The Ups and Downs of Test Pilots

This is an article about the history and fate of the amazing people who let the mankind step into the sky, about their successes, failures, accidents and achievements.

The victors

Obviously, the first test pilots, in the sense that we are putting in the word today, were the builders of the first airplanes, aerodynes. But who exactly was the first pilot who built and tested his own plane will be difficult to answer. The airplane, on which Orville Wright made his flight on Christmas Eve, 1903, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum (USA) with the following explanatory sign:

The first airplane of the Wright brothers

The first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve

controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard.

Invented and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright

Made a flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, December 17, 1903

In their original scientific research the Wright

brothers discovered the principles of human flight

As inventors, builders and pilots, they further

improved their aircraft, taught people

to fly, and opened the era of aviation


The Wright brothers were not some remote from life engineering fanatics, although that’s how they are sometimes portrayed in the popular publications. They were enterprising and forward-thinking people, and as such they carefully documented their aviation experiments. Orville Wright’s first flight, during which he covered 36.5 meters in 12 seconds, was even captured in the photograph.

The next two flights committed on the same day, were about 52 and 60 meters, they were performed by Wilbur and Orville respectively. Flight altitude was about 3 meters above ground level. It should be noted that on December 14, 1903, the first test pilot was to be Wilbur, who won that right from his brother by lot. But he was unlucky, as the aircraft under his control could barely take off the ground, so the pilot’s priority belongs to Orville.

Later, the Wright brothers have been flying a lot, successfully demonstrating their device in Europe, receiving large orders from the United States Department of War. At the celebrations in honor of the tercentenary of the discovery of the Hudson River in New York in early October 1909, Wilbur Wright flew around the Statue of Liberty and made a 33-minute flight up and down the river along Manhattan, in view of nearly one million New Yorkers.

The vanquished

However, further career of the inventors did not develop all too well. The plane built by the Wright brothers did not have the potential for further development due to design constraints, for example, since 1904, the brothers had to use a catapult for takeoff.

In fact, the plane of the Wrights could only more or less successfully perform demonstration flights, which was pretty quickly figured out by potential buyers. However, November 10, 1910, Phil Parmelee, piloting a Wright airplane made the first commercial flight and transported two rolls of silk at a distance of 105 km per one hour and six minutes. The payment amounted to $5,000, a lot of money, but it was clear that this was just a promotional event.

Instead of improving their invention, Wilbur and Orville Wright engaged in litigation with other designers of air machines, defending their priority of an invention. In the early 1910s their planes began to lose to the competitors, both in the USA and in Europe. France generated a constellation of great aviators like Henri Farman, Louis Bleriot, Gabriel Voisin.

In America, the main rival of the Wright brothers was Glenn Curtiss, who lost lawsuits, but won tenders for the construction of aircraft for the United States Navy and the Army – faster, more advanced in design and more reliable than the machines of the Wright brothers. Ironically, the aircraft firms of former bitter rivals merged in 1929, and the Curtiss-Wright Corporation still exists today.

In the skies over Europe

But whatever was said in the United States, the French believe that they had the priority in the conquest of the skies. We must admit that such a statement has some solid ground, as a flight of engineer Clément Ader, held on October 9, 1890, was well documented.

Ader was able to fly 50 meters, but it was just a jump and not a controlled flight, and the construction equipped with a steam-powered engine and bat-like wings did not have the potential to develop, just like the Wright brothers’ flying machine. But the word avion coined by Ader appeared in the French language as a designation of any aircraft.

In fairness, it must be admitted that Ader was aware of the deficiency of the design he had created, and never insisted on the priority of the invention of a fully-featured aircraft. But it is much less known that Ader was the author of the concept of construction and operational use of aircraft carriers, and his ideas in this area have not lost relevance to the present day.

It should be noted that the first full-fledged takeoff without the use of rails and catapults was made by a Brazilian of the French origin, Alberto Santos-Dumont. October 23, 1906, he took off in the machine of his own design, flying a distance of 60 meters at a height of two-three meters. It was, as an encyclopedia goes, “Europe’s first flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft with an engine, as well as the first-ever flight of a plane observed by a lot of people, that took off from the ground with a non-removable landing gear and using only its own power during calm weather”.

Santos-Dumont’s flight was the proof that a heavier-than-air machine can take off on its own. Santos-Dumont became a national hero in France and especially in Brazil, but his fate was tragic. Having come unscathed from risky flights, he finally fell seriously ill and lived in seclusion, suffering from severe depression, trying to refrain from any communication, and committed suicide in the end.

The first ace

Talking about the first aircraft designers who flew their own inventions, we cannot but mention Louis Blériot, the first Frenchman who has received a pilot’s certificate, and the first aviator who has flown across the English Channel, July 25, 1909. It was Blériot who had found the aircraft scheme that has been reproduced for over a hundred years. Of course the engine power is increasing, aircraft are becoming more sophisticated, but ideologically they repeat the design invented by Blériot.

Another name of a great pilot is associated with Blériot’s activities – Adolphe Pégoud, who was a professional test pilot of the Blériot aircraft. Pégoud became the second man who performed the “vertical loop” in the air (12 days after it was first performed by the Russian pilot Pyotr Nesterov, of which Pégoud hardly knew), and the first who performed a parachute jump from an airplane August 19, 1913.  

The experience Pégoud gained in the course of this experiment further helped to save the lives of tens of thousands of pilots, but not the brave pilot himself. During the World War I Pégoud went to the front, got 6 victories in aerial combat, being the first in the French Air Force to earn the honorary title of ace. However, August 31, 1915, his opponent was the German pilot Otto Kandulski, whom Pégoud had taught aerobatics before the war.

Unfortunately for himself, Adolf Pégoud apparently was a very good instructor – Kandulski was able to chase him and shoot the French plane down. Bleeding Pégoud was able to land his aircraft, but died in the cabin.

Russian results – fiction and truth

The reader may be surprised by the absence of Alexander Fedorovich Mozhaysky in the list of test pilots, whom the official Soviet historiography names as the creator of the first plane that rose into the air as early as in 1882. Unfortunately, there are no documents describing the testing of the Mozhaysky’s aircraft in any detail.

The note from the Chief Engineer’s Office of the War Ministry, composed in 1884, based on data from “private sources”, rather vaguely mentions that the Mozhaysky’s plane “could not fly, even though it was set into action and ran up the inclined rails”. All reports of the alleged flight of the Mozhaysky machine appeared in the early twentieth century, when it became known about the experiments of the Wright brothers and the French aviation pioneers. Anyway, no one ever called Mozhaysky a test pilot, and one of the “private sources” reported that during one of the Mozhaysky’s experiments with a “flying apparatus” the unnamed mechanic “was injured”. Official agencies of the Russian Empire never confirmed Mozhaysky’s priority in the aviation industry.

The contender for a title of, if not the first, then the most effective test pilot of pre-revolutionary Russia, is probably Pyotr Nikolayevich Nesterov, who was a pilot-engineer, carrying out his missions on the basis of not only intuition and experience, but also the in-depth scientific knowledge. Nesterov went down in history as the author of the “vertical loop”, but, unfortunately, his heroic death during the world’s first air ram overshadows his achievements in the theory of aircraft application and the Russia’s first night flights.

Pilot number one and his companions

The period of rapid development of aviation between the two world wars gave a whole galaxy of brilliant names of aviators, who rightfully became folk heroes in their countries. The time when designers tested their aircraft with their own hands has passed. And at the same time the design thought was ahead of the technological level of production of that time. The most complicated device to test the constructed plane on the ground was the wind tunnel. Speed and altitude of the flying machines were growing rapidly, so that each flight of the experimental design has been associated with serious risk. That’s why the test pilots of the time enjoyed the well-earned popularity. Covering all their achievements in one article is impossible, so we are going to limit ourselves to the creation of a kind of “portrait gallery”, describing the most notable personalities of the test pilots and their accomplishments.

Despite the fact that the most popular of the Soviet test pilots was Valery Pavlovich Chkalov, the title of “test pilot number one” should be given to Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gromov – and it’s no coincidence that his name is given to the Gromov Flight Research Institute (LII) in Zhukovsky. In addition, the Test Pilot School at LII was created on his initiative.

Gromov became a Hero of the Soviet Union for a test flight of a prototype of a long-distance bomber (the one, on which Valery Chkalov later made his record flights). When performing this flight, a world record for distance was set – 12,411 km, and the All-Union duration record – 75 hours. This world record was not properly formalized as the Soviet Union at that time was not a member of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).

The Gromov’s crew members, test engineer Alexander Ivanovich Filin and navigator Ivan Timofeevich Spirin were awarded the Order of Lenin. Their fates have developed differently. Ivan Spirin became a famous Arctic navigator and in 1937 was awarded the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union. General Alexander Filin, author of the procedure of flight tests of combat aircraft, led the Air Force Scientific Research Institute.

In this position, he came into conflict with the designers of fighter aircraft, Alexander Yakovlev and Artem Mikoyan, accusing them of rigging the results of state testing of aircraft. The conflict was resolved not in favor of Filin, he was removed from office and convicted as a saboteur. Honored test pilot of the USSR, Hero of the Soviet Union Alexander Aleksandrovich Shcherbakov commented on this story, “ is absolutely monstrous that Filin was executed in 1942, when the validity of his claims to the test aircraft was confirmed on the fronts of World War II”.

Legends and tragedy

As for Valery Chkalov, his wild popularity was due not only to the outstanding flight achievements (for testing the Polikarpov fighters he was awarded the Order of Lenin), but also to a special attitude from Joseph Stalin, the so-called “best friend of the Soviet pilots”. “Your life is more precious to us than any machine,” Stalin said to Chkalov, and it’s not a legend, in contrast to the story of Chkalov’s flight under the arch of the Trinity Bridge in Leningrad.

There is no evidence that Chkalov did perform this air trick, but the episode with the passage under the bridge was included into the motion picture “Valery Chkalov”, in which the flight was carried out by Yevgeny Borisenko. Chkalov was a truly outstanding fighter test pilot, but his fame eclipsed the achievements of another great pilot, Georgy Filippovich Baydukov.

The documents of the transpolar flight on an airplane called “Stalinsky Marshrut” (Stalin’s Route) indicate that in this flight the aircraft was piloted not by Chkalov, but by his copilot Baydukov, test pilot of the Air Force Scientific Research Institute. Baydukov made a distinguished career, was awarded 22 medals of the USSR, more than anyone else in history, but for all his life remained in the shadow of Chkalov. Valery Chkalov died in extremely mysterious circumstances, testing the I-180, the most promising fighter of the Soviet Air Force, created by Nikolai Polikarpov and Dmitry Tomashevich.

The order of the People’s Commissar of Defense No. 070 from June 4, 1939 stated, “...Hero of the Soviet Union, known worldwide for his record-breaking flights, Brigade Commander V. P. Chkalov died just because a new fighter that Brigade Commander Chkalov was testing was sent into test flight in quite unsatisfactory condition, as Chkalov was fully aware. Moreover, learning from the NKVD staff on the status of the aircraft, Comrade Stalin personally banned the flights for Comrade Chkalov until the complete elimination of the shortcomings of the aircraft. However, in three days Brigade Commander Chkalov not only flew the airplane with defects not eliminated completely, but began to make his first flight on the new plane with a new engine outside the airfield. As a result, due to a forced landing on unsuitable cluttered terrain, the plane crashed and Brigade Commander Chkalov died.”

Chkalov’s death played a disastrous role in the fate of the designer Tomashevich, and the fate of the aircraft, which had a chance to become the best fighter in the world. Polikarpov Design Bureau fighters were never again taken into service, although, according to the experts’ opinion, by their combat qualities they were much superior to the Yakovlev aircraft.

By the way, some researchers believe that the true co-author of Alexander Yakovlev’s aircraft was an outstanding test pilot Yulian Piontkovsky, the author of the first Soviet world (unofficial) records in aviation, achieved July 19, 1927, on the AIR-1 aircraft during the flight from Sevastopol to Moscow. Piontkovsky tested all Yakovlev’s aircraft, until his death April 27, 1940, during the test flight on the I-26 (Yak-1).

The crash occurred because of a manufacturing defect. The Emergency Commission suggested that there was a destruction of the wing leading edge skin due to the hits of the landing gear that got unlocked when Piontkovsky was conducting a roll. But the most experienced strength specialists of the Central Aero-Hydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI), A. M. Kashyrin and N. N. Korchemkin, as well as the structural analyst of the Yakovlev Design Bureau, A. A. Borin, argued that the main cause of the accident was the insufficient wing strength and excessive confidence of the generally cautious pilot in the I-26 aircraft.

Unfortunately, the wings strength remained the soft spot of the Yakovlev fighters, which was confirmed in the course of the war. By the way, after the death of Piontkovsky all Yakovlev’s designs being in combat use had a recurring scheme of the Yak-1. Apparently the test pilot has as much impact on the aircraft as the designer.

He is dead

In addition to domestic heroes of the sky, the pre-war Soviet Union loved and praised the American test pilot Jimmy Collins as well. The reason for this was an unusual circumstance – Jimmy Collins had a good command of not only an aircraft, but also a pen. He was the author of the bestseller “Test Pilot”, which was a collection of funny stories, telling about the various events in the life of a test pilot.

In the Soviet Union, the life story of Jimmy Collins was presented as an example of the terrible fate of a talented man in a bourgeois society, who is forced to earn a living performing dangerous tests on aircraft, and is barely able to make both ends meet. In fact, Jimmy Collins earned a lot, had a great deal of fun, lived in a big way, flew with pleasure, and being what is called “an adrenaline junkie”, willingly undertook dangerous adventures.

Collins became famous for his dive-flights, during which he tested the strength of machines. Each time, he increased the speed and overload until bringing them to the maximum allowable. And once the wings of the new Grumman aircraft happened to be not strong enough.

Shortly before his last flight, Jimmy Collins wrote to his friend, a journalist Winston Archer, a miniature essay... about his own death during a test flight. As was said by Collins in one of his last letters, “...just for fun I prepared him a material in the event I crash. Pretty thoughtful of me, isn’t it?..” Collins believed in his luck and skill, but eventually a short story “I am Dead” had a reason to be published...

Andrey Strelin

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