Garnet Ridgway: Aerospace testing activities can be hugely complex and can feature large amounts of repetition. As such, they are likely to make poor entertainment for the casual viewer.
During any test program, the test team should be afforded a reasonable amount of independence from commercial or political pressures. This ensures that decisions, including those relating to test safety, can be based purely upon the cold, hard technical facts. The last thing test engineers need is a call from their program manager at an inopportune moment, or to be forced to change their plans to suit commercial activities. Such interference may be well intentioned or even subconscious, but can still have a negative impact on the safety of test activity. There may also be a reluctance to undertake the riskier or less palatable aspects of test activities, such as deliberate (and often valuable) testing to destruction due to the potential for bad publicity.
While encouraging public engagement in a product during the test phase can undoubtedly raise awareness, it also has the potential to invite unfair comparisons. For example, developmental items or vehicles are almost always not representative of the production version. Therefore, such items are unlikely to compare well to production versions of their competitors, or even their predecessors. Thus, an attempt to gain good publicity can in fact have completely the opposite effect; and any attempt to highlight the unfairness can be exploited. For example, the performance of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in an arguably unrepresentative combat simulation was jumped upon by its political opponents, with headlines reading “F35s clubbed like baby seals in combat”. Such sensational language sticks in the public memory much longer than any number of mundane but successful test flights.
In spite of the issues described above, it is possible to reap some of the benefits of public testing without surrendering control of the situation. Specific, targeted stakeholder engagement can play a key role in generating public and customer confidence. Indeed, limiting the amount of public access to a developmental product can enhance its appeal through the well-documented effects of artificial scarcity.
In summary, while shutting all aerospace testing activities away behind a closed door may not be appropriate, there should at least be a door (and a person who knows when to close it!).
Garnet Ridgway has a PhD from the University of Liverpool. He has designed cockpit instruments for Airbus and currently works for a leading UK-based aircraft test and evaluation organization
Sophie Robinson: After SpaceShipTwo’s recent tragic crash in the Mojave Desert, flight test activities have been thrust fully into the glare of the media spotlight.
SpaceShipTwo’s test program has been criticized for being overly ambitious, and Branson himself accused of showing “too much hucksterism and too much hubris” in pursuit of making his space tourism dream a reality. Faced with a virulent media backlash, many companies are re-examining the way they conduct flight test activities, particularly when they are in the public eye. It becomes increasingly tempting to shut all aerospace testing away from prying eyes, but there are still many benefits to publicizing our successes.
Testing in a manner that displays candor and openness may have its risks, but there are many positive sides to testing in this manner. It can foster a close relationship with customers and investors; they want to know that their cash is being spent wisely and it can help in de-risking future activities. Customers
are also becoming increasingly knowledgeable and are less likely to be ‘turned off’ by unexpected results in testing too; they expect bumps in the road.
Publicizing the results of test activities can also have commercial benefits; building interest in new platforms and creating confidence among the intended users of your new product. Openness can also prevent negative rumors arising – these will cause financial and reputational damage if left to spread. While the idea that ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’ may be a thing of the past in the current media climate, good publicity is still valuable.
Embracing publicity as part of your testing program can also open up opportunities for engagement with the wider community. Take, for example, the Bloodhound SSC project; billed as a ‘global engineering adventure’, this quest to build a car capable of achieving 1,000mph has actively embraced publicity in over 220 different countries in order to inspire and motivate the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and engineers.
The European Space Agency took a similar route by live-streaming the landing of Philae on a comet 317 million miles from Earth, and NASA regularly broadcasts spacewalks and launches live online; all are certainly high-risk activities, but with large reward. Sharing what we do can have a real impact on shaping the future of our industry by informing, educating and inspiring the next generation of engineers and testers, and we should endeavor to keep doing it wherever possible.
Sophie Robinson is currently finishing her PhD as part of the Flight Science and Technology Research Group within the Centre for Engineering Dynamics at Liverpool University. In the course of her research, Sophie regularly works
with test pilots