The Life And Times Of A Fighter Jet Test Pilot

Over here at Gizmodo Australia, we're all lucky enough to be living out our dream jobs. Everyday we're testing new gadgets, new tech and previewing the next big thing. My job, however, is nothing compared to the job of Elliot Clements. His colleagues call him "Hemo", not because it's a clever nickname from some obscure experience, but because that was his callsign for the 14 years he was in the Navy, flying combat missions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Hemo is a fighter jet test pilot on the trillion-dollar F-35 fighter jet program, and he really does have the best job in the world.

The F-35 fighter jet is many things. It's the most advanced fighter jet to date, designed to represent the future of aerial combat and national defence capabilities, with the ability to counter new technology like surface-to-air missiles and advanced air-to-air missiles. It has a bunch of software in it that gives the pilot new information while flying and it uses cameras all over the plane to feed a complete picture back to a pilot, allowing him or her to literally look through the floor of their jet to see threats from below.

It has advanced stealth capabilities, vertical take-off ability, advanced mid-air restart abilities and it talks to other friendly planes to pull off incredible tactical manoeuvres while in formation. 9.4 million lines of code are required to get the F-35 out of a hangar and into the skies. Lockheed Martin calls it the fighter jet equivalent of moving from a VCR to a Blu-ray in one fell swoop.

It's not all a bed of roses, though. The F-35 might be amazing and innovative, it's also late, overbudget and troubled. Australia is meant to get two of the planes delivered in 2014, but doubt is mounting over whether or not we'll ever see these planes take off from Australian air bases.

The F-35 project was grounded again recently because of a crack in the engine blade uncovered in a recent inspection. Previously, the F-35 had been grounded because of software issues, parachute issues, power issues and general operating issues. You'd be forgiven for thinking this plane was born under a bad star.

Hemo doesn't mind all that, though. His job is just to fly the thing to find these issues.

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As you speak to him, you'd never think he was ex-military. He's polite and softly-spoken with an inquisitive stare and a very social demeanour. Not exactly the type you expect to have flown four combat missions over some of the harshest conflicts we've seen in modern times.

He's standing next to a simulator of the F-35 as a few TV news crews buzz around it to get their shots. We're ushered over to the side to have a seat and chat. He looks at home in a jumpsuit more than he does in an interview.

"Being a test pilot is one of the most exciting jobs in the world," he tells me, "but it's not as glamorous as everyone might think".

When you say the words fighter jet test pilot, you could be forgiven for thinking that they're all alpha male, volleyball-playing jocks who fly planes when they aren't busy picking up ladies in bars or goofing off in the locker room. That's not at all the case.

"There's some misconceptions about test pilots," Hemo explains with a smile on his face.

"Misconceptions like being a test pilot means you're kind of a cowboy out there doing very risky missions and doing things that may not be as thoughtful. Really, being a test pilot means that you're primarily an engineer. You're a verification pilot.

"You work very closely with the engineers and you're mitigating risk, you're measuring risk, conducting test flights in the safest and most effective way possible and I love that challenge."

Less jock, more geek.

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Hemo is the kind of guy who was born to fly. At the age of 15, Hemo could solo a Cessna prop plane. He learned to fly a plane before he learned to drive a car, and decided to join the Navy as a pilot all thanks to his Dad.

"My father was always into boating. I was always out on the ocean or out in an airplane. I decided to combine them in college and I became a Naval Aviator.

"From there I went to the Naval Academy, graduated that and then went to Flight School, became an F-18 pilot, did a couple of combat tours then got accepted into test pilot school and became a test pilot, then got out of the Navy at the 14-year mark before working for Boeing and now Lockheed Martin."

Since sitting on his father's boat and resolving to become a Navy pilot, Hemo has built-up 23,000 hours of flight experience on combat missions, recon deployments and test exercises. He's flown the F-18 Hornet and the Super Hornet and spent four tours in the Middle East — something he talks about only briefly but with the efficiency of someone describing a normal desk job.

"My deployments were mostly over Iraq and Afghanistan. Actually my second deployment was in October of 2001. That was a very rewarding deployment, but we were busy on that one.

"Typically I did close air support, supporting troops on the ground and doing anything from dropping bombs, using the gun for strafing targets to giving reconnaissance support," he says.

The only thing that ever turned him off being a fighter pilot were the combat landings.

"After about 100 night traps on an aircraft carrier on a pitching deck in bad weather, you start to double-think your career decision, but it is the thing I'm most happy about when I looked back on my career I'm glad of the path I chose."

These days his typical day is more like a traditional desk job. He drives to work just like anyone else, he replies to emails, has a cup of coffee and sits in meetings. At the end of those meetings though, usually around midday, Hemo jumps into the cockpit of an F-35 and spends up to four hours pushing the jet to its limits for the other engineers.

It's still a dangerous job, but all the risks Hemo takes are calculated ones, he says.

"It can be dangerous, and it can be high-risk, but our job as test pilots is not to go out and take the risks no matter what. Our job is to measure the risk that we think is going to occur and take place and find ways to mitigate that risk so we can [do our jobs] as effectively as possible."

The F-35, he adds, has to be the easiest plane to fly out of all the jets that have peppered his career. Because it ditches the switches and centralises all of the pilot's information into two, square touchscreen displays mounted front and centre in the cockpit, life is much easier for a pilot these days.

Despite the immense technological leap the F-35 represents, Hemo isn't worried that he's about to lose his job to a computer.

"In general I think some of the functions that fighter pilots do or used to do are currently being done by unmanned aerial systems like UAVs. I don't think that applies to all of tactical aviation, though. I don't think the computer will ever take over in the near future — like the next 50 years or so.

"You'll have a man in the cockpit, someone who can identify the threat and [react] to that threat. There's a lot of judgment that goes into being a fighter pilot or a test pilot. There's a lot of human emotion there that I don't think can be replaced by a computer."

So what does it take to do Hemo's job? According to the man himself, good grades, a knowledge of planes and a bit of luck should get you over the line.

"To be a fighter pilot, you don't need to necessarily be an engineer or a scientist. You do to be a test pilot — you need to have an engineering/maths/science background, but just to be a fighter pilot you need to do well in school, how to be competitive, go into the military obviously and do well there. It also helps if you do civilian flying lessons and that'll help you greatly in flight school, and that's about it."

Whether the F-35 makes it over the line or not, it's good to know there are guys like Hemo testing out the future of flight.

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