As a young child, Dan Hinson wanted to be a doctor and had pictured himself in a doctor’s white coat.
At the University of South Carolina, Hinson was a premed student and in the Navy’s ROTC program.
After college, he joined the Navy and began flying. He never looked back.
“The little engineer in me bloomed,” Hinson said. “It’s hard not to be bitten by the flying bug.”
Hinson, 50, whose call sign is “Shaka,” spent 23 years in the Navy as an officer, fighter pilot, instructor and test pilot.
Today he is Textron Aviation chief pilot for government and special missions and the chief test pilot for Textron AirLand’s new Scorpion jet, a light attack and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.
Hinson has flown 82 different airplanes, has made more than 500 carrier landings and has logged more than 5,000 flight hours.
In 2002, Hinson was airwing operations officer on board the carrier the USS John F. Kennedy during Operation Enduring Freedom. From 2002 to 2004, he served as executive officer and then commanding officer of the Strike Fighter Weapons School, Pacific in Lemoore, Calif.
He then joined the F/A-18 and EA-18G program office, from which he retired in 2008.
After leaving the Navy, Hinson joined the former Hawker Beechcraft Corp. as program manager and test pilot for the Navy’s T-6B program, then served as research, development, test and evaluation manager and lead test pilot for the AT-6 program.
In 2012, he joined Cessna Aircraft as a test pilot to fly business jets.
But on his second day, Hinson was asked to go to Cessna’s East Pawnee facility and work on a special, then-secret program – the Scorpion.
“They asked, ‘What do you think about this?’ It took me all day to wipe the silly grin off my face,” Hinson said. “They knew my background with weapons and what I’ve been doing. It was sort of a perfect fit. I came over and took this program on. It’s been fast paced and incredibly rewarding ever since.”
Hinson and his wife have two daughters, ages 10 and 12.
Q. You left Beechcraft to join Cessna to further your career. With the merger of the two companies with Textron’s purchase, you’re now chief pilot for government and special missions for the combined organization. You’ve come full circle.
A. I’m very excited to be with the now combined team of Beechcraft and Cessna, now Textron Aviation, in government and special missions – tremendously talented people, and we have a lot of work to do. To have both the Scorpion and the T-6 and AT-6 within the same umbrella is pretty exciting. We have a tremendous future out in front of us. ... I fell out of my chair on Dec. 26 when I heard there was going to be a merger. ... I’m pretty happy.
Q. The Scorpion military jet is what’s known as a “clean-sheet design,” a plane designed from scratch. How do you view that as a test pilot?
A. Being provided the opportunity to be the test pilot for a clean-sheet design is generally regarded as the pinnacle of a test pilot’s career. I’m very proud and very humble to be afforded that opportunity.
Q. You mentioned that you thoroughly enjoy flying, but the most satisfying part of being a test pilot isn’t the flying. That’s maybe an odd answer for a pilot.
A. What I find truly satisfying is the interaction that I have with the engineering staff and the teamwork that we have in developing the airplane (the Scorpion). They are all in, and they know, because I’m strapping the airplane on, that I’m all in. I’m keenly interested in the outcome, and they are completely engaged in helping to get to the right outcome. It is that synergy, that energy, that I find magical and incredibly rewarding.
Q. What do you love most about flying, and have there been any close calls?
A. Looking right out the canopy. In the kinds of airplanes I have been flying, generally I can put my hand on the canopy, and right out there is the sky. ... Being in that environment is almost a religious experience. ... I feel soulful. That’s flying in general. ... (As for close calls) I was flying supersonic at 1.2 Mach at 9,000 feet in an F-18. I had a door come off of my airplane and go off my right engine. The engine red lights were going off. I was thrown forward. The airplane stopped flying fast very quickly. (On landing, pieces of the engine went flying out.) That was dramatic.
Q. What’s one thing not many people know about you?
A. I love to problem solve math word problems. I love where my kids are in school right now, because they’re both into math. ... This phase just fills me with joy, because I love to do word problems: The train leaves for Chicago. ... I sit down and do this kind of stuff. I love solving math problems.