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Trials and errors: Experimental test flying in the 1970s


Following a successful RAF career, Mike Brooke became a fully qualified experimental test pilot. During five years of experimental test flying he flew a wide variety of aircraft for research and development trials then later returned to the Empire Test Pilots’ School (ETPS) to teach individuals from all over the world to become test pilots. Here he explains how, in the 1970s, the RAF underwent a significant programme of Research and Development and how this resulted in the need for suitably skilled pilots and aircrew.  

The 1970s came in riding a psychedelic surfboard on the wave of newfound confidence built by the sex, drugs and rock and roll of the 1960s. Despite the free love and flower power that followed in the early years of the decade, the tide was soon going to go out and be very slow to return.

In the first four years of the 1970s a US president would be run out of office, oil prices would triple and the Cold War would continue to freeze any rapprochement between the world’s two great superpowers. Although the chaotic and vicious war in Vietnam was over, the long predicted domino effect of the fall of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to the communists would happen, totally negating the enormous expense of lives and money on the ten years of warfare that preceded it.

Overlaying all these events was the dark shadow of fear from the spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction: the MAD policy stemming from the enormous holdings of nuclear weapons by the potential Cold War combatants. In 1977 the film Star Wars would introduce the term ‘The Dark Side of the Force’; an apt sobriquet for the times.

In the UK the decade opened with the Conservatives gaining power but losing it after anti-trade union legislation caused two disastrous miners’ strikes. A labour government would then remain in power until the last few months of the decade.

The UK’s defence posture remained fundamentally one of fixed bases on the western borders of the Warsaw Pact. The RAF underwent a massive re-equipment programme with aircraft and systems of the 1950’s and 1960’s being replaced and modernised. Many of these were either bought in from the USA or drawn from multinational European projects. This led to more protracted test and development programmes, with more than one national test centre being involved.

The increasing use of digital electronics of systems such as flight controls, cockpit displays, radar, LASER and Infra-Red sensors led to the need for more airborne research and development. Much of the UK’s work in these fields was carried out at the Royal Aircraft Establishment’s flight test centres.

One of the big motivations for R&D at this time was the need for attack and bomber aircraft to avoid radar detection by flying and navigating safely at very low altitudes. Another driver was for fighter combat aircraft to be able to turn even more tightly at high speeds. This led to a great deal of research during the 1970s into protecting the pilot from high G-forces – up to nine times the force of gravity.

Many other sensor programmes were projected at this time: a UK built airborne early warning aircraft was one and an effective low-level reconnaissance system was another. Weapon development was also required to arm the new aircraft, such as the Jaguar, Harrier and Tornado, with effective and accurate armaments suited to their roles. Cluster weapons, laser-guided bombs and missiles, and special airfield denial munitions being just three.

To help the scientists and engineers in their tasks and endeavours in these fields suitably skilled and qualified test pilots, and other aircrew, were essential. Most of these would come from the UK armed forces through the Empire Test Pilots’ School (ETPS), with some training in France and the USA. The ETPS course was a demanding ten months and followed a rigorous two-day selection board. Test pilots would then proceed to fly with either the test squadrons at Boscombe Down, where they carried out release to service testing, or with the test squadrons and flights of the RAE, where they became experimental test pilots, flying a wide variety of often old aircraft types, but developing systems and armaments of the future. 

By Mike Brooke

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