Lt. Col. David Nelson
Interview by Eric Hehs
This interview appeared in the January 1999 issue of Code One Magazine.
...The universe of flight testing is divided into two distinct worlds, developmental flight test and operational flight test. In the US Air Force, developmental test pilots tend to be graduates of USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, California. Operational test pilots tend to be experienced weapon instructors, graduates of USAF Weapons School at Nellis AFB, Nevada. Only a half dozen so current USAF pilots have been through both programs. Since graduates from either school are allowed to wear their Test Pilot School or Weapon School patches throughout their flying careers, the rare pilot who has graduated from both schools is called a "two-patcher."
Aircraft type further narrows today's small field of two-patchers. Just two come from the F-15 community. As one of the two, Lt. Col. Dave Nelson presented a logical target when the Air Force went hunting for an operational test pilot to send to the F-22 Combined Test Force at Edwards, the site where the F-22 is going through developmental flight testing. Logical, indeed. Lt. Col. Mike Bloomfield, the other two-patcher from the F-15 community, is a space shuttle astronaut for NASA. When the offer for the flight test job at Edwards came last spring, Nelson gladly gave up his desk job at the Pentagon to fly the Air Force's most advanced fighter.
Nelson began his fighter career as a distinguished graduate from undergraduate pilot training. He was first assigned to fly F-15s as a first lieutenant at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, in 1981. There, he was qualified in all squadron missions, upgraded to instructor pilot, and performed as a Red Flag mission commander. He was later appointed chief of squadron weapons and tactics while still a first lieutenant. During his second fighter assignment in 1986, he attended Fighter Weapons School. He continued flying F-15s in the Tactical Air Command (now Air Combat Command) until 1990 at which time he attended Test Pilot School at Edwards. His other titles include Electronic Combat Pilot, F-15 RTU Instructor Pilot, Wing Electronic Combat Manager, Wing Simulator Training Officer, Program Manager for Weapon System Evaluation Program, Chief of WSEP Investigative Firings, Wing Chief of Evaluation, Chief of Developmental Flight Test, and Operations Officer.
Nelson has actively flown in support of test and evaluation programs since 1987, except for the two years he spent at the Pentagon on the Air Staff as Deputy Chief, Advanced Technology Division, Air Force Special Programs Directorate. He has flown and influenced the Air Force's most advanced operational and developmental air-to-air systems, including systems of special interest to the Air Force Chief of Staff and to the commander of Air Combat Command. He was USAF project pilot for the Integrated Control and Avionics for Air Superiority program and for the Full Envelope Agility Simulator Trials program. He has fired fifteen live air-to-air missiles in support of test and evaluation projects, downing six QF-100 drones and one QF-106. He has published fourteen articles on air-to-air weapons and tactics that have been distributed across USAF.
Nelson has over 2,200 hours in the F-15, 300 hours in the F-16, 300 hours in the T-38, and flight time in a variety of other fighters, including the F-18, Mirage 2000, F-4, and F-86. Code One editor Eric Hehs visited Nelson at Edwards the week after Nelson piloted the F-22 for his eighth time. The flight took the F-22 past the 183-hour mark set by Congress and the Department of Defense as a prerequisite for releasing funds for the first six production F-22s. The day of the interview, one of the two F-22s at Edwards set off on the eighty-ninth F-22 flight and added to the 190 hours already accumulated.
Given the rarity of test pilots with developmental and operational test experience in the F-15, the aircraft the F-22 is to replace, were you the only choice for this job?
I don't know if only one right person can ever exist for any job. I heard that the test for indispensability is to put your finger in a glass of water. If the hole stays there when you pull out your finger, you are indispensable. That's never happened to me. I prefer to think that I am a good choice for the job.
Though I may not be the most current test pilot, either operational or developmental, I am a known quantity to both communities. A lot of pilots could have looked at the jet from an operational perspective, but they might not be trained to fly the developmental test missions the program is focused on now. A lot of pilots are qualified to fly developmental test, but they might not have the Weapons School credential that allows Air Combat Command to trust their opinions more easily.
I am here to fly developmental test and to look at the F-22 from an operational perspective. My specific charter is to ask if the aircraft makes a good fighter. Everyone who flies the F-22 at the Combined Test Force has been an operational USAF fighter pilot. Each of the six pilots has thousands of hours of fighter time. When any of us is asked to evaluate the airplane for military utility, we know what we are doing. We know what to look for when flying tracking tasks and when flying in formation. We all know what characteristics make a good fighter. My job is to convey those findings to AFOTEC (Air Force Operational and Test Command) and to the ultimate customer, Air Combat Command.
What are you doing to stay tactically current in the F-15?
To catch up with the latest operational test issues, I flew with the 422nd Operational Test Unit at Nellis after checking out in the F-15 at Edwards. I am going to the next Weapons School refresher course to get acquainted with the latest tactics in air combat. I also stay current in air combat maneuvering here at Edwards.
Since most of the flying at this stage of the F-22 program concerns developmental tests, why does the F-22 CTF need an operational test pilot?
Historically, we have split programs into developmental test and operational test as two distinct events. The approach limited the communication between the developmental test community and the operational test community. The two communities have different ideas. AFOTEC and the F-22 SPO are attempting to make the combined operational test and evaluation team more effective and more efficient by starting operational testing early. We want an operational look and an operational buy-in to what developmental test is doing so that, when they hand that airplane to us in 2002 for dedicated OT [operational test], we will experience no surprises.
We are also involved in some of the logistics evaluations, too. We split our operational assessment into two categories effectiveness and suitability. While I am concentrating on effectiveness, Air Combat Command has people here addressing suitability. Suitability has a lot to do with maintenance and logistics; it means we can deploy the airplane with minimal support and do our job at a deployed location. For example, having to change tires after every flight would not be suitable even though the airplane is effective when airborne. Stealth has major implications for both suitability and effectiveness. We don't want to spend a lot of time maintaining low-observable treatments. By the same token, these treatments have to work once airborne.
Is anything learned from the development of the F-15 being used here?
The Air Force learned a lot from developing the F-15 and the F-16. Compared with the F-15 test program, the F-22 program is more ambitious. We have fewer flying hours to accomplish the same amount of work or more work. We have come a long way in modeling and simulation. We can figure out more things without flying the airplane. Computer capacity alone has given us a real advantage.
We are more fiscally constrained, which forces us to work smarter and more efficiently. Boeing has a flying testbed with a full avionics suite to help us. Lockheed Martin is building an air combat simulator to expose pilots to a wartime environment without having to fly the airplane. We have fewer flying hours and fewer planes at an equivalent point in the development cycle, but we are further along because we have more experience and better tools.
How did you prepare for your first flight?
The first thing I had to do, coming from a desk job, was to check out in the F-15. That took a month. After that, Brian O'Connor from Boeing gave me a ground academics course that prepared me to fly as a chase pilot for the F-22. I flew chase for three months and then took a full-blown course in F-22 academics from Steve Reeves, James Mynar, and Earle Holtzendorf, all from Boeing. The course went into great detail about every system on the airplane the hydraulic system, the fuel system, the environmental control system, the cockpit you name it. After the academics, I spent time in the F-22 simulators in Fort Worth with Jon Beesley, Jeff Harris, and the gang and in Marietta with Bret Luedke, John Dobbs, Cam Catts, and Ghost Johnson. I came back to Edwards where Paul Metz took me through an engine run. That was valuable. The airplane is very simple to start. The pilot turns on the battery and auxiliary power unit, puts the throttles in idle, and he's done. The F-15 and F-16 are also fairly simple to start, but the F-22 beats both of them. It also starts faster. We need to demonstrate that sometime. After parking at the end of the runway, I can take off in a minute and a half with full alignments on both of my inertial navigation systems. This is very fast, probably twice as fast as an F-15.
Were you nervous on your first F-22 flight?
I wasn't nervous. I was a little anxious, but not about safety. And I wasn't afraid that I couldn't get the airplane off the ground, fly it successfully, or land it. I was more anxious about getting through the test points without screwing up. A test pilot has an audience of thirty people on the ground monitoring his every move in the air. If he sneezes, they hear it. I just wanted to do the best I could.
How was the first flight?
The F-22 flew much as I expected it to fly like a fighter plane. A real nice fighter plane. I flew formation on the wing of the F-16 chase. The plane is incredibly easy to land smoothly. My first flight lasted an hour and a half. Because of an instrumentation failure, the flight was more or less a familiarization flight for me. My second flight was more interesting. I flew to Mach 1.2, refueled from a tanker, and performed a few flutter tests. I've flown six more times since then. My longest flight was 3.6 hours. Pilots are so busy during a test mission that the time goes by real fast.
What are your initial impressions of the F-22?
It's premature to make a comprehensive evaluation of how the F-22 will eventually perform since only a portion of its envelope has been cleared so far. As with any new aircraft, the speed and g limits of the F-22 will gradually increase as flight testing verifies the engineering predictions for the airplane. We'll have a better idea of how the F-22 will do in its mission once its entire envelope is cleared. So far, I think all the pilots agree that the airplane flies great.
Every pilot will like the engines. They produce a lot of thrust, even in military power. I was in military power the first time I went through Mach 1. In burner, the airplane reached Mach 1.2 real fast. It has very good acceleration better than anything I've seen. Though I wasn't plastered against the seat, I experienced the nice acceleration that comes from getting faster really quick. The movement of the airspeed indicator is most impressive. The Mach number clicks up real fast even above Mach 1.0. In the F-15, pilots have to hit afterburner and stay there to go supersonic.
Air refueling impressed me. I experienced a very small amount of play with the stick in neutral. That amount of play is all I need to stay in position below a tanker. On a smooth day, I never have to push the stick beyond the breakout forces. After I get in position behind a tanker in the F-15, I work a while to get the engines set just right before I can take my hand off the throttles. Even then, the F-15's thrust still has to be corrected occasionally. Once at a proper power setting in the F-22, I can take my left hand off throttle and the jet will stay in the right place. I'm not the only one who has noticed this. Flying chase, I see other pilots with their left arm up on the canopy rail because they don't have to mess with the power setting. I can trim the airplane almost to the point that I can take my right hand off the stick. I haven't pursued hands-off refueling further. The refueling boomers get a little nervous when they see both of the pilot's arms up on the canopy rail. I did some tracking tasks recently and the F-22 had excellent performance. We got behind an F-16 and had him do two-g loaded rolls. I kept the pipper right on him. It was great.
What did it mean to the F-22 CTF to surpass the 183-hour mark?
I don't think the 183 number was that significant to the general public, but it was big within the program. The flight was an ordinary test mission, but the whole team was more excited about it because of the goal. Whether anyone agreed with the 183-hour arbitrary goal or not, surpassing it before the end-of-the-year deadline was a source of pride for the program. Place some seemingly unachievable goal in front of a group of motivated people and they will go after it. Everyone here enjoys a lot of satisfaction and pride that goes with working on America's latest fighter. It was a real honor to be the pilot to represent the team with the sortie that broke the mark.
The real heroes of the 183-hour story, however, were the maintenance guys and the test teams. We could have gone out and bored holes in the sky to get 183 hours, but we
didn't have to because the test team put all the cards together to make those missions effective and meaningful. The maintenance guys really worked to keep their jets together. During the last five flying days, the crew of Raptor 2 cranked out over twenty flying hours during eight sorties an outstanding feat.
While taxiing before one mission at about the 175-hour point, the control room noticed faulty data coming from one of the wheel speed sensors. If this sensor went bad, the brakes might go out during takeoff or landing. As I taxied back to park, I heard a flurry of activity on the radio people coordinating for the right part, the right tools, and the right people to meet me. By the time I pulled into the chocks, maintainers were standing by, wrenches in hand, to change out the bad sensor, and the part was on the way from supply. The control room was orchestrating the preflight test on the new sensor. It was just like a NASCAR pit stop. Within ten minutes, I was off again on a 100 percent effective test mission. This is just one example of the eye-watering performance by the F-22 team to reach the 183-hour goal.
Did the 183-hour goal distort the testing?
We did a few things that may have resulted in some long-term inefficiency. We never challenged safety, but we may have completed test points that could have been postponed for more productive testing, or we could have performed aircraft modifications required for more efficient testing. We worked people hard. Few people had weekends off during the last few weeks. But I never heard anyone complain.
How well is the F-22 doing for this stage of testing?
Remarkable. Flight testing is never anyone's friend. The object is to find problems, so all we do is complain. If we find something good, it is largely ignored as we look for the next problem. So far, though, the problems have been relatively minor. Most of them have been associated with particular components, not major structures or systems. The brakes and the environmental control system need some attention. None of these is a showstopper. A showstopper would require a major redesign of the airplane. A component may be unacceptable, but we know it can be fixed.
Any other comparisons between the F-15 and the F-22 you want to make?
The F-15 and the F-22 are about the same size, but the F-22 has half again as many control surfaces to maneuver the airplane. The F-15 has ailerons. The F-16 has flaperons. The F-22 has both ailerons and flaperons. The F-22 also has vectored thrust and huge stabilators and leading edge flaps that work differentially. And it has rudders that are more powerful than we thought they would be. In other words, the F-22 has a lot of powerful control surfaces. I think we can expect some outstanding agility from an airplane of this size.
Based on my experience in the simulator, we can also expect amazing radar performance and situational awareness. Stealth gives us the ability to be small. The ability to supercruise, to sustain supersonic speeds without using the afterburner, will get us to the fight quicker than anyone can expect.
The F-22 is a revolutionary departure in air combat. Its integrated avionics, post-stall agility, supercruise, and stealth will give us the edge to dominate the threat, not just stay a little ahead and not just stay even. Those four things have never been placed in one package before. We're not looking for a fair fight with the enemy. We're looking for a very one-sided fight. We expect that the dominating characteristics of the F-22 will cause a potential adversary to think twice before starting a conflict. If a conflict is started, the F-22 will provide the best hardware to threaten the enemy and to protect our pilots. Potential enemies need to know that the F-22 sensors know where they are. The airplane has the stealth to hide from them, the weapons to kill them, and the supercruise to get us quickly to the fight from a long range. We are looking forward to Air Combat Command developing tactics that will exploit the strengths of all four of those characteristics.
What role will you be playing in developing those tactics?
I love the air-to-air mission and am very interested in contributing to F-22 tactics development, but
I'm not here to develop tactics. I'm here to look at the airplane and continually ask if it will meet the needs of the pilots who will be using it to fight the next war. We will have to fly the airplane in its operational configuration before we figure out those tactics completely. The guys who might best develop the tactics will be the pilots in the operational squadrons captains, mostly. They will get this airplane on the ramp and fly it for a few hundred hours. They will probably start with something that looks like F-15 air-to-air tactics and work from there. They may evolve something quite different.
In 2002, we plan to train ten more F-22 pilots. Eight will be from AFOTEC; two from Air Combat Command. The two ACC pilots will go to Nellis, which will have several F-22s by the end of that year. Those two ACC pilots will train six more pilots, then two more blocks of four pilots each. Nellis will have sixteen pilots by the end of 2002. Shortly after that, we will train the first instructors for the F-22 replacement training unit. These instructors will then train the first pilots of the first operational F-22 squadron. The first operational F-22 fighter squadron will phase out of whatever airplane it operates and into the F-22.
What can you tell me about the mix between open air flight testing and simulation testing?
Lockheed Martin's Air Combat Simulator will be an excellent tool for evaluating the F-22 in a simulated war-time environment. But every pilot knows that the simulator always flies a little differently than the airplane. The sensors usually work better in the sim. Ideally, we would demonstrate the effectiveness of the F-22 in the air. We would have 100 targets show up, all the threats light up, and the electronic environment of a war. Even if we could do all this on the range, we would still have to simulate missile shots. At some point, then, we have to back off from reality. In the Air Combat Simulator, we will use computers to simulate denser threat environments with more surface-to-air missiles, more aerial threats, and more complex electronic environments. We can also simulate the data link and all the avionics on the ground. We would rather do it all in the air because it would be more realistic. But we can't, it would be too expensive.
How will the F-22 be received by current and future F-15 pilots?
The fighter community in general is a tough audience. We want everything we have always had plus whatever else industry can give us. If we ever find anything missing in the F-22 that we have in the F-15 or in the F-16, we are going squawk a little. From what I've seen of the F-22 so far, though, it's a real winner. It's a neat airplane with a lot of capability. I think we are going to like it.
permission granted from CodeOne Magazine.