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Holy Moses!

I was doing over 30 mph …

I was in a helicopter …

I was on the ground …

I was going sidewards …

I couldn’t steer and sparks were flying everywhere …

I could do nothing but ‘Keep calm and hang on’ …

I was testing the emergency landing characteristics of a Polish helicopter in Arizona, USA on a very warm day at an airfield that was a mile above sea level. As I slid sidewards with the metal skids kicking up an almighty cascade of sparks from the tarmac runway you might conclude that I was mad, bad or stupid; for me this was just another typical working day in my life as a test pilot. – Chris Taylor, “Test Pilot”

When a book starts out as entertaining as this, you know two things – the first is that it was written by a Brit. The second is that it is going to be hard to put down until you’ve finished!

Chris Taylor is a British test pilot with years of experience in the military, government and now private sectors of aviation. He has flown (and tested) helicopters, autogiros and fixed wing aircraft as he honed his craft and became the “go to” guy in Britain – and around the world – for doing initial flight testing as well as recurrent recertification testing of flying machines old and new. The back of his book lists all the types flown and it reads like a “what’s what” in aviation history.

The most remarkable thing is that Taylor tells his story with a self-deprecating style so typical of accomplished British explorers and adventurers. Make no bones about it, Taylor has had to be very good to have survived the adventures he relates. However, he’ll be the last one to let his ego take charge and tell you that his survival was all about superior skill. Sometimes, luck has been involved, as is the case for most anyone who has dabbled in the far corners of the flight envelope. The saying “I’d rather be good than lucky, but I’ll take luck when I can get it!” is certainly appropriate when you’re an itinerant test pilot.

Taylor’s book is a collection of stories told in no specific order, but circling back on one another when required to build a narrative of experience and to connect the dots on aircraft that he sampled as they matured over the years. Whether he was testing a new application of an aircraft for the military, wringing out a new design as part of his government obligations to certify the type, or doing a periodic recertification flight in a restored pre-WW II British kite, Taylor is not afraid to point out foibles and mistakes of his own as well as of those of the people who designed and maintained the machines.

Those who have experienced (or heard stories) of atrocious British Isles weather will not be surprised at how many times Taylor showed up with low (and lowering) clouds while an owner looked plaintively on, hoping that a recertification flight could go on to meet their own schedule. Taylor usually obliged, even when the ceilings were low and the weather was approaching. Yet he always had an “out” that would see him back on the ground before things got really bad – a lesson to be learned by anyone who tests, or just routinely pilots, aircraft of all types.

Reading through this wonderful book, it is easy to simply look at it as a series of entertaining war stories. But there is more to it than that. Looked at with the critical eye of those who do edgy things with aircraft, there are many lessons to be learned, mistakes pointed out that we don’t need to repeat ourselves. As the old saying goes “learn from the mistakes of others – you’ll never live long enough to make them all yourself”. (I like to substitute “experiences” for “mistakes” when I think about this because a lot of the time guys like Taylor are doing things for the first time, and the word “mistake” seems a bit unfair.) Taylor’s book is a great place to learn how to stay calm – and stay alive – when things don’t go quite the way you expect them to in the cockpit.

So if you’re a pilot, I’d recommend that you buy and read this book. You’ll be entertained and educated at the same time. And if you aspire to be a test pilot, read it a couple of times. There are lessons to be learned that you’ll only catch the second (or third) time around. Fortunately, the entertaining style will not only make re-reading a joy but also make it a book that I am glad to add to my library.

Chris Taylor’s Test Pilot is available on Amazon.

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