The approach over the famous lake bed landing strip is a common and welcome sight for returning astronaut from the Space Shuttle. This sight is also home to a museum full of test pilots whose legend and heritage goes way back into the annuls of modern day aviation. Today, Edwards is the epic center to a whole new generation of stealth planes and the spawning grounds for future test pilots.
American Windsurfer: Tell my why anyone would want to own a jet, much less two jets?
Bill Russell: That’s a very good question. One is to get where you’re going and the other is to get there faster. Currently I don’t actually own two of them. One has been donated to a museum and I use that to commute to the high desert where we keep the other one which is a little bit of a more challenging jet, and we don’t like to fly it near areas of higher population density.
AW: How did you came to own them?
BR: Well there’s a Casa jet which is a Spanish trainer and I’ve been operating that for ten years, initially in Los Angles and then in central California. It’s a trainer. It was the first jet I’d ever really operated and owned; first plane I ever owned; a very good trainer to learn about jets, aerobatics, and military operations. It was also a fun plane to take to air shows. I had a lot of fun in it and I still do. And now of course you’re here with me at the test pilot school and we’re using it to show the test pilots and introduce them to the plane and give them something they are otherwise not used to seeing or flying in. There aren’t very many of these planes around. They can’t go to another country where these are flown since these are really antique planes that aren’t actively flown by military currently. The other plane is the Hauker Hunter out of Swiss service, a very fast airplane and it’s a lot more complex and potentially more dangerous. It takes a lot more training to fly and that’s why we keep it out in the Mojave area.
AW: Do you fly these planes as a way of clearing your mind, or something like windsurfing that people say takes so much concentration, that this is a way to relax for you?
BR: That’s fairly accurate. It takes your mind completely away from your day-to-day world, as with windsurfing which is a very focused intensive sport both physically and mentally. As far as equipment goes it’s fun in a lot of ways to deal with the equipment and the changing technology. I think aircraft and flying is fairly similar. It’s a way to kind of completely remove your self. You can’t think about your current day-to-day activities or problems when you’re flying an airplane and particularly if you’re flying a jet.
AW: Now I’ve heard that doctors make bad pilots [laughing] because they’ve got so many things on their minds.
BR: No comment. [laughing] Actually, potentially true. However I remember some statistics stating that accident rates for doctors weren’t any more than for the general populous. That being said you know doing what I’m doing doesn’t necessarily make me safe but yet I think that over time the intensity of it has made me safer. I do a lot of aerobatics and high and low altitude maneuvers. I see a lot of different types of airplanes, a lot of types that most people in general aviation in this country won’t see and experience. I think it has definitely broadened my horizons and made a better pilot of me.
Staying current in his high maintenance Hawker Harrier jet is demanding. Flying low level passes at almost the speed of sound with a “hot” ejection seat is the ultimate Xtreme game.
AW: What’s the thrills of flying these jets?
BR: There is a thrill but there’s more to it. It’s not that this is fun and relaxing. It’s very intense. You have butterflies in your stomach when you’re getting into the plane each time. There are a lot of things that you plan for that could go wrong. I think that it’s exciting not just because of the speed but because of the sensation involved. It’s a very kinesthetic sense. It’s similar in my mind to windsurfing. I feel that same sort of motion and speed and ability to control where you’re going.
AW: It’s expensive. What is the payback?
BR: I don’t think there is any way to justify the cost. It has to be something you really want to do. You can certainly spend less to get where you’re going in any other kind of plane. Jets always fascinated me, even when a kid. I had always imagined that I would fly a jet someday. My vision wasn’t that great, though not so bad, but it wasn’t perfect. I needed glasses in high school and college so I pretty much forgot about it and went into medicine.
In the late 1980s ex-foreign military turban powered aircraft (i.e. jets) became available on the market. I was one of the earlier people to get involved in that, which was when I purchased the Casa. It was because I always wanted to be a jet pilot. For civilian aircraft you almost always need two pilots but in these foreign military jets you only needed one. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier. You still had to jump through a lot of hoops and have a lot of hours according to the FAA so that you proved your abilities in the aircraft before they would issue you authorization to fly. That to me seemed worthwhile pursuing so I did.
AW: You’ve been a participant of our windsurfing equipment test for the past three years. Now a week after being with us in Maui you’re here on Edwards Air Force Base as part of the U.S. Air Force test pilot training program. Can you describe a little bit about the parallels?
BR: In the Air Force I’m a civilian contractor. For the last five years or so, we’ve brought in the two seat Casa to give them some background. The test pilots themselves are high time pilots, from what I understand the cream of the crop in the Air Force. Some are also visiting from foreign countries on exchange programs. We take them up and umm…I actually forgot the question [laughing]. Ask it again?
AW: The parallel between testing windsurfing gear and testing planes.
BR: It’s interesting. On Maui I was testing equipment. Here, this is my plane that I’m used to flying. So it’s not so much me testing but I’m offering the test pilots a chance to test the plane. It’s interesting to see their reactions. It’s often interesting how quickly people form opinions about something, similar to what I do on any given board. At the beginning of the flight I might hear a comment that sounds like it’s something they don’t like. But then at the end of the flight the same pilot will turn around and say, “Yeah that was great!” I certainly know that I do the same testing different boards and sails. That’s just an observation; it’s no direct parallel.
AW: Edwards Air Force Base has a lot of heritage. Can you tell me about it?
BR: Yes this had a lot of history as far as testing of early jet aircraft and advanced jet and super-sonic aircraft. It’s pretty much the proving ground for most of the advanced stuff from the military and Air Force. These days there’s still a lot of history here. This really came into being right around WWII or right after WWII. It’s a very large base. It’s an emergency landing site or a secondary landing site I should say, for the Space Shuttle. It’s still restricted. They fly and test a lot of different types of aircraft out here on different programs, which I’m certainly not privy to. It’s a very historic place to fly and visit if you’re involved in aviation at all.
They developed one of the first jet aircraft called the Air Comet. The base barely had a name back then. It was the Murock dry lakebed and then it became the Murock base. I don’t know when the name actually changed to Edwards. This was the site at which the first planes went super-sonic with Yeager flying the X-1, then a lot of test flights all through the X plane program up through the X-15. Currently they’re developing planes like the F-22 Raptor and doing the test flights out here. They developed the B-1 and B-2 from the base. They didn’t manufacture them here but they were generally manufactured nearby. They tested them and flew them through years of programs before putting them into service.
AW: Is windsurfing something you started after flying jets?
BR: No, it was something that I started doing in Los Angeles when I had some time off during the week or weekends up at one of the little lakes. It seemed like a lot of fun. I was never a surfer. After years of skiing it seemed like something fun to do during the summer. I started doing it when we took bare boat charters. They would often include a windsurfer on the deck. We would find ourselves jumping in the water and splashing around with this usually very primitive board and sail. I didn’t get very good at it for quite a while. Then when I discovered higher wind locations such as Maui and the Gorge I found it a lot more similar to skiing, and in particular, mogul skiing, both of which I’ve done for many years. That was the initial transition.
AW: How long have you been flying?
BR: I’ve been flying these military jets for the past eleven years or so. There are a few others that I’m also rated in such as T-33 and something called a Dahaviland Vampire, another British built plane. I’ve flown in, but not been rated in, quite a few other foreign and ex-U.S. military jets. I’ve managed to get rides in some of the newer aircraft here at the base such as T-38’s, F-16’s, and F15’s. I’ve been in some of the newer planes by coming out here and teaching some of the students in the test pilot school and have been offered, at various times, opportunities to fly in the other aircraft as well. So that’s been particularly exciting for me.
AW: Which one is your favorite?
BR: That’s a good question. They’re all fun. They’re all very interesting aircraft. I suppose I would say the F-15. That’s always been an aircraft that’s been a dream to fly. I’ve managed to fly that a couple of times, always from the back seat with an experienced instructor. It’s quite an airplane with incredible power. The ability it has to climb, maneuver, and accelerate on take off is a quantum leap above any sort of transport jet…I should say a military jet is a quantum leap of excitement above a commercial or civil aviation jet.
AW: Does it make it kind of ho-hum for you to go back to your Hunter?
BR: No, no. (laughing) The Hunter is pretty exciting as well. It’s a mach capable aircraft. Again with the Hunter, there’s no instructor other than myself. It’s plenty exciting.
AW: Tell me about the first time?
BR: As in any of these aircraft you take fairly intensive instructions in a two-seater. There was some delay trying to get the single seat Hunter operational. Therefore when I flew it the first time it had been months since flying in the two-seater version. To then strap your self into it’s very narrow cockpit with a different instrument layout than the two-seater, even though I’ve sat in it many times, was a pretty unreal experience. To actually close the canopy, start the engine up, taxi out to the runway and accelerate down the runway, made me very clearly realize as I reached rotation speed passing through about 150 mph that there was no turning back. It probably was truly the scariest thing I’d ever done.
AW: Did you work yourself up by taxiing up the runway a couple of times?
BR: Oh yes. We had done that many times. We also checked the cockpit many times. There’s nothing like the actual commitment to take off. It’s basically a go or no go decision. You have a certain time during acceleration to safely stop an aircraft and not go off the runway. Once you’ve passed that and lifted the nose wheel off the ground there’s no way you’re going to stop the aircraft. You’re in for quite a ride.
AW: Tell me more on what you went through?
BR: I don’t really remember. [laughing] If there was something going through my mind it was quickly pushed aside by other things. It probably was complete disbelief, not panic because I knew everything that one was supposed to know. It’s probably like bungi jumping for the first time, (and that’s something I probably won’t ever do). I’m sure it’s the same feeling.
AW: What about the landing?
Br: Well that’s where it’s exciting. There’s no fear really in taking off. The fear is, “Can I really bring this thing back down again?” That’s the real question in any pilot’s mind. “Okay the plane’s up. Everything is fine. What if there’s a problem? Can I get this down safely?”
I thought the Casa (plane) would provide a good background but the Casa is a straight-winged trainer jet that’s relatively slow and has completely different characteristics. The Hunter is a swept wing super-sonic plane with a very large upgraded engine in it. It is very, very different from the Casa jet. Aside from that you’re also sitting on a hot ejection seat with the pins pulled. You realize that even though it provides a safety margin, you’re literally sitting on dynamite.
AW: [laughing] Does any of this carry over when you strap yourself onto a windsurfer going out to face massive waves?
BR: [laughing] Actually I’m a lot more relaxed on a windsurfer for that reason. I’m fairly analytical. I’m not so brave. I’ve no great background or history in windsurfing. I’m still learning, especially wave sailing. I think it’s pretty daunting looking at large waves and people jumping through them. I’ve gotten to the point where I can do a little bit of that. I’m pretty cautious with these things. I’ve yet to seriously hurt myself while windsurfing or flying. Approaching both fairly analytically and cautiously, I usually push my limits slowly.
AW: What’s the next limit to break? [laughing]
BR: Well there’s always the space shuttle. [laughing] I think as far as a civilian pilot there are so many planes you can be proficient at and I’m sure at some point I will change what I am proficient at. But for the same reason most of these military pilots on this base are proficient in two aircraft and not more.
AW: Tell me a little about the test pilots you work with here at Edwards.
BR: These are all high time pilots and flight engineers. This is a program that is hard to get into with the Air Force. It’s selecting some of the best, most proficient pilots, engineers, and co-pilots from various units across the country. Each class consists of approximately twenty-four students. They are here to get a broad experience so that they can evaluate different kinds of aircraft for the Air Force and ultimately for the private industry. They are evaluating different planes for different reasons. Clearly the plane that I’m bringing for them will not be an interceptor but they in general have been evaluating this as a ground attacker plane. Their mission for this week of testing is to write a report on their experience with the aircraft. They go through a set of parameters, which includes looking at everything from the ergonomics of the aircraft to the efficiency to the safety features both good and bad, also the flight characteristics, handling, and practicality for the “mission”.
The mission for this plane has generally been as a ground attack aircraft. The reason is because this plane is relatively slow but it operates well close to the ground. So they will evaluate it as if a manufacturer brought this to them and they were testing a craft no one had been in. That’s the perspective they take with this aircraft.
In a board test program I guess the similarity would be on light days we’re testing larger boards; we’re not testing them as wave boards. On days when we have great waves you wouldn’t be testing a slalom board; they have different roles, different “missions”. People have first impressions. If you were a good board tester you would sit down and try to figure what it was about the board or piece of equipment that’s good or bad for you or for certain types of people in that “mission”. That’s what these pilots are doing. It’s certainly unfair to expect the wave board to be good at slalom and vice versa. In the Casa jet this week they’re looking at it, not expecting it to do miracles but they’re trying to evaluate it and write a critique. The critique could and probably does include that they know this is not a currently manufactured plane. They just have to be cognizant of all the factors that make this good or bad. That’s how they in turn are rated. I write an evaluation of them in the aircraft and how they perform their duties. That’s included in their overall evaluation by the test pilot program.
AW: So let me try to understand. They’re not really trying to make judgments on the planes; they’re just trying to determine the qualities of the planes.
BR: Yes, they’re trying to dissect the qualities. They’re trying to say what’s good, what’s bad, recognize it, comment on it, perhaps compare it. They all love the plane almost universally. They all think it’s really neat and flies well. Their job is to isolate various factors in the airplane—not so much the mechanics but it’s flight characteristics.
AW: I want to talk about it because this brings us to the principal of testing. For years board testing has been about trying to pick the best board. It’s like coming here trying to pick the best plane.
AW & BR [in unison]: There’s no such thing.
BR: That’s actually very true. Some people just click with a certain aircraft and some like it for unexplained reasons. It may be just the way it fits them. It may be the way it feels with their past experiences or what they expect their future experiences to be. There’s no such thing as the “best”. In my own experience I’ve taken a board out to test and loved it, then tried it somewhere else and hated it, and vice versa. I’ve had other boards that I didn’t think too much of and then fell in love with later. The same is true with anything to a certain extent—cars, for instance.
AW: Is there anything that they do here that we should be applied to windsurfing tests?
BR: That’s a good question. I’ll have to think of a good answer here. I’d like to get you some of the students’ evaluations so you can see how technical they are. There are certain parameters they are trained to look for. They apply them to tail dragger through light aircraft up to bombers with foreign as well as U.S. aircraft and are really trained to isolate the factors. I think that’s the important part. The issue is not whether something is “good” or “bad”.
AW: Do they suggested solutions??”
BR: That is usually left up to the engineers. Their job as a pilot is to take that plane up in the air, ideally flying alone, and come back down to report on how things functioned. If it were something considered negative there would be a correction made. That would be the ultimate job of the test pilot.
AW: Sounds to me that the test pilot tries to adjust to the equipment rather than how the equipment should have been made to fit the pilot. Would that be true? A plane has a flying characteristic, you learn what that is, you adapt to it, and you try to master that…
BR: Well that’s a good point. I think the test pilots also will point out the characteristics of a plane. That’s important because all planes have characteristics. The reason you know about it is because someone tested it. They didn’t know that when they built the aircraft in the factory. That’s what the tester does. Sometimes there aren’t fixes that need to be made. An aircraft has characteristics the people need to know about. I suppose that’s a fair statement. Perhaps that’s analogous with boards and everything else.
AW: It’s almost like, the attention of the pilot is not focused on how the designer screwed up. It’s almost taken for granted that the plane is what it is and the testing is just to find out what it is and how to use it.
BR: I think so. I suppose you could say that the test pilots are describing and elucidating characteristics that a prudent pilot or manufacturer would like to know about. Certainly if there were dangerous or bad parts there would be an opportunity to correct these or compensate for them. Again, every aircraft has its quirks or characteristics; in other words, it’s limitations. They’re also built for different reasons and have different missions. You have to take the mission into account. This is also true with boards or any type of technical equipment.
It’s a high art form with military jets and test pilots. It’s probably the most exotic form of testing out there. On a more sedate level, windsurfing gear has its similarities. You can’t make a piece of equipment fit the conditions for which it is not built. If you know its limits, you as the sailor may be able to better utilize the equipment that is there or that you have, or know what you need to purchase…I think a testing program is most useful if it provides a clear picture to people who haven’t used equipment and won’t have the opportunity to use it before purchasing. If they can transmit what that equipment is best for, that’s probably the most useful portion of an equipment test.
AW: Would you say that’s what you take to a windsurfing test from this kind of test here? The parameters in which…[trails off]
BR: I think so. I try to qualify the comments I have made keeping in mind that I may have been, for example, underpowered or overpowered while riding a board. I think most people do as well, even if it doesn’t seem a perfect match with the sail or the conditions that day. You can still like a board and say this would be great with something else. Sometimes I qualify things that way. It’s hard to include that in a report. The test pilot reports on airplanes are fairly lengthy. However these guys are only in the airplane for an hour and it’s incredible what they come up with. I’ve been on a board for longer than that and it’s hard to come up with the detail they have but that’s why these guys go to school to learn this.
SOARING WITH EAGLES: A dream come true for civilian Bill Russell—to fly with the pilots of the United States Air Force Test Pilot School. Each year, Russell brings his celebrated Casa jet, a collectable early era fighter jet built in Spain by the famous German fighter plane designer Willy Messerschmitt, to the test center. Testing planes is what Edwards Air Force Base is all about. Picking up some tips to help better test windsurfing equipment was our excuse to rub shoulders with the best test pilots in the world.
AW: Describe for me a flight evaluation.
BR: After I take off with them they’re flying from the front seat and I’m in the back, just as back up or to answer questions, and they’re doing everything. I’ll take off and turn the plane over to the non-pilot engineers as soon as we’re airborne. They’ll do various things with the control stick and test for various oscillation, how well the plane tracks, how stable it is, what it’s characteristics are in a stall, gear up, gear down. We’ll do low level attack profiles, measure acceleration, measure deceleration, check one engine’s performance—we might check climb or descent performance on that. We’ll do basic aerobatics, dive tests, some touch and go’s, and break around the pattern. It’s all in an hour. You have to pack a lot into it. There are a lot more things they do in between and it will all go on the report they will make. So it’s a long day (laughs) after three or four flights, pulling a lot of G’s, being very intense, because if they make a wrong move, the results may not be what you want.
AW: Can you really tell how good these pilots are by sitting back there?
BR: I’m not so much a judge on that. I’m there to ascertain the safety of the plane, my student, and myself. I can tell that some guys are just very good at it, some guys are just used to a different type of aircraft and might have a tougher time transitioning to it. I can’t tell how good of a pilot they are but I can tell that some would be very good very quickly in my aircraft.
AW: These guys are flying F-15’s, F-16’s. They come to a kind of slow plane like this and they still love it.
BR: They love it.
AW: What’s going on there?
BR:I think it’s because of the change of pace. They realize again that it’s for the mission. It’s not supposed to be a super-sonic interceptor. It’s supposed to be a ground attack plane. They realize it’s got a lot of unusual and interesting features on it. They find it very fun to fly. It’s a forgiving aircraft. It’s something different that they’ll never get to experience again. Everyone has been enthusiastic about the plane.
AW: I’m curious about that. If you put a windsurfer in an old clunker Windsurfer brand board with a centerboard…they might have an attitude about it.
BR: [laughing] I haven’t sailed one of those [laughing]. Looking back at old boards, some of them were pretty good for what they did if you think about it. I think the problem is that you can’t get a hold of them or rent them unless you happen to own one. I think people who own them think they’re a lot of fun. That’s probably why they haven’t given them up, they’re comfortable on them. They are adequate, and seem to work fine. There are probably refinements that could be made but it doesn’t mean that the old board was bad or no fun or no good.
AW:Maybe we ought to institute a program to bring back antiquated boards.
BR: I think a very interesting test would be to get some boards from ten years ago and put those into the test program with the new ones. That would be a real nice comparison for people, especially for people who haven’t upgraded in quite a while.
AW: That’s a good idea.
BR: It might also spur sales in used equipment.
AW: It creates an appreciation of the art form.
BR: I would say testing is very difficult. Personally I find in the board testing I don’t feel that qualified. I think after three years of being in specific conditions and waves in Maui, getting better at it, and surfing more when I’m at home, makes me feel that I’m a little more qualified to make comments. Three years ago I didn’t feel very qualified, I think it’s a matter of experience. These fellows in the test pilot school make very accurate comments and observations on the aircraft right away. I can tell others don’t have the same overview or come from a different perspective on the plane. There are still differences in opinion. There is no right way to rate an aircraft as far as a test, just like there isn’t for a board. So just because nine people say one thing and one says another, it really doesn’t mean that nine are correct.
Most of the pilots will make comments and notes as they go and they’ll tell me what they’re about to do. They’ll do it and then tell me, so I’m getting feedback, what they think about it. They’ll tell me that it’s very dampened in roll or pitch or they’ll make a comment, some technical comment which I, to some extent, understand mainly because I’ve learned from them. They will say it in a way that makes you think, “That must be bad,” but then they’ll say, “Oh that’s minor compared to this and that and the other thing.”
When they get on the ground even though they have negative comments in regard to certain characteristics of the plane, they’re just commenting on those features. It doesn’t mean they don’t like the plane; they all seem to like the plane. They all seem to love the airplane because it’s fun to fly. Like I said, each plane has its characteristics. Generally the comments will agree but the overall feeling varies. They might agree that there’s a certain characteristic—some guys will say that is nothing and other guys will seem more concerned.
I think that’s the attitude you should have when testing. You’re not trying to compare it and say what I used to do was better, you’re actually saying this is great; it’s a fun thing. I think it’s the same thing with sailing that you can go out on days when conditions are not perfect and still have a great time because you can pick and choose your equipment to match the conditions. It’s something that I’ve learned to appreciate. I still love the idea of going out in ten knots with gigantic boards and flopping around. If conditions are lighter I don’t mind at all going out. Personally I like sailing in 3.6 conditions on up to 6.5. With 7.0 conditions equipment becomes a little cumbersome and I become less interested. A lot of people like those conditions though and maybe I will too when I get more experience.
ON THE WATER AND INTO THE AIR—ON THE SIDE: Besides being a radiologist, Bill Russell finds time to be a windsurfer tester and a jet plane pilot / instructor at Edwards Airforce Base… the two compliment a man in his need for speed.
AW: How do you translate that to pilots walking off the plane and just loving it?
BR: Because it’s still a fabulous experience. I think these guys, while they are serious professional pilots, are also here because they love flying. They are lucky enough to be doing what they love to do. They realize that, though they worked hard, they’re privileged to be doing this. At the end of every day I think they must smile because there are worse things to be doing.
AW: Same thing with windsurfing. There are worse places to be.
BR: Exactly. That is something to remember. There are a lot worse places to be and even a mild day in Maui or the Gorge is still fabulous. Same for the desert here in Mojave—it’s absolutely spectacular. The high desert is amazing. It has interesting weather conditions. So far the last couple of days have been beautiful and calm. It’s often quite windy here so the mornings are usually the best time to fly when the air is still and calm. It’s like floating or flying through silk or skiing through powder or going down the face of a big wave.