How Herb Failed as a Test Pilot

The Failure

By 1947 Herb spoke passable English and was a US citizen. While he worked to improve his English, he was also actively pursuing his dream of becoming a test pilot for prototype aircraft. In time, Herb became one of the elite test pilots who flew prototype aircraft. While he never claimed to have the skills Chuck Yeager had, they both had the thrill and the challenges inherent in taking experimental aircraft up for their first flights.

A small aircraft design company needed a test pilot and offered training. Herb applied, and much to his amazement, he was selected. In retrospect, he concluded that he was selected because he was expendable, but that is another story. Upon being selected, the training began. There was physical training. There was design training with the senior aircraft design engineer. Then there was the simulator training. If someone shook his bunk at night, he would automatically make corrections while dreaming of building a prototype aircraft.

Jim, (note: only first names are used to protect the guilty) the Training & Safety Officer, insisted that Herb be in top physical shape. Everywhere Herb went, he had to run. Every bite of food he ate was monitored. He asked why he had to run since he could not run while flying an aircraft, but Jim ignored his question.

Then there was the theory of flight training. Erich, the Senior Design Engineer, insisted that he understand the Bernoulli Principle. To fully understand that principle, they had to delve into airfoil design and venture tubes. They spent time on structural strength and the function of the aircraft skin. If Herb had not been so tired from all of the physical training, he could have started designing aircraft himself.

Training also included the theory and practice of test-flying prototype aircraft. He learned that each prototype aircraft had to go through a number of test flights. A specific protocol and specific goals were developed for each test flight. The first test flight is usually the most interesting. Usually the company wanted to answer two questions. If those two questions could be answered positively, then we could proceed with developing the prototype. The first question was, “Will the aircraft fly?” That was a pretty basic question, but you can see that it was important. The second question was really more critical. “Will the aircraft fly right-side-up?”

In recent years, wind tunnel studies and computer simulations have reduced the risk of the first flights. But back then the company Herb worked for could not afford the three-quarters of a million dollars that it would take to build a wind tunnel. It was much cheaper to hire Herb Nordmeyer and tell him that he had the most important job within the company.

At 9:37 am, on a June 23 those many years ago, Herb’s career as a test pilot ended. That day remains etched in his memory. On that day, they were to have the first flight of the XSP-13-5-D. It was a sailplane. After a tow gets a sailplane off the ground, by riding thermals the pilot can keep the craft airborne for hours. On that first flight they were to determine whether the XSP would take off and whether it would fly right-side-up. If it wanted to fly upside down, there were problems landing the aircraft. After a flight of less than 5 minutes, Herb was to ease the craft back to the runway. A full-scale wind tunnel could have eliminated that dangerous first flight, but the company did not have one.

After going through scads of checklists, the XSP was on the flight line, and Herb was strapped in. With the Propulsion Officer piloting the tow craft, the 100′ long tow line was attached, and the tow craft moved forward to remove the slack from the tow line. Jim, the Training & Safety Officer, was on the left wing giving Herb advice, while Erich, the Senior Design Engineer, was on the right wing, trying to complete Herb’s training. As the tow craft accelerated, Herb saw that his career as a test pilot was about to end, but there was nothing he could do to prevent the disaster he could see coming.

Since this section has exceeded the allotted number of words, the description of the disaster has to be delayed to a later time.

The Lesson

Herb learned that even the best engineers cannot anticipate all of the things which can go wrong.

The Success

Herb went on to focus on different dreams. With each venture, he knew that if a disaster occurred, as long as he was still breathing he could chase the next dream. He did this numerous times over the years.


Author: Herb

In January, 2010, I left corporate America, and now I have my own business. Since I have never been able to focus on one item (Does that make me a scatter brain?), I divided my company into three divisions: Kayak guiding and instructing - specializing in nature kayaking, Building materials consultant - specializing in cements and forensics, and Writing - Stories w/ life lessons and construction books that are fun to read. Published books: The Stucco Book - The Basics, Animals I Have Hated, Grandpa, Help! Answers to Questions a Young Lady Would Never Ask Her Parents, Grandpa Helps Grandparents, Living with Cancer – That Intense Houseguest, Homes for Jubilee (June, 2016), and Kay pou Jubilee (in Haitian Creole) (August, 2016). Forthcoming Books: The Adhered Concrete Masonry Veneer Book, The Stucco Book - Forensics and Repairs, and Failing My Way to Success.

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