10th Flight Test Squadron: troublemakers on a mission
By John Parker, Staff Writer
/ Published November 30, 2015
TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Confident from daily encounters with danger and thousands of hours flying military and civilian aircraft, the pilots and crews of the 10th Flight Test Squadron also happen to be the biggest troublemakers on Tinker Air Force Base.
They'd be out of a job if they weren't.
The 38-member Air Force Reserve Command squadron led by Lt. Col. Scott Wilson serves as the final quality check for planes fresh out of depot maintenance work at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex. After OC-ALC maintainers dismantle KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, B-1 and B-52 bombers and E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System planes - restoring or replacing anything from toggle switches to tail sections - the 10th FTS pilots are the first to fly the like-new birds.
If something wasn't fixed right, they're also the first ones to know about it and deal with sometimes dangerous consequences.
A thousand feet in the air after takeoff on Nov. 1, 2012, squadron pilots flying a newly overhauled B-52 heard a "bang-boom-thud," according to an Air Force accident report. The heavy bomber banked left. Despite a yoke dragged to full right rudder, the Stratofortress's 185-foot wingspan dangerously persisted in a 30- to 45-degree left roll.
About 25 seconds later, another "bang-boom" jolted the plane. The pilots could feel the bomber's flight dynamics change. The lead pilot wheeled the plane back to level flight. After nearly 2 hours in the air, the pilot safely landed the plane using an improvised plan because their misfortune wasn't covered in the B-52's emergency procedures manual of the time.
What had happened was the bomber's right and left inboard flaps, which extend and retract on command from the back of the wings, had fallen off one after the other and plunged into sparse forest a few miles from the base. The flaps' critical retainer plugs were mistakenly never installed during overhaul.
All the aircraft that the 10th's pilots and crew fly after depot maintenance, repair or modification are by definition "unairworthy." It's the squadron's job to fly them first and test all avionics, flight controls and even cause emergencies to make sure they can be fixed in flight.
Shutting off engines in flight is routine. Descending disturbingly close to "land" on a Tinker runway with no wheels down tests whether the warning alarms will blare.
"When you come here as a new pilot to the unit," Operations Director Lt. Col. Kelly Buck said, "the first time you pull all the fire switches, or you shut down the engines in flight on purpose, it feels a little unsettling because it's stuff that you would never do in a normal unit. But we do that."
Major Josh Thompson, a KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, added, "There's a hydraulic crossover handle that when I went through training they said never touch that thing. We move it about three times a flight, back and forth. We make sure every switch, every system, works. Then that's when it becomes airworthy."
All those system checks, including crew members who test equipment such as refueling boom extenders in KC-135s, mean pilots and crews must be highly experienced. As Reservists they have earned that experience through active, guard, civilian and reserve experiences in the airframes. The 17 pilots average around 2,000 hours of flying time. Only one of the pilots, navigators and weapon system operators is ranked below major or lieutenant colonel.
Flying more than 400 "functional check flights" annually, the squadron registered a six-year streak of Air Force Flight Safety Awards. Colonel Buck described them as "you-saved-the-plane" citations.
Checking out a plane usually takes more than one flight. Crew members note everything that needs to be fixed and go up again to verify repairs.
"You write it up if a light bulb's burned out - minutiae, things that you'd get shot for on active duty for writing up," Major Thompson said.
The squadron's mission, though, is perfection, Colonel Buck said.
"It's a pride thing," the colonel said. "You want when the owner comes to pick it up for them to go, 'Man, everything's working,' because they don't always get that. You can fly a mission with a lot of things not working. Our mission is to return perfect warplanes back to the warfighter as quickly as possible."
Some of the squadron's tests turn into real emergencies declared to the air control tower.
"I can't remember a week that's gone by when one of our planes hasn't come back as an emergency," Colonel Buck said. "Talk to the firemen. They know that when we're flying they're going to be busy."
Although their jobs mirror those of mythical aircraft-sabotaging gremlins, the pilots say it's significantly less stressful when they degrade a system themselves to perform a test.
"I've shut every engine down every initial flight that I've done here for 10 years, so it doesn't bother you anymore," Colonel Buck said. "We have to fight complacency because we see so many emergencies. We treat every one as important even though we've seen it over and over again."
Major Thompson said he was attracted to the 10th FTS because it allows active-duty service status even though he's a Reservist. He's also stationed long-term at one location, allowing more time with family.
B-52 pilot Maj. Steve Miracle said he enjoys the work. Working for Air Force Materiel Command, the squadron returns about 120 planes a year to their units.
"Every time we go fly we're doing our mission and making sure that these airplanes we're testing are fit to give back to the user so they can go to war with them," the major said. "I go home every day with pretty high job satisfaction, and I love the kind of flying that we do. It's real hands-on kind of stuff."
The squadron's other work can include ferrying battle-damaged planes from combat theaters to Tinker. They also deliver aircraft to foreign customers. Major Thompson and crew took several trips to France earlier this year delivering refueling tankers because they were so extensively modified that no French pilots were qualified yet to fly them.
"It was purely work. It was terrible," the major said with a grin.