometer-fitted pace car. During this test, the aircraft unexpectedly ran out of lateral cyclic authority, which caused the aircraft to roll left while full right cyclic was applied.
While we didn’t expect this to occur in the configuration we were flying, we had identified it as a general risk and made sure we conducted the testing at 100ft [30.4m] above the ground. I was able to pitch the helicopter nose-down to trade height for forward airspeed. Then, with forward airspeed came greater control authority, and the aircraft ‘popped’ back into controlled flight.
It was the flight test engineer that recommended we perform these tests at 100ft above the ground. His input meant we safely flew away that day. Events like this remind all test personnel that preparation, risk mitigation and team working are the key to safe testing.
How do you think testing and the role of the test pilot will change in the future?
Although there is increased use of sensors and computer simulation, there is still space for qualitative data from
the test pilot. Zeros and ones can say an aircraft doesn’t meet requirements, but only a test pilot and their flying experience can tell that maybe the requirement is wrong and that the aircraft will do its job well on the front line. Equally, the zeros and ones can say it meets requirements, but an experienced pilot will still flag problems. The human-in-the-loop of aircraft testing will always be needed.
As a company, we’re helping to pioneer technological advancements in aerospace and aviation, and we’ve seen considerable progress over the past few decades with improvements in flight simulation, safety and sustainability. We plan to continue this in the future and also aim to build upon our partnership with the UK.
As part of this, aircraft testing will continue to develop in the future, aiming to become even better, safer and more efficient than it is currently. I look forward to being a part of that!
This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of Aerospace Testing International magazine. To read the article in its original format and others like it, click here.