First hand account of a test pilot’s first flight in a Eurofighter Typhoon prototype, 25 years ago.
Editor’s note: Fabio Consoli is a former Italian Air Force test pilot and USAF Test Pilot School distinguished graduate who has logged about 17,000 flight hours flying the F-104, AMX, Eurofighter, F-15, F-4, A-7, F-18, B-52, F-5, C-130, C-141 and many others types. A living aviation encyclopedia, Fabio currently flies the B.777 for a civilian airline. In February 1996 he was the first Italian Air Force pilot to fly in the Eurofighter Typhoon prototype. Fabio has also been my guest in many Live interviews (that you can find here, here and here).
Beginning today, Fabio “Duca” (Duke) Consoli also joins The Aviationist’s editorial team, making his impressive experience available to all our readers and followers!
His first story, that you can find here below, recalls the day he became the first Italian Air Force pilot to fly a Eurofighter Typhoon.
Feb. 9, 1996.
It’s a cold and clear day, the sky is clear of clouds, a deep blue. From Turin one could see the Alps and while I board Alenia’s van that will take me from the hotel to Caselle airport, I think that is a perfect day for flying. After all, I say to myself, for such an important day, a nice sunny day is all you can ask for.
So, while the driver battles Turin’s morning traffic, I start to mentally prepare for my first flight on the EF2000. That’s right, because, after months of preparations and studies, the time has finally arrived for an Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) test pilot to fly the DA3 (Development Aircraft… once they were called prototypes) of the aircraft that will be then called Typhoon.
I can’t avoid to look back at the road that took me here. The Air Force Academy, the flight schools at Sheppard AFB, Amendola and Grosseto Air Bases, the years at the glorious 28° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 3° Stormo (Wing) “Buscaglia” flying the “Spillone” (the Needle) – the real one, the “G”, the howling one, to be clear – the selection process and sheer luck that took me to join to the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (RSV, the Italian Air Force official Test Center).
Then the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, test pilots’ temple: 11 crazy months of academics and flying but, guys, so many fantastic airplanes! F-4 Phantom, A-7 Corsair, F-15, F-16, F-18, T-38, B-52 and so many more. Very few Italian pilots had the luck to have such a gratifying flying experience and to graduate with honors from such a prestigious school. And, at the end, here I am, at the right place at the right moment, more luck than merit, but, after all, I worked hard and I deserved it!
At the Alenia’s flying station in Caselle airport everything goes on like in a normal working day, but, today, the 32nd flight of DA3 does not belong to one of Alenia’s test pilots: it’s all mine, and notwithstanding my best poker face, I am so thrilled! The flight test engineers and I review the flight’s test plan (I have it memorized) and then we get into the briefing with the chase aircraft’s crew. Col. Maurizio “il Gatto” (“the Cat”) Lodovisi, commanding officer of the RSV, and commander Napoleone Bragagnolo, Alenia’s chief test pilot, will be flying the AMX-T that will be my chase plane today.
Briefing on mission profile and emergencies and off we go!
Pre-flight procedures go exceptionally smooth for a prototype at such an early stage of its development and, after just 15 minutes, “Jolly” (radio call sign of Alenia’s telemetry station) gives me the all clear for taxiing out.
Directional control of the aircraft on the ground, using the steering system, is precise and smooth but the brakes are extremely sensitive: every braking, even the smallest input on the brake pedals, causes the aircraft to pitch and yaw in a very evident way. This is already known, and it’s something that will definitely need some fixing.
I line up on the runway with the AMX-T at my side. “Il Gatto” releases the brakes (he’s flying from the front seat) and I see him takeoff for an airborne pick-up. He will circle around and will give me a countdown for my brakes release so that he will be flying at my side for all my takeoff run looking me over. Important job to be a chase pilot. June the 5th the previous year I was commander Bragagnolo’s chase pilot for the DA3 maiden flight.
“30 seconds… 20 seconds… 10 seconds…”; I have run up the engines and checked them at the 20 seconds mark and I am ready for the brakes release when my chase calls for it: “5… 4… 3… 2… 1… NOW!”. I push the throttles over the gate to the afterburner (reheat for the Brits) range.
The Eurofighter kicks me in the butt and in just 6 seconds I am airborne. Impressive!
It soon appears that the aircraft is easy to control on all three axis and I feel very confident right away; visibility form the seat is amazing and it’s quite easy to check the chase position at my 5 o’clock. The “canards” are just visible below me but they do not obstruct my view of the ground.
This particular test flight is dedicated to engines testing. DA3 is, indeed, dedicated to the EJ200 engine development. But first I familiarize myself with the aircraft, performing some evaluations of its flying qualities.
The flight controls software is in a very basic and “raw” version, but the aircraft is very controllable, and its response to my inputs are always appropriate and predictable. Flight envelope is quite limited: 3,5 G and 15° AOA (Angle Of Attack). We are indeed at a very early stage of the development program.
I then switch to the test points dedicated to the engine. I am happily slamming the engines away (one at a time) when “Il Gatto” calls me: “Duca, (Duke, it’s my battle callsign), we are Bingo fuel, if you want to shoot some approaches we need to head back!”
While we fly back to Caselle I start thinking about the landing. It should not be a problem: the aircraft, so I have been briefed by Alenia’s test pilots, is quite easy to land, but the brakes have the tendency to overheat quite easily and should the drag chute not come out (it has happened) there is the risk to exceed the brake temperature limit, which is 900°, and to have to replace them.
I fly a straight-in approach first, followed by a go around to see how the aircraft behaves, then, keeping it at a steady 13° AOA, I smoothly touch down after exactly one hour and six minutes of flight time. The drag chute behaves properly and I clear the runway without an hitch.
“Jeez”, I think, “brakes are even worse when they are hot!”
As a matter of fact, the aircraft kicks and bucks like a runaway horse while I try to slow it down to taxiing speed. Idle RPM for the new engines is still very high, to increase stall protection at this very early stage of development, so residual thrust is quite strong and pushes the jet at a speed exceeding easily 40 knots.
If you add the lightness of the aircraft to all of the above, then you have a quite uncomfortable ride back to the chocks, and that’s exactly what I get.
I really think that this beauty is easier to ride in the air than on the ground.
Alenia’s personnel is waiting for me at the parking spot. Engineers, tech people, friends with which I worked for many months are applauding while “Il Gatto” showers me with a bucket of freezing cold water. Traditions are important!
The day’s over, the flight is done; but the real test pilot work has just started: testing without reporting is useless! Long hours at the computer are waiting for me to write a report that everybody will be waiting for.
While the RSV’s P-180 “Avanti” takes me home at Pratica di Mare AB, I think about all the Aeronautica Militare’s pilots that are still flying on the F-104 and that are waiting for a competitive aircraft. I now know that the Typhoon will be a hard nut to crack for anyone and that our pilots will be finally able to prove themselves against anybody else.
Bring it on!