Top gun to train rookie test pilotsAs a fighter-jockey captain 10 years ago, Lieutenant Colonel Lee Chung-hwan, now 40, was given a rather surprising proposal: He was asked if he wanted to become a test pilot. The question resulted in more than a few sleepless nights.
At the time, Captain Lee flew fighter jets and was considered one of the most important people in the Air Force. His future seemed guaranteed.
From his time as a cadet, he was a good student of the English language. After being commissioned, he became a “top gun” instructor, teaching the art of combat flying.
“Fighter plane pilots get restless when they leave combat operations departments,” Colonel Lee recalled. “And test flying is much more dangerous than flying fighter planes, so it was not easy to decide.”
Colonel Lee, however, chose a challenge over stability. Since Korea at that time didn’t have a school for test pilots, the then-captain was shuttled off to the United States, where he trained at the National Test Pilot School in Mojave, California. He graduated from the course in a year and received his test pilot license.
“I had to endure harsh training, equivalent to what I had to go through as a cadet,” Mr. Lee said. “For one year, I flew 23 types of aircraft including helicopters and cargo planes and learned a new style of piloting.”
In 1996, when he came back from the United States, Captain Lee was placed in charge of test-flying all newly developed aircraft beginning with the KT-1 trainer and most recently the advanced T-50.
Colonel Lee said test flights were a necessary part of developing aircraft. “Airplanes are merely machines developed by engineers until they are flown,” he said. “Other people were excited about the fact that the [T-50] plane was the first supersonic jet developed in Korea, but I was more worried about whether the plane could actually fly.”
Colonel Lee has flown the plane more than 350 times since November 2002, when it was first produced. He intentionally created situations in which it was impossible to fly, even stopping the engine in flight. Colonel Lee was the first person to pilot the plane at supersonic speeds, and based on his recommendations, the T-50 was redesigned to be more stable in flight.
On Oct. 23, Colonel Lee put the plane through its paces during the Korea Aerospace & Defense Exhibition, and plans to do the same at the International Aerospace Exhibition in Dubai opening today.
“The United Arab Emirates Air Force wants to purchase advanced trainers and so invited the world’s major aerospace companies,” Colonel Lee said. “I will try my best to get Korea orders for the plane.”
Colonel Lee belongs to the 52nd Test Pilot Squadron, which he will soon take command of.
Asked if he has any regrets on leaving combat flying, he replied that no one in Korea has flown as many types of planes as he has. “No one lives as exciting and satisfactory a life as I do.”
by Wang Hee-soo