After his first ever flight, LAA Chief Test Pilot Dan Griffith felt scared, ill and airsick…
Interview by Yayeri van Baarsen
28 March 2022
From the age of 11, the only thing I wanted was to get into aviation. However, I couldn’t afford the civilian way and didn’t get a scholarship.
At 18, I joined the RAF University Air Cadet Scheme. On my first flight, the pilot did a ‘run and break’. which left me feeling extremely ill, pretty airsick and quite scared. “I’m going to die!” Followed by, “Oh no, I’ve signed up for 20 years of this…”.
Once I got over that first flight, it went very well. Flying came reasonably natural – I had thought of nothing else for many years, so mentally there was no other option. University Air Squadron was very similar to proper military training: clinical, syllabus-orientated, and disciplined. This was great, as it set me up for a future in test flying, where you also need a disciplined approach.
“Kneeboards act like a memory chip in my brain, unlocking my flying skills”
My first ever solo wasn’t a big surprise, it seemed like a natural progression.
My second, in the Jet Provost, was such a shock. After a 55-minute flight the instructor said, “Park over there.” Then got out. I assumed I’d messed up, so when he told me to solo, I just sat there in utter disbelief. My third solo, in a single-seat Harrier, was extreme. After only two trips in the two-seat Harrier, I was alone in this powerful war machine which is 2,500lb lighter and had incredible thrust. I remember sitting at the end of the runway, wondering what’s wrong with the aeroplane as it was rocking with raw power – it went off like a scalded cat! The undercarriage limit was 250kt, but the power was so phenomenal, you got to that in an instant. I eventually got the speed under control at 12,000ft…
In test pilot training you’re formally taught to get in and out of different aircraft and feel comfortable enough to fly them safely.
I went to USAF Edwards, where each week it brought in a new aircraft, like the C-5 Galaxy, F15, A10. For every aircraft I’d fly, I’d write a kneeboard with essential information, such as key speeds, limitations, approach speed, etc. I’d write these boards in a set format, so I knew exactly where to look.
These kneeboards act like a memory chip in my brain, unlocking my flying skills for that type. It’s also a question of experience, once you’ve flown a lot of aircraft, you’ll notice all medium jets fly very similarly, etc. The exposure I’ve acquired through my extreme flying allows me to switch between aircraft types relatively easily.
The biggest issue in the LAA world is the engine, so do proper engine tests beforehand. Tie it down and see if it lasts for a few minutes at full power, paying special attention to heating and oil pressure. Also, think about what you’ll do in case of an engine failure. Search Google Earth for possible landing areas at the end of the runway. Consider what speed you’ll fly and how much input it’ll take to go from climbing to landing.
Many people want to turn around and land at the runway if the engine fails, so they won’t crash the aircraft they’ve spent 10 years building. This often goes wrong. It’s better to land straight away – you might damage the aircraft, but you’ll hopefully walk away.
Most important is to consider all the ‘what ifs’ – what if this goes wrong? Assume it will and plan accordingly. If it doesn’t that’s great, but if it does, at least you’ve got a plan.
For me, flying is immersion. The type of flying I do is extreme, technical, and skilled. I enjoy the challenge of variability, testing 60 different aircraft types a year and wanting to be good at it. In fact, flying is the only thing in life I absolutely give 100%.
Follow Dan on Instagram for flight testing and advice.
LAA Chief Test Pilot Dan Griffith has tested 482 different aircraft types in 2,300 sorties, which together make for 3,700 test flying hours.
|When||6 December 1981|
|Aircraft||Scottish Aviation Bulldog|
|Hours at solo||15|
|Hours now||Approx. 10,000|