Tried and tested: Troy Caudill gets to fly the world’s first commercial fly-by-wire helicopter in all sorts of manoeuvres.
Interview by Yayeri van Baarsen
14 April 2021
I’ve wanted to fly from a very young age. My dad worked at different air bases and several family members were pilots, so I started learning to fly after college. At flight school, everyone wanted to fly jets. Not me: after my first heli lesson, I knew I was going to be a helicopter pilot.
I’m the lead test pilot for the 525 programme, which is based at Bell’s Flight Research Centre in Arlington, Texas. A lot of my time is spent writing reports and reviewing test plans, it’s about 70% paperwork and 30% flying. Still, I get to fly three to four times a week and use the simulator a lot to check out software.
“In a new aircraft, you always want to hit the parameters”
The type of flying depends on what’s tested, for example handling qualities or performance. We’ve just completed checking at what altitude and air speed you can survive an engine failure (H/V tests). For this, we work with an expanding envelope, building it up gradually. Some tests go quickly, with others you repeat the same manoeuvre over and over again, just with a different gross weight or CofG. I’ve been with the 525’s test programme almost from day one, when it started as a clean-sheet design, and it’s been great seeing it evolve.
Right now we’re heavily involved in the certification process, which is quite tedious. We’re planning to get the helicopter certified later this year. Experience is essential in my job. Most tests require you to know the systems inside out, this knowledge you only get from experience. In order to do a thorough job, you have to really understand the aircraft and the systems that you’re testing. It goes without saying that good flying skills are also needed. For a test pilot, flying should be second nature.
In my opinion, it’s one of the best jobs out there as you get to fly the new aircraft and test the new systems. It’s still a challenge for me, especially in a new aircraft. You always want to hit the parameters. I particularly like the riskier tests but I can’t do every one of them as all test pilots are Type A personalities – everyone wants to do the tough stuff.
I went to the US Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland, where I graduated in 1996. Afterwards I joined the Naval Helicopter Test Squadron, also based in Pax River, where I flew lots of different aircraft. In my last two years in service, I was an instructor at the test pilot school. Since I’m a Cobra pilot by trade, working for Bell would give me the chance to fly the Cobra again. I actively pursued this and joined the company in 2002.
The ordnance testing we did as part of the H-1 upgrade programme in 2004, developing the AH-1Z Viper and the UH-1Y Venom. I really liked these flights as I got to fire rockets and guns from the helicopter at the Yuma ranges. Although there are no high explosives on the missile, we did use inert ammo in these tests, which is pretty cool. I’m waiting for them to put some guns on the 525 for me, but somehow I doubt they’ll do this…
Yuma Airfield, because I love the desert. It’s got a dry heat and as I get older, I like it warmer. Also, MCAS Yuma is a joint-use, civilian-military airport and I enjoy being close to my fellow marines – I miss my time in the Marine Corps.
Currently I’m really busy with the 525 programme, but a couple of years ago I did some GA-style flying. I’d fly anything I could rent and would mainly go on local trips, flying somewhere for lunch to keep current, the typical ‘$100 hamburger’ flights.
Find a job you love doing and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. In my job, although the paperwork feels like work, the flying definitely doesn’t!
Experimental helicopter test pilot Troy Caudill is the lead test pilot on the Bell 525 Relentless programme.
|Started current job||October 2002|
|Now flying||Bell 525 Relentless, Bell 429 GlobalRanger, Bell 407|
|Favourite aircraft||Bell AH-1 Cobra. “The first time I stepped into one, it was like a shoe that fits perfectly”|
|Hours at job start||Approx. 4,500|
|Hours now||Approx. 6,700|