Old Bird Teaches Test Pilots New Tricks

Smoke belches from one of “Panchito’s” radial piston engines during a warm-up prior to a flight
at the USNTPS. (U.S. Navy photo by Paul Lagasse)

Over the course of their 11-month program, students at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland, have the unparalleled opportunity to fly a wide array of aircraft—from the latest strike fighters to the oldest airplane in the Navy’s inventory.

But for many students, one of their most memorable flight experiences is fly “Panchito,” a World War II-vintage B-25J Mitchell medium bomber, courtesy of the Delaware Aviation Museum.

For 16 years, Larry Kelley, Panchito’s owner and the museum’s executive director, has been visiting Patuxent River twice a year to allow test pilot school students to take turns flying the aircraft in a variety of configurations. Kelley said that Panchito allows students to grapple with handling characteristics that are dramatically different from other types of aircraft.


Larry Kelley, Panchito’s owner and co-founder of the Delaware Aviation Museum, stands in front of his B-25 Mitchell at the USNTPS. (U.S. Navy photo by Paul Lagasse)

“There are no boosted controls, no nose-wheel steering and no computers,” Kelley said. “This is all what’s called ‘arm-strong’ flying. However strong your arms are is all the boost you’ve got.”

Lt. Col. Rory “Pikey” Feely, USNTPS Commanding Officer, explained that Panchito is part of the USNTPS Qualitative Evaluation (QE) program, through which USNTPS contracts with a number of aircraft operators as a way to broaden the experience of test aviators and flight-test engineers.

“Aircraft in the QE program are chosen for their ability to reinforce key learning objectives being taught in the curriculum,” Feely said. “The QE program also supports the staff instructors because an aviation engineering mindset needs continuous fostering over a career. Hence, USNTPS encourages staff participation in as many QE flights as possible.”

The benefit of spending several hours in the cramped flight deck of the bomber, relying on analog “steam gauges” instead of the latest all-digital, fly-by-wire cockpits, is that students get a unique opportunity to test their adaptability.

“The aviators who come in here do not spend their entire career flying one particular type of airplane,” said Kelley, one of three pilots approved to fly Panchito as part of the QE program. “They’re leaving here to go into a test environment. For a test pilot, adaptability becomes very important.”

In Panchito, which the students have nicknamed “PB&J,” students not only practice takeoffs, landings, cruising flight and turns; they can also try other maneuvers in the test program such as stalls, Dutch rolls, sideslips, spirals and phugoid oscillations.

“It’s very difficult for someone to do anything that they’ve only heard described and never seen,” Kelley explained. “So on that first landing, we’re dance partners on the controls. You need a partner who’s going to take the lead. When I was learning swing dance, it was that way. You get a dance partner who is a professional, who knows the dance, and they take the lead, and then—bam—all of a sudden, you can nail it.”

As a bonus, the flight is a memorable experience for the pilots and engineers. Kelley always reminds students that they are stepping into the shoes of many young B-25 crews who routinely left an envelope on their bunk to mail home in case they didn’t make it back from a mission.


Marine Corps Maj. Hugh Anderson, a student at the USNTPS, looks out of the pilot’s seat of  Panchito after returning from a test flight to assess the airplane’s handling characteristics. (U.S. Navy photo by Paul Lagasse)

 

The Delaware Aviation Museum has been running a B-25 pilot-in-command and second-in-command training program for five years. The course includes ground school as well as on-the-ground and in-flight instruction in the aircraft. Dozens of pilots have gone through the course, but Kelley said that test pilots are in a class by themselves.

“What separates this level of professionalism from, say, an amateur general aviation pilot is that the next time they fly the airplane, they can generally replicate their experience,” Kelley said. “And that’s part of what this school is all about—getting these pilots to the level to where they can take that brief and translate it into a flight and get the data the engineers need.”

“I’m just in awe of what these guys and gals do,” he said.

Although Kelley has been flying for just over 50 years—22 of them in Panchito—mastering the B-25 was a struggle for him. In contrast, the best natural B-25 pilot he’s ever seen was a USNTPS student who handled the airplane like a veteran from the moment she first strapped into the left-hand seat.

“She was so short we had to put cushions behind her to be able to reach the rudder pedals,” Kelley recalled. “From the moment we left the chocks, though, it was like she had grown up in the airplane.”

“Her call sign was ‘Duke,’ because they said she walked like John Wayne,” Kelley added.

Following her graduation from USNTPS, “Duke”—Marine Corps Lt. Col. Nicole Aunapu Mann–went on to serve as an F/A-18 test pilot in Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 before being selected as one of eight members of Astronaut Group 21 in 2013. Today, Mann is currently training to be on the first crewed flight of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner to the International Space Station next year.

“The pilots who have made it to this level in their career, it’s not happenstance that they’re selected for this school,” Kelley said. “Their adaptability is faster. Things go wrong in test programs, so you’ve got to make certain that you have the best of the best.”

Paul Lagasse is a communications specialist with Naval Air Warfare Center.

Aviation Museum pilot Calvin Peacock prior to a training flight at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS). (U.S. Navy photo by Paul Lagasse)