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A conversation with Lionel Alford

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Sep. 15, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Lionel Alford is the lead test pilot for Beechcraft’s new AT-6 light attack aircraft. He’s also an aerospace design engineer, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, a consultant and a published author of novels.

The Air Force selected him three times to compete at NASA for the position of pilot astronaut.

His late father, Lionel Alford Sr., was well known as a Boeing test pilot turned manager who led and revitalized Boeing’s division in Wichita and persuaded Boeing not to shut it down.

The younger Alford, 55, grew up wanting to fly airplanes.

“That was my absolute goal,” he said.

In college, Alford earned a degree in chemistry from Pacific Lutheran University, a master’s in mechanical engineering from Boston University and a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Dayton.

He graduated from Fighter Attack Reconnaissance in the Air Force in 1982 and test pilot school in 1992.

After 24 years in the Air Force, Alford worked as a consultant for Hawker Beechcraft, Defense Research Associates, EG&G Technical Services, AirLaunch Systems and the University of Dayton.

“Companies hire me when they can’t solve a problem,” Alford said. “They hire me to do the analysis from an aerodynamic standpoint.”

He was also chief test pilot for Flint Hills Solutions, developing unmanned aerial systems and payloads for crisis deployment.

Along the way, Alford designed several air vehicles for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency under the Department of Defense responsible for developing new technologies for the military. Some of his work includes a mini unmanned aerial system, a “permanent” glider that will stay in the air and a patented capped helix winglet.

Alford joined Beechcraft as a full-time pilot in 2011 after doing consulting work for the company on the AT-6 program.

He owns a Beech Baron that he flies for personal and business use.

Alford and his wife have four children and five grandchildren.

Alford’s son is continuing the family tradition: He is in pilot training at Vance Air Force Base. His three daughters include an engineer, a mathematician and a professional ballet dancer.

You have about 7,000 flight hours in more than 65 kinds of airplanes. What’s your favorite plane to fly?

The airplane that you’re flying now is your favorite airplane, or it better be. It’s the one you know the most about and having the most fun in or you wouldn’t be there. It’s not the different airplanes that you’re flying, but rather that you’re flying.

The dissertation you did for your Ph.D. has quite a long name — Aerodynamic Analysis of Natural Flapping Flight Using a Lift Model Based on Spanwise flow. What does that mean in layman’s terms?

It’s how birds and bugs fly. It’s how bugs can hover. ... As far as I’m concerned, no one else has been able to answer this question. ... It was the beginning of a whole new theory on how animals do natural flapping flight.

You’ve accumulated about 360 flight hours in Beechcraft’s AT-6, a surveillance and attack airplane based on the T-6 military trainer. You were the chief pilot on its first flight. How is that airplane to fly?

You get it all set up. You take off, and you don’t have to worry about it. That’s the best thing about that kind of airplane. It’s incredibly reliable. ... If something is wrong, the airplane will tell you. That just makes an aviator happy. When you can do what you need to do in the flight test and you don’t have to worry that the engine is going to mess up on you or the systems are going to mess up on you, that’s just a pleasant feeling.

What is the most satisfying part of your job?

Any time you get to do a first flight, that is something to a test pilot. It’s a very unique effort. The AT-6 was one of them, but I’ve had other first flights. The first one was in the military flying a highly modified aircraft. Usually you don’t get to fly brand new airplanes, but you end up flying modifications of aircraft with something new on it. In our business, that’s a big deal that you’re the first pilot entrusted to do that. That is the peak of any test pilot’s career.

Test pilots take airplanes to their maximum limits. How do you protect yourself?

Whenever you do a test program ... you always evaluate what is the risk of this test. If you don’t need it, you don’t do it. If you have to do it, if it’s required for certification, or its required so you can safely give it to the operators, you’re always flying on a test plan. You’ve already done a risk analysis of the kind of test you’re doing. You have back up (with a test team.) They’re talking to you. They’re watching the airplane. The airplanes are instrumented. We just don’t go out and just go try it. It’s not a rodeo. You are carefully going through everything you need to do for safety, and you carefully ensure everything is instrumented properly. It’s an enormous process. Test pilots are really not the most exciting people around. … You’re focused on safety ... but you’ve got to be ready.

You’ve presented papers and articles in international forums and journals. But you’re also an author of historical and science fiction novels. You wrote your first novel in the early 1980s. That’s a big change from your day job.

Test pilots are left brain/right brain people. There’s even studies about this. For some reason, test pilots can write, and they can also do math. I guess that’s an odd thing. Most people can do math or they can write. I just always liked to write. When I was in the Air Force, I would go for long periods of time on missions. What do you do when you’re sitting on the ground? I would write.

What’s one thing most people may not know about you?

How much I’m invested in the community in Wichita. I’m on the Kansas Aviation Museum’s board. I’m on the Grand Opera board. I’m the flight captain for the Daedalians (an organization for military pilots). When I got out of the military, I moved here. ... I like to be a supporter and helper to help grow our community, because we have an awesome community.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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