|Confident from daily encounters with danger and thousands of
hours flying military and civilian aircraft, the pilots and crews of the 10th
Flight Test Squadron also happen to be the biggest troublemakers on Tinker Air
They'd be out of a job if they weren't.
Air Force Reserve Command squadron led by Lt. Col. Scott Wilson serves as the
final quality check for planes fresh out of depot maintenance work at the
Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex. After OC-ALC maintainers dismantle KC-135
aerial refueling tankers, B-1 and B-52 bombers and E-3 Airborne Warning and
Control System planes - restoring or replacing anything from toggle switches to
tail sections - the 10th FTS pilots are the first to fly the like-new
If something wasn't fixed right, they're also the first ones to
know about it and deal with sometimes dangerous consequences.
feet in the air after takeoff on Nov. 1, 2012, squadron pilots flying a newly
overhauled B-52 heard a "bang-boom-thud," according to an Air Force accident
report. The heavy bomber banked left. Despite a yoke dragged to full right
rudder, the Stratofortress's 185-foot wingspan dangerously persisted in a 30- to
45-degree left roll.
About 25 seconds later, another "bang-boom" jolted the
plane. The pilots could feel the bomber's flight dynamics change. The lead pilot
wheeled the plane back to level flight. After nearly 2 hours in the air, the
pilot safely landed the plane using an improvised plan because their misfortune
wasn't covered in the B-52's emergency procedures manual of the
What had happened was the bomber's right and left inboard flaps,
which extend and retract on command from the back of the wings, had fallen off
one after the other and plunged into sparse forest a few miles from the base.
The flaps' critical retainer plugs were mistakenly never installed during
All the aircraft that the 10th's pilots and crew fly after
depot maintenance, repair or modification are by definition "unairworthy." It's
the squadron's job to fly them first and test all avionics, flight controls and
even cause emergencies to make sure they can be fixed in flight.
off engines in flight is routine. Descending disturbingly close to "land" on a
Tinker runway with no wheels down tests whether the warning alarms will
"When you come here as a new pilot to the unit," Operations
Director Lt. Col. Kelly Buck said, "the first time you pull all the fire
switches, or you shut down the engines in flight on purpose, it feels a little
unsettling because it's stuff that you would never do in a normal unit. But we
Major Josh Thompson, a KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, added,
"There's a hydraulic crossover handle that when I went through training they
said never touch that thing. We move it about three times a flight, back and
forth. We make sure every switch, every system, works. Then that's when it
All those system checks, including crew members who
test equipment such as refueling boom extenders in KC-135s, mean pilots and
crews must be highly experienced. As Reservists they have earned that
experience through active, guard, civilian and reserve experiences in the
airframes. The 17 pilots average around 2,000 hours of flying time. Only one of
the pilots, navigators and weapon system operators is ranked below major or
Flying more than 400 "functional check flights"
annually, the squadron registered a six-year streak of Air Force Flight Safety
Awards. Colonel Buck described them as "you-saved-the-plane"
Checking out a plane usually takes more than one flight. Crew
members note everything that needs to be fixed and go up again to verify
"You write it up if a light bulb's burned out - minutiae, things
that you'd get shot for on active duty for writing up," Major Thompson
The squadron's mission, though, is perfection, Colonel Buck
"It's a pride thing," the colonel said. "You want when the owner
comes to pick it up for them to go, 'Man, everything's working,' because they
don't always get that. You can fly a mission with a lot of things not working.
Our mission is to return perfect warplanes back to the warfighter as quickly as
Some of the squadron's tests turn into real emergencies
declared to the air control tower.
"I can't remember a week that's gone
by when one of our planes hasn't come back as an emergency," Colonel Buck said.
"Talk to the firemen. They know that when we're flying they're going to be
Although their jobs mirror those of mythical aircraft-sabotaging
gremlins, the pilots say it's significantly less stressful when they degrade a
system themselves to perform a test.
"I've shut every engine down every
initial flight that I've done here for 10 years, so it doesn't bother you
anymore," Colonel Buck said. "We have to fight complacency because we see so
many emergencies. We treat every one as important even though we've seen it over
and over again."
Major Thompson said he was attracted to the 10th FTS
because it allows active-duty service status even though he's a Reservist. He's
also stationed long-term at one location, allowing more time with
B-52 pilot Maj. Steve Miracle said he enjoys the work. Working
for Air Force Materiel Command, the squadron returns about 120 planes a year to
"Every time we go fly we're doing our mission and making
sure that these airplanes we're testing are fit to give back to the user so they
can go to war with them," the major said. "I go home every day with pretty high
job satisfaction, and I love the kind of flying that we do. It's real hands-on
kind of stuff."
The squadron's other work can include ferrying
battle-damaged planes from combat theaters to Tinker. They also deliver aircraft
to foreign customers. Major Thompson and crew took several trips to France
earlier this year delivering refueling tankers because they were so extensively
modified that no French pilots were qualified yet to fly them.
purely work. It was terrible," the major said with a