I am working on a handbook of sorts for my oldest son, Blake, who turns 13 in August. It’s one part letter from Dad + one part guidebook for life + one part ceremony + one part inspiration for the future, etc.
Would you read the first part of it and share your feedback below?
You are alone in the cockpit of an experimental aircraft, one that has never flown–it still has that new car smell. You sit there listening to the pounding of your own heart and the sound of static on the radio, waiting for the test conductor to respond.
After carefully positioning each switch in the cockpit–and there are hundreds–you have set up the fuel system and the hydraulics and the electrical system and every other component of the aircraft that must work during the engine start. You have arrived at the critical step in the checklist. It says this, “Engine Starter Switch – Depress.”
Just moments ago, you radioed into the control room, requesting permission for engine start. There are hundreds of people inside that room, somewhere else on the airfield, and each one is watching a computer monitor. In that room, there are hundreds of graphs and plots and gauges. These engineers will monitor every variable when you press that switch, ensuring that just enough fuel gets to the engine, that the temperature inside the engine is just right, that nothing goes wrong. After all, this is the first time this engine has ever been started on this airplane, and you are the test pilot. They want a successful engine start, but they care even more about your safety.
The control room radios back, “Cleared for engine start.”
A bead of sweat trickles down your forehead. But you can’t wipe it off, because it’s behind your helmet visor.
Your mind quickly goes through everything that will happen in the next several seconds. You will depress the engine starter switch. When you do, you should hear the sound of the starter motor beginning to turn the engine. The ignition and boost pump lights on the cockpit instrument panel will illuminate. Ten more things have to happen successfully, all in about forty seconds. You know each step. You know where to look to see the next step. You even know what to do if something doesn’t go according to plan, what to do if someone radios from the control room with a minor malfunction or even an emergency.
You know all these things, but still there is an element of risk. The engineers believe that the engine will work. They have predicted its response, and you are about to test it. Will the test verify that it performs according to specification? If it doesn’t respond properly, will it just shut down automatically, or will it catch on fire?
This is a story about how you can be a test pilot. But it is also a guide for facing the unknown and knowing when to take risks.
In today’s day and age, we have unprecedented opportunity. You can be anything you want, including, of course, a test pilot.
But if you haven’t figured it out yet, let me be the one to tell you–you will face the unknown. In the years ahead, there will be gray areas, and sometimes you won’t know what to do. You will have to make decisions without all the information, and life is not multiple choice. Uncertainty is definitely a part of life.
(should i write some “sample questions” that might be on the readers mind?)
But just because the future is unknown does not mean you cannot prepare. A test pilot faces the unknown and faces risk every single time he takes off and performs a test flight. But you can know with certainty that he spent many hours in preparation for each maneuver that he flies.
Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “I don’t want to be a test pilot.” That’s okay, because you can apply the principles in this book to many professions: you can be an engineer, you can be a president, or you can be an author. I am not suggesting that this is the perfect handbook for becoming an author or president–there are more qualified people who will tell you how to do that. But the principles laid out here will equip you to face uncertainty and risk, and each of the vocations listed above involves some degree of unpredictability. (I just don’t know how much.)
Someday, you will be the one flying a new airplane or spacecraft to the edge of the envelope, doing something that no one has ever done, or going somewhere no one has ever been. Regardless of your vocation, someday you will face a situation or a decision that no one has ever had to make.
Will you be ready?
Begin preparing today. Together we will walk through three simple steps to help you navigate through life and its uncertainty, help you navigate your way to a time and place where you can be a test pilot.
Begin preparing today by learning these principles, and then put them into practice.
This is your preparation for the future, your map for exploring the unknown. Are you ready to begin the journey?
(Setting up the Predict Test Validate – Planning Execution Accountability)
Imagine that you just hopped in your car and turned left as you exited the driveway. Now what?
Where do we go from here?
Do we go straight? Do we turn around? Should we just stop or go back to the house? We cannot answer any of these questions without first asking a more important one: “Where are we going?”
Destination, knowing where we are going, is the single, most important part of getting there.
That may sound obvious, but I assure you that many people wander through life not knowing what their goals are, having no plan, and generally being uncertain about the future, because they do not know where they are going. In fact, their future is not just unknown–more specifically they have not decided their destination.
You must decide where you are going.
(good place to input discussion of vision and salvation)
This is the most critical step in the checklist for accomplishing any goal.
Before takeoff, a test pilot knows where he is going. He also knows each maneuver, how to perform it, what data to collect, and many other details. The reason he knows all of those things inside and out, forward and backward, is because he knows where he is going, and he has a plan for getting there.
One of the test pilot’s most important tools is a checklist. He uses the checklist on the ground, even before starting the engines, but he also follows detailed steps as he performs each complicated flight test maneuver.
However, using a checklist might not be as simple as you think. For instance, recall from the introduction, after one critical step–“Engine Starter Switch – Depress”–more than ten things had to happen in the next forty seconds.
In that example, there were three very critical phases, described by the actions taken in that stage: predict, test, and validate.
This was the planning phase. The test pilot and the team of engineers figured out what to expect from pressing the engine starter switch and documented it in a detailed plan.
Execution of the plan happened in this phase. When a test pilot finally presses that switch on the new experimental aircraft for the very first time, it is a test of the system and its operation and the aircraft design.
Keeping track of and analyzing the progress and outcome of the plan are all part of validation. The test pilot must cross check the instrument panel after depress the starter switch to ensure the correct response of the switch itself and each subsequent part of the system during the engine start.
Perhaps another way to remember these stages is to describe them as planning, execution, and accountability — those are three things that test pilots do every single day. They happen in single checklist step, and they happen on an even larger scale, like planning a mission and navigating an aircraft to its destination.
However, before we can plan our first test mission using complex, experimental navigation equipment in an experimental aircraft, we need to review some of the basic principles and create a navigation checklist of our own. So let’s hop back in the car and use it as a simple example of the first and most important step in navigation: planning.
You’ve just read confessions of a freelance test pilot, a monthly column that illustrates in my personal life and leadership the technical concepts found in ATOMs. Some people may not want the technical content that appears on this website–if you only want to follow these more personal updates, I set up a special subscription for that option here: by Email or RSS.