TCAS is mandated to be installed on most aircraft that fly in the US and probably Europe too, and what it does is monitor aircraft in your vincinity and their altitudes. It warns you when you gets close to other planes (a Traffic Advisory), and then it really warns you when it sees that a collision is likely and tells you what you should do to avoid it (a Resolution Advisory). Honeywell also makes Radar and Ground Proximity Warning Systems, in addition I'm sure to a large multitude of other avionics stuff.
So we have a hangar of test aircraft up at Paine Field in Everett. Today I got to go on a test flight where we use the equipment under development. See, we are getting close to releasing a new version of our TCAS product, and currently going through the final testing phases. Apparently it is an industry standard test to prove your system can hold a Resolution Advisory for 2000 seconds (around a half hour, which wouldn't really happen ever). So to do this, we got two aircraft to fly in formation, about 1/10th of a mile (500 feet) apart, for about an hour, alternating quadrants, back and forth along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The weather wasn't the best but it was good enough to see some mountains and the ground part of the time. It was fun, because I like flying.
The one aircraft was a fairly large one, a Convair CV-580 I believe. The second craft was much smaller, a Beechcraft King Air 100. I was helping the guy who coordinated the test, a coworker of mine named Clay, install the equipment for the test (I always think things I don't know about are very sophisticated, and I'm always wrong. The data-gathering equipment was a laptop computer running the same software I run back at my desk in the office.). Clay said "Okay, we'll put everyone in the Convair, except me and one other person who'll ride in the King Air." And I said "I would like to do that." Sometimes I have felt sheepish for stepping up like this and claiming opportunities when others might have also wanted them, but I'm realizing more and more that if I don't, I'll end up screwed. Like sitting in the Convair for an hour wishing I was somewhere else. We milled around the hangar for a while and the pilot, Mike, came out and was more than happy to talk about the plane. I asked a lot of questions. Planes are neat, I like machines.
When we were ready to go, Clay told me to sit in the copilot's seat and I helped him go through the pre-takeoff checklist. Pilots have lots of checklists. Then we took off. We got in the air a while before the Convair did, so to kill some time Mike flew around this island. He said "Now if I do this turn right, we'll get two Gs. Okay, not yet, but... now." And my stomach relocated to the very bottom of my abdomen and my arms got pretty heavy. Cool.
We eventually met up with the Convair and flew in formation back and forth over the Strait for around an hour. I played around with the instruments and it was really cool to see the product I was working on actually in use- since my job is support stuff and we're so cramped for time right now, I haven't really gotten a chance to get into the lab. I learned a lot about how TCAS actually looks on the outside and a bunch of the other systems in the plane.
When we were done gathering data, the big plane broke formation with us and went about it's business. Mike says to me "Okay, you take the yoke like this," and in about ten seconds he's instructing me in how to make a banked turn. It was that quick and nonchalant. He pointed to a few instruments, explained how when you bank, the aircraft will slip to the side so you compensate by giving it a little bit of rudder, and the nose will drop too so you pull back on the yoke to maintain altitude... and then I did it. Left, right, left, and some straight and level flying for a few minutes. Boom. I flew a plane.
After that we made our approach back to the field and did an approach on instruments through some gnarly clouds. The coolest thing was that Mike was explaining stuff the whole time. There is so much to know, I can see why being a pilot takes so much training. I love it when people who are experts want to explain things that interest me, because I like knowing things. Today was an incredibly good day on that count. It would be really cool to be a pilot. I have thought about joining the air force, but I don't know if that would ever happen, and I don't know how much it would cost to get the training independently, and doing it as more than a hobby would probably just be unrealistic. But imagine having this job. This is what Mike does at work; fly a plane. An experimental plane. I am envious.
Oh I also got a coupon from my boss for $15 off a Butterball turkey, so today ruled.