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Nation’s first drone test pilot trainee has the right-click stuff

No place tells the story of modern aviation better than the skies over the desolate Mojave Desert surrounding Edwards Air Force Base.

This is where a 24-year-old Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier flying a fat orange jet called the Bell X-1 in 1947, and where the sleek rocket-powered North American X-15 became the first airplane to reach outer space in 1963. The space shuttle made its first landings here too.


FOR THE RECORD:
Drone test pilot: An article in the Feb. 9 Section A about the U.S. Air Force’s first drone test pilot described the Bell X-1, in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, as a jet. The aircraft was powered by a rocket engine. —


U.S. Air Force Capt. Nicholas “Hammer” Helms is in line to be the next aviator to make history at Edwards. But he won’t be breaking any speed records or risking his life to push the limits of what aircraft can do.

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Instead, he’ll do his test-flying from a computer workstation, safely on the ground. Helms is being trained to be the nation’s first drone test pilot.

“Flying at 9 Gs is a lot more fun than sitting in a locked room, I’ll tell you that,” said Helms, 29. “I never expected to be flying anything other than an F-16. But now I’m here.”

Helms’ admission into the elite U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards is another sign of the Pentagon’s historic shift to drones, which are cheaper to build and operate than conventional aircraft. Thousands of propeller-powered Predator and Reaper drones are already deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and military contractors are now testing more advanced versions with jet engines and increased lethal firepower.

But drones carry their own set of problems. Fifty-seven Predator and Reaper drones have crash-landed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and errant drone strikes have been blamed for hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries there.

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Those accidents have been blamed in part on design flaws and inadequate pilot training.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks more than nine years ago, the Pentagon rushed drones into combat. Unlike conventional aircraft, drones did not undergo the rigorous test regimen that the military typically puts planes such as fighters and bombers through. Drone test flights were conducted by engineers and pilots unfamiliar with the burgeoning technology.

It will be Helms’ job to give feedback to contractors building the drones and develop the protocols for flying them.

“There’s obviously a need for what we do,” said Col. Noel “Shamu” Zamot, commandant of the Edwards test pilot school and a former B-2 bomber pilot. “These are intricate systems that need a pilot’s input to tell a manufacturer what works and what doesn’t.

“This service is no longer a service about who has a white scarf around their neck. I think we’re evolving away from that.”

To some purists, however, Helms will never be in the same league as those who take to the skies in unproved experimental aircraft. More than 320 people have lost their lives in accidents at Edwards, many of them related to test flights.

“He’ll never be a true test pilot,” said Billie Flynn, president of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, who is now test-flying the F-35 fighter jet for Lockheed Martin Corp. “He can never boast that he’s from the land of ‘Right Stuff.’ It’s not his pink body that’s being put at risk.”

All military pilots are highly skilled, but test pilots have long been considered the best of the best. Their exploits were featured in “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book (and later a movie) about the early days of the space program. Like lead climbers who blaze a path up a mountain peak, test pilots help those who follow them avoid costly mistakes.

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Helms never set out to be a drone pilot. After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo., Helms wound up training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where he ripped through the sky at 1,500 mph above the sun-scorched Sonoran Desert in F-16s. As an F-16 pilot, he beat out higher-ranking officers in bombing contests and was named the “wingman most desired in combat” by his instructors.

Then on June 29, 2007, the day after his 26th birthday. Helms was home visiting his parents in Apple Valley, Minn., when his commander called to tell him he was being reassigned to Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas.

His new assignment: piloting Reaper drones by remote control.

“It felt like I was hit in the stomach,” Helms said.

Despite his initial disappointment, Helms grew to like coordinating sorties with troops on the ground.

“It’s very rewarding to hear the guys you’re helping,” he said. “I don’t think you can get the same experience flying fighters.”

Helms learned two years ago that the school at Edwards was offering one of its 12 slots for a drone pilot. He submitted his application.

“I think every Air Force pilot wants to be at Edwards at some point in their career,” Helms said. “It is enthralling to be in the world’s premier test pilot school.”

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At the school he flies the old-fashioned way: up in the sky. And he pilots a variety of planes — including fighters, giant fuel tankers and small turboprops — to expand his aeronautic vocabulary.

“In order to be the best test pilot, you must understand the handling capabilities of several types of aircraft,” said Joe Engle, a retired U.S. Air Force general, former NASA astronaut and test pilot. “The more languages you know, the better prepared you are to understand a new one.”

On a recent day, the sun was rising over the desert when Helms, helmet in hand, walked down the flight line and clambered into a T-38 trainer jet. With a flight instructor sitting behind him, Helms maneuvered the jet onto the runway and took off, climbing to 35,000 feet.

Helms’ mission was to measure the jet’s performance in different configurations. He twisted the plane at high speeds and felt strong G-forces pushing down on the aircraft. Then Helms accelerated and, with that, a sonic boom reverberated over the desert floor as he took the jet supersonic.

An hour later, Helms was finished. Climbing out of the cockpit, an amped-up Helms immediately began analyzing his flight. He talked about the plane as it approached Mach 1, excitedly talking about the effect of pressure building up on the airframe as the speed increased.

For a moment, his normally cool demeanor was gone. “Flying is always fun,” he said, grinning. “That’s something that will never get old.”

He made his way to the locker room, turned in his helmet and stripped off a 3-pound pressurized G-suit, which is designed to reduce blood pooling in his lower body during extremely high speed maneuvers.

Within minutes, Helms was in a conference room, describing to his instructor in complicated detail why the T-38 reacted the way it did.

The hope is that, after graduation, Helms will be able to lean on these airborne experiences to help shape how future drones are built and flown.

Having experience both in the cockpit and at the computer, he knows that remotely piloting planes has its own skill set, which is sometimes at odds with what he learned flying jets. Predators and Reapers, for example, are notorious for having their engine kill switch positioned right next to the switch to fire laser-guided missiles.

“My focus is on fixing the design errors and communicating the requirement for good design,” he said.

While Helms is in line to be the nation’s first drone test pilot, he won’t be the last. Zamot said this year’s classes will have two drone pilots, and he expects there to be more in each of the classes that follow.

“There might be a day where we see a student that’s never even got into a traditional cockpit before,” Zamot said. “We’re learning as we’re going along here. The curriculum will change as we learn. We know this technology is not going away.”

Indeed, the Air Force believes that drones eventually will do almost everything that piloted aircraft can do, from carrying cargo to bombing enemy strongholds. Aviation experts also see drones going into commercial use, perhaps even carrying passengers someday.

So while traditional test pilots may own the coolness factor, drone test pilots may own the future.

“Growing up, I had examples of fighter aircraft to dream about piloting — and that seemed fun,” Helms said. “You’ll have to ask today’s 10-year-old boys and girls which is more fun, fighter piloting or remote piloting.”

willam.hennigan@latimes.com


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