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An Afternoon with a Test Pilot Legend...

            I was once privileged to interview Colonel Joseph F. Cotton, U.S. Air Force (retired).  Colonel Cotton is best know for being the chief test pilot of the XB-70 ‘Valkyrie’ flight test program (the world’s first Mach 3 bomber), as well as a test pilot in the B-58 ‘Hustler’ test program.  His 26 years of service in the Air Force, as well as 13 years flying for United Airlines, provide a truly unique perspective on the career field.

            Colonel Joseph Cotton, one of the nation’s greatest modern test pilots, described an average day as a test pilot as ‘early’.  “The day starts by waking up early, getting ready for the day, and then going to the first briefing of the morning.  At this briefing, the pilots, as well as your engineers and maintenance crews, review the results from the day before,” said Cotton.  “Everyone does their best to foresee possible problems, and plan solutions for them on the ground rather than in the air.”  Cotton acknowledged that, “as the leader of the project, taking care of the people under you, and making sure that they’re producing quality results, is also essential to success.  Also, making sure any concerns about the aircraft or the flight are addressed on the ground is important.”  Then, the first flight of the morning occurs, when the air is stable, cool, and consistent.  Afterwards, the aircraft returns to the airfield, the data obtained is downloaded, and if the weather holds out, you go up for a second flight that afternoon, perhaps with a different flight crew.  Afterwards, the flight data is downloaded once more, the flights are reviewed to learn immediately what occurred, and then rest up for the next day.

            Cotton said that training as a test pilot usually starts with a college degree.  As a farm boy in Rushville, Indiana, Cotton grew up fascinated by biplanes and aircraft engines.  However, Colonel Cotton’s education went only through high school, after which he enlisted in the Army Air Corps for service in World War II.  He trained as a fighter pilot, learning in the P-40, but was suddenly transferred over to bombers and the 2nd Bomb Group, stationed in North Africa.  On his first combat mission over Greece on November 18, 1943, his aircraft and crew were shot down by Nazi artillery.  He and his crew evaded capture for 4 months with the help of the Greek people.  Finally, his crew was then able to escape on an Italian sub-chaser and return to Allied territory.  Due to military policy, Cotton returned to the United States to become an instructor pilot (with only 400 hours of flight time). 

            Another in a series of ‘bad breaks’ for Cotton came when, in October of 1945, the leadership at his bases determined that he was not fully qualified to be an instructor pilot due to his relative lack of experience.  Cotton was then transferred to B-29 training, where he was checked out in the airframe by Cal Worthington (yes, the car dealer).  After the completion of his B-29 training, Cotton then asked to be transferred to the 35th Washington Conversion Squadron of the Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom.  His plan was to spend two to three years over in England as an exchange officer.  Then, he would apply to the Empire Test Pilot School (near Farnborough, England) to achieve his status as a certified ‘test pilot’.  The plan worked perfectly.  His career then took him to Elgin Air Force Base in Florida, where he gained most of his flight experience in ‘Any Pilot’s Paradise,’ meaning the Air Force had a wide variety of different aircraft to test and fly.  After a tour of three years there, he progressed on to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where he first encountered the catalyst for his future successes in the field, and created the love of his work. According to Cotton, there were “all of these red brick buildings, filled with engineers and blueprints, people with good ideas.”  During this time at Wright-Patterson, Cotton sought to break down the walls between engineers and the test pilots, “I worked to break down these barriers by encouraging the engineers to fly with the pilots, and sit in on the pilot’s briefings.  This advancement allowed for the free flow of information and ideas between the designers, the builders, and the users, and was to be a model used in aircraft design projects even to today.”

            Colonel Cotton stated he never was very good when it came to technical writing, but chose rather to dwell on the quality of the written product as opposed to the quantity.  It was, however, imperative that technical orders for the aircraft were written and followed 100% correctly, or people would be hurt or killed.  The key, according to Cotton, was not in surrounding yourself with good people, but rather by bringing everyone up to a higher level.  Cotton affirmed, “Critical to the job, as with any other job, is developing the confidence and strength from within to do the right thing.  Listening to the little voice in your head to make sure you go home that night.”

            Environmental concerns played much less a concern in Cotton’s day.  However, the pilots involved with the supersonic test projects had to be aware of the sonic booms the aircraft would cause.  Sonic booms created by the flight tests often would result in damage to property (i.e. broken windows) under the plane’s flight path.  As a result, after the first Mach 3 flight of the XB-70, Colonel Cotton presented the small Idaho town of Brawley located directly under the flight path, and which suffered frequently from sonic boom damage, with two bags of potatoes flown on the historic flight, to help alleviate any anger from the residents.  “The primary concerns in the projects were involving safety on the job, and the protecting of both human life, and the aircraft,” recalled Cotton.  However, this did not preclude accidents.  In the early 60s, a B-47 bomber under his command crashed after attempting a five-engine takeoff, and in June of 1966, the XB-70 project suffered its fatal blow after the destruction of the instrument-laden second prototype in a mid-air collision during a corporate photo shoot for Air Force contractor, General Electric.  Cotton alleged, “In the military, as a test pilot, you are spoiled when it comes to doing things.  You can push the envelope, and you can push, because you know that those people on the ground have taken good care of you and your aircraft.”  To Cotton, the trust in the ground crews and engineers is the very foundation of a test pilot’s confidence, allowing them to do their job with ease and vigor.

            After his Air Force career, he decided to enter the service of United Airlines as an air transport pilot.  “The airlines have a different racket than the military.  The military is motivated by doing a job and doing the job better than anyone else.  The measure of their success is the lives they save.  The airlines have the same motivation, except their success is measured by profits.  I couldn’t stand it.  They push the envelope of flight as well.  Except to them, their envelope is money.”

            Cotton states that, as a test pilot, you cannot be a pessimist, but he must be highly skeptical.  “Plan what you are going to them, then do it, like an actor with a script.  But also be ready to improvise when the situation runs afoul,” avowed Cotton.

Rema and Joe Cotton    Cotton credits aviation for many of the good things in life, “At age 35, I would be telling you about the things I did for aviation.  But once I hit 75, I came to realize what aviation did for me.”  Cotton added, “The people that the field of aviation brings in are some of the greatest people around.  And aviation is not about the planes and the machines; it’s about the people.  People like Lindbergh and Roscoe Turner.  People who, as well as great flyers, were the warmest and kindest people you could ever know.” 

When asked if there was ever a time in his career he had wished he had chosen another career, his answer was an emphatic no.  He made mention of a brief desire, while in high school, of wanting to be a newscaster or maybe a doctor or lawyer, but he set high goals for himself.  The phase, “You’re born an original, don’t die a copy…” is often attributed to Cotton.

The interview with Colonel Cotton was one of the greatest experiences I have had to date.  It was once-in-a-lifetime chance to sit and listen to one of the greatest pioneers of modern aviation speak about his experiences on the job, and about history.  I definitely changed some of my views of the career, as well as how to regard history, and crystallized my future intentions towards the profession.  The Tom Wolfe book, The Right Stuff, may be perceived as the definitive perspective of test pilots, but having conducted this interview, I am closer to knowing the truth: test piloting is a great job, but like many other jobs, it’s about the people, not the product.

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This page last updated Wednesday, July 01, 2015

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