I have always been fascinated with the 1950s era, when aviation test pilots were in their element, testing the large number of new aircraft developed by the many British aircraft manufacturing companies. They were household names, akin to the football stars of today, appearing at the annual Farnborough Air Show, demonstrating the performance of their company’s products. Their exploits were played out in the newspapers and at cinemas with the enthusiastic reporting by Pathé News. The vast majority had served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and the flying skills they learnt during that period, led them onto testing the high-performance military and commercial aircraft that made Britain a world leader at the time. Into the 1960s and onto the 1990s, test pilots continued to make maiden flights, be a key part of new technological developments and fly aircraft to the boundaries of their performance.
One day I decided to find out what aircraft at both the RAF Museum London and Cosford sites, had been flown by the most well-known test pilots in the 1950s to 1990s period. By checking the aircraft history documents that are available on the Museum website (see the end of this blog post for details on how to access these), I was surprised by the large number:
Messerschmitt Me 110 Eric “Winkle” Brown
BAC Lightning F6 Roland Beamont
Eurofighter Typhoon Chris Yeo
Gloster Prone Meteor Bill Else and Eric Franklin
Handley Page Victor John Allam
Fieseler Storch Eric “Winkle” Brown
Hawker Kestrel Duncan Simpson
Junkers Ju 88 Roly Falk
British Aerospace EAP Dave Eagles and Chris Yeo
English Electric P1A Roland Beamont
Fairey Delta 2 Peter Twiss
Hawker Hunter David Lockspeiser
SEPECAT Jaguar ACT Chris Yeo
Shorts SB5 Roland Beamont
Bristol 188 Godfrey Auty
What does a test pilot do? There are two main types – the production test pilot and the experimental test pilot. The former takes each aircraft, which has been manufactured by the company they work for, and makes a first test flight to check that it does all the things that it should do – the aircraft starts, takes off, manoeuvres, reaches the design speeds at different stages of the flight and lands, all according to the agreed specifications.
The experimental test pilot would in some cases be involved with the aircraft design, they would make the first flight and then go onto evaluating the aircraft in all of its ground and in-flight performance. The test pilot will need to be able to understand and record everything which takes place during the entire flight and feedback that information to the company engineers. Flight Test Reports are one method of recording the results of a flight – see an example written by Roland Beamont below. In essence, the test pilot is a vital cog in the fine tuning of the aircraft so that it is safe to fly by everyday pilots and meet all of its design requirements. In addition, the experimental test pilot will take the aircraft into extreme situations, evaluating how the aircraft reacts. This might be diving the aircraft to very high speed, making unorthodox manoeuvres, stalling the aircraft and then recovering to normal flight. Test pilots in more recent times will have an aeronautical engineering background and/or qualification.
In some cases, the experimental test pilot will be flying a purely experimental type of aircraft (for example the Fairey Delta 2, British Aerospace EAP, Bristol 188 and Saunders-Roe SR53). These aircraft are designed to ascertain how flight happens at high speed, how different materials perform at speed and height, how to manoeuvre in certain ways and how to use new technology. A good example of this work is detailed in the aircraft history document for the SEPECAT Jaguar ACT Demonstrator.
There is no doubt that test flying can be very dangerous. In the 1950s test pilots were being killed at a rate of about one a week. Therefore, being brave was a key attribute, but having a cool and methodical approach was also very important. There was no computer aided design and the use of wind tunnels was rare, so finding out if and how a new aircraft flew, was all down to the test pilot. Jet engines, flying faster than sound, swept wings, rocket power and ejection seats were all new in the late 1940s and 1950s, so it was not surprising that there were many accidents. The coming of the Cold War also brought an urgency to bring into service higher performance and better equipped aircraft, in the technological race with the Soviet Union.
There are many examples of test pilots experiencing a major problem whilst test flying (an engine failure for example) and being able to land the aircraft, so that the reason for the issue could be investigated and the test flight data be saved. Peter Twiss was flying a Fairey Delta 2 in 1954, when he suffered engine failure on its 14th flight whilst heading away from the airfield at 30,000 feet, 30 miles after take-off from RAF Boscombe Down. Twiss managed to glide to a dead-stick landing at high speed on the airfield. Only the nose gear had deployed, and the aircraft sustained damage that side-lined it for eight months. Twiss, who was shaken up by the experience but otherwise uninjured, received the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.
There may be a misconception that test pilots are devil-may-care “flyboys”, perhaps rather reckless. That is not the case, in the 1950s and 1960s the majority had been in the Second World War which had giving them the experience of dangerous situations, helping them to stay calm and use their considerable flying skills and knowledge, to get them out of challenging situations. Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, probably the greatest ever test pilot, said about fear ‘I react almost the opposite. If things are really difficult, I go ice cold and my brain seems to up a gear’. He also highlighted that his survival was due to his meticulous preparation for a test flight.
I have selected five of these test pilots for further research, which you can read about below:
Roland Beamont joined the RAF in 1939 and after training joined No. 87 Squadron in France, which was equipped with Hawker Hurricane aircraft and shot down his first aircraft, a Dornier Do 17, in May 1940. Beaumont took part in the Battle of Britain and claimed five enemy bombers and fighters in the period. In May 1941, he transferred to No. 79 Squadron and in June was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). When his tour of duty finished in December 1941, he joined Hawker as a production test pilot, initially handling new Hurricane aircraft and later early versions of the Typhoon. Beamont was keen to resume operational flying and joined No. 56 Squadron in July 1942 and later No. 609 Squadron, both flying Typhoons. Early Typhoons had problems with the engine and tail units and many crashed. Beamont had faith that Hawker would solve the problems and lobbied Group Captain Leigh Mallory, amongst others, to keep the Typhoons operational. No. 609 Squadron flew from Manston in Kent to combat the Luftwaffe’s Focke-Wulf Fw 190s and later with Beamont as its leader, the Typhoon developed as both a day and night fighter-bomber.
In May 1943 Beamont returned to test flying with Hawker, helping to further develop the Typhoon and its successor, the Tempest. In early 1944, he returned to operations, forming the first Tempest wing, which took part in D-Day, with Beamont claiming the first Tempest victory, with a Messerschmitt Me 109 being shot down on 8 June. Soon he and his Squadrons witnessed the first V1 Flying Bombs and the Tempest became one of the best at shooting them down. On at least one occasion Beamont defeated a V1 by carefully sliding his wingtip under that of the V1, thereby disrupting the airflow over the drone’s wing, and flipping it. By the end of the V1 campaign, Beamont’s Wing had shot down 638, with himself accounting for 32.
On 12 October, on Beamont’s 492nd operational mission, while attacking a heavily defended troop-train, his Tempest’s radiator was hit by flak. He crash landed without injury and became a prisoner of war until the end of the war in Europe.
After the war, Beamont spent short periods with the RAF Air Fighting Development Unit and then with the de Havilland company, before joining English Electric as Chief Test Pilot. He took the Canberra bomber on its maiden flight in May 1949 and demonstrated the aircraft at the Farnborough air show, where Flight magazine described Beamont’s display as “exhilarating”, stating that “a new aircraft has never been more convincingly demonstrated”.
Beamont’s next challenge was the English Electric P1A, effectively the prototype Lightning fighter. He took P1A WG760 on its first flight on 4 August 1954. The P1A was preserved and is now on display at the RAF Museum Cosford.
From the RAF Museum aircraft history document “11 Aug 54 On its third flight, lasting 50 minutes, the aircraft, flown by Beaumont, became the first British aircraft to exceed the speed of sound in level flight – Mach 1.02 – at an altitude of 30,000 feet”.
Beamont continued to develop the Lightning and in fact made the first flight of the Lightning F6 exhibited in the RAF Museum London, as recorded in the aircraft history document “26 Jan 67 First flight – pilot R.P.Beamont from Salmesbury to Warton”.
In September 1964 Beamont took the TSR2 strike aircraft on its maiden flight and he continued to test this unique aircraft until it was cancelled by the Government in April 1965. Later Beamont became the Flight Operations Director for Panavia – the company that developed the Tornado. He retired in 1979 and died in 2001.
Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown
Captain Eric Brown, holder of the World Record for the number of different types of aircraft flown (487), is best known as a Royal Navy pilot and test pilot, but he was a member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve before the Second World War. He also was very involved in testing many of the aircraft operated by the RAF, in particular the Handley Page Halifax and the Hawker Tempest.
In 1944 the RAF started to lose an abnormal number of Halifax bombers, so Brown, who had joined the Farnborough Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) as a test pilot, was asked to help the investigation. He put one of the bombers into a violent corkscrew manoeuvre and cut one engine, all with Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire VC, one of the RAF’s most famous bomber pilots, standing behind him. After the flight Brown asked Cheshire if he had any concerns, with a deadpan expression, he replied “Yes, being flown in a Bomber Command heavy by a pilot in naval uniform”. One of the improvements these tests helped pinpoint was the fitting of larger fins to the Halifax tail.
Brown also took part in tests on a number of aircraft to boost their top speed using higher octane fuel, so that they could catch the V1 flying bombs that were hitting Southern England. Whilst flying a Hawker Tempest, Brown experienced an engine failure and had to bail out, landing in a duck pond and faced by an angry bull!
Brown was very involved in the testing of captured German and Italian aircraft at the end of the War, flying a rocket powered Messerschmitt Me 163, jet powered Messerschmitt Me 262 and Arado Ar 234 and many other German fighters and bombers. It was dangerous work, with very often no record of the number of hours the particularly unreliable jet engines had flown (they had “lives” of around 35 hours before an overhaul was required). Brown’s ability to speak fluent German was a great help and he gained the trust of many ex-Luftwaffe ground crew, who assisted in the preparation of captured aircraft for their flights in Germany and to the U.K.
Later Brown flew a number of German aircraft from Farnborough and other airfields. This is when he flew the RAF Museum London based Messerschmitt Me 110 night fighter and the Cosford based Fieseler Storch. Here is an extract from the Museum Fieseler Storch aircraft history document:
“15-17 Sep 45 Flown to RAF Hendon to appear at the Battle of Britain Open Day there, where Lt Cdr E M `Winkle’ Brown demonstrated its slow-flying capabilities”.
Brown got his “Winkle” nickname because of his small stature, a feature that helped him on some occasions, either escape from an aircraft, or avoid injury. He served in the Royal Navy until 1970 and died in 2016.
Roland “Roly” Falk studied at the de Havilland Technical School, Hatfield and learn to fly there in 1932. He worked for Air Dispatch on a freelance basis and flew in both the Abyssinian (present day Ethiopia) War and the Spanish Civil War for the press. In 1937 he flew a newspaper service from London to Paris and then joined the Air Registration Board as a test pilot. Falk had been a member of the Reserve of Air Force Officers since 1935 and at the start of the Second World War he joined the RAF. By 1943 he was Chief Test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Farnborough. During this period, he flew some 300 different aircraft and around 2,000 hours during his time with the RAE. This included a number of German captured aircraft, one of which was the Junkers Ju 88 night fighter exhibited at the RAF Museum Cosford.
An extract from the Museum aircraft history document:
“20 Jun/13 Jul 43 Made 7 night flights during which combat trials were carried out against a Halifax and the results reported in Fighter Interception Unit report no.211, 23 Jul 43 (PRO Ref.Air 40/184) to test radar and aircraft effectiveness. The report commented favourably on the Ju88s handling qualities but criticized poor pilot visibility; Flown by several RAE pilots including Sqn Ldr R J Falk and Sqn Ldr Martindale”.
In 1950 Falk joined Avro, where one of his early tasks was to test fly the experimental Avro 707 delta-wing aircraft, which was produced to test the characteristics of the delta wing for the Vulcan bomber. He performed the Avro Vulcan’ first flight on 30 August 1952. In subsequent years Falk demonstrated the Vulcan at the annual Farnborough air show, where in 1955 he amazed the crowd by barrel-rolling the Vulcan across the airfield. He was rebuked by the organisers for this manoeuvre, but only because performing aerobatics in an aircraft weighing 69 tons and with a 99-foot wingspan was “not the done thing”.
Falk was famous for flying in a pin-striped lounge suit, tie, pocket handkerchief and often sunglasses. He retired from Avro in 1958, joined Hawker Siddeley as a sales representative and then set up his own aircraft business in Jersey, where he died in 1985.
Dave Eagles joined the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm (FAA) in 1953 as a National Service recruit and learn to fly in the USA with the US Navy and returned to the UK to fly the Hawker Sea Hawk and de Havilland Vampire. He was then seconded to the Royal Australian Navy, where he from an aircraft carrier flew the Fairey Firefly and Hawker Sea Fury – one of the last and most powerful piston engine fighters. On his return to the UK in 1958 he carried on flying for the FAA and in 1963 Eagles entered the Empire Test Pilots School (ETPS). After graduation he joined the Naval Test Squadron at Boscombe Down and was the project pilot for the Blackburn Buccaneer strike aircraft. Whilst testing this aircraft on a catapult launch from HMS Victorious off Hong Kong, he had to make use of his Martin Baker ejector seat.
In 1968 Eagles joined the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) as a test pilot and flew the Lightning, Jaguar, Canberra and Strikemaster. He became the Project Test Pilot for the PANAVIA Tornado – an international project with Germany and Italy – and made a number of the aircraft’s early flights. When British Aerospace was formed in 1977, he was made Chief Test Pilot. In January 1983 he became Director of Flight Operations. On 27 October 1979 he flew the first Air Defence variant of the Tornado, unusually going supersonic on its first flight. The Tornado brought a number of key technological advances into an operational RAF aircraft – fly-by-wire controls, variable sweep wings and reverse thrust engines.
The second Tornado prototype, the UK’s first, P02, was used to extend the aircraft flight envelope. Dave Eagles flew this aircraft on many occasions. It was equipped with small explosive charges on the wings which were fired during a flight to create an oscillation in the control surfaces. The damping of the oscillation could then be assessed to ensure that the Tornado was well clear of any potential flutter problems. The act of firing the explosive charges, which could be undertaken for some tests at high speed (800+mph), is known as “bonking”.
On one such test, with Paul Millett in the front seat (he was the Chief Test Pilot at the time) and Eagles in the rear cockpit, after firing the “bonkers”, the engine oil temperature and pressure warning lights came on. Then as the Tornado was flying near the airfield, a seagull was ingested by the port engine. The crew prepared to eject, but luckily the other engine picked-up thrust and a safe landing was possible.
From 1983 British Aerospace developed their Experimental Aircraft Programme (EAP), producing a single aircraft to test the key features of future aircraft for the RAF, particularly the Eurofighter Typhoon. Eagles piloted the EAP on its first flight on 8 August 1986, exceeding Mach 1. He said the EAP “is just what a fighter pilot wants. It is a shame we are only building one and not 800”. This aircraft is now exhibited at the RAF Museum Cosford.
Dave Eagles retired from test flying in 1987, having flown over 6,000 hours, with his experience ranging from the piston engine Hawker Sea Fury right through to the computer controlled EAP. On the way he also flew the Supermarine Spitfire – one of the perks of the job while working for BAC.
Dave Eagles visited the RAF Museum London in 2019 when this video was produced.
Chris Yeo joined the RAF in 1965 and after pilot training he joined No. 54(F) Squadron flying the McDonnell Douglas Phantom. Later he served with the Phantom Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) and in 1975 he went to the Empire Test Pilots School (ETPS) and trained as a test pilot. Yeo graduated with the prize for the best pilot and sharing the prize for the best preview. Staying in the RAF, Yeo was promoted to Squadron Leader and spent his last three years of service involved in the early development of the Tornado, Jaguar and Hawk.
Yeo joined British Aerospace in 1978 as an experimental test pilot, where he became Chief Test Pilot and finally Director of Flight Operations. He flew all variants of the Tornado, Jaguar and Hawk, expanding the flight envelope of each aircraft type, helping to develop the systems and procedures that the RAF would go onto use when the aircraft were in service.
The development of the Fly-By-Wire system was a particular focus for Yeo. British Aerospace used Jaguar XX765 and extensively modified the aircraft from the traditional mechanical rod operation of the control surfaces to Dowty Boulton Paul’s electrically signalled digital Fly-By-Wire (FBW) standard. This system was envisaged as being necessary to stabilise control of the next generation of air superiority fighters which would be of unstable and of unconventional aerodynamic design. There was no mechanical reversion (standby) system. He made the demonstrator’s first flight on 21 October 1981.
This aircraft is now on display at the RAF Museum Cosford.
Yeo made the first flight of the Eurofighter Typhoon DA2 (British prototype), this aircraft is now exhibited in Hangar 6 RAF Museum London. The history document records it thus:
“6 Apr 94 First flight, at British Aerospace (now BAE Systems) Warton, near Preston, Lancs, flown by BAe AirOPs director Chris Yeo, for a 50-minute flight, during which it attained a gentle 287mph at 10,000ft. Escorted by a Tornado and a Hawk for a flight over the Irish Sea”.
On leaving BAE Systems, Yeo has worked for FR Aviation, instructed at the ETPS and worked with Airbus, testing the A340-500 and A340-600 airliners.