We had several dates planned for the first flight, but weather and technical issues prevented us from actually getting airborne on those dates. Remember, we really only work in earnest on the weekends, so we continued to slide the first flight from week to week. All the time, we’re answering the question, “when are you guys going to fly?” The universal answer, and the subject of many jokes, was “Two weeks.”
Finally, the sun, moon, stars and high tide all aligned for the first flight. A test card written and vetted by other test pilots and the team, and a safety chase airplane was available. Experienced test pilot, Ricardo Traven (chief experimental test pilot for the Boeing F/A-18) volunteered his time and personal Beech Baron aircraft for a photographer and safety chase. A ground safety team would be in place, with two-way radio communication, and a truckload of fire extinguishers, in addition to the local Hollywood Fire Department, were physically on site. We thought we had covered every possible contingency.
Our plan was to get the safety chase airplane airborne, circle the field once, then swoop down for what we call an ‘airborne pickup.’ This is when the safety plane just passed the test plane during its take off, so the test airplane can safely and efficiently join with the chase plane in formation. When done correctly, the two airplanes are in formation (with the test airplane in the lead) by the end of the 4,000 foot runway.
Ricardo took off and turned downwind in his Barron, with a photographer Tim Wright in the rear seat, and cameras rolling. I took the small runway in take off position, with the engine checks complete and holding at 55% RPM, ready for his call to slam full power. Joe Anderson was acting as LSO on the ground, with the maintenance team at his side, in case needed for any ground emergency. All radios and checks were normal. For the next few seconds, I had a chance to think and uttered the Test Pilot’s prayer – “Please Lord, don’t let me ______up!”
Nearing the point for my throttle slam, Ricardo transmitted, “10 Seconds!” on the radio. Throttle slam was my point of no return. Up until then, I could just stop everything and take if back to the hangar. But once that throttle goes forward, there is little chance of a successful abort and I’m probably going flying, unless Sir Newton says differently. For a brief few seconds, I thought about not going flying. Flying is risky. But in those few seconds, I realized that I had done this thousands of times, spent numerous hours in this particular cockpit, had studied this particular airplane, the systems and emergency procedures, and there was no one in the world better prepared to do this than myself.
Three, two, one, SLAM full power!
The Pegasus roared to life, as only a Pegasus can, and I was rocketing down the runway. I reached 110 knots, which was my target airspeed, in a matter of only a very few seconds and a few hundred feet. My left hand went from the throttle to the nozzle lever. At the target airspeed, I rotated the nozzles and the airplane was airborne.
Ricardo passed on my right, just as I lifted off – – a PERFECT pickup!
We planned to leave the gear down, just in case the first landing had to immediately follow the first take off. We didn’t want to take a chance and perhaps ‘forget’ to lower the landing gear.
Forgetting to lower the gear has been done by far better pilots than myself, so why take a chance? Leave them down for the whole first flight, which we did. I noticed immediately, that the airplane was a bit ‘squirrelly.’ It was sloppy and loose, in all three axes, and there was a RED LIGHT on the left console. Red lights are never good, but this one was for the auto-stab system. Thank goodness for all that cockpit time, because I knew of the light, and knew what the correction was — turn the auto-stab system to the OH-EN position (ON). Problem solved and the light was OH-YOU-TEE. (OUT). The airplane settled down and started flying like a normal, well-behaved Harrier.
I also noted that there was a decided lack of chatter on the radio, as in none. The radios were perfect before take off, and now there was nothing. Fortunately, a No-Radio approach was considered and the chase airplane made all the appropriate radio transmissions.