James Brown: Above & Beyond

Dream Jobs 2008

James ”J.B.” Brown had just taken off in an F-22 Raptor on a routine test flight when 730 oC air escaping from a loose connection in one engine began melting wires and hydraulic and fuel lines. Protocol dictated that he shut down the ailing engine and fly on the healthy one, but he remembered that an F-117 had been lost by just such an action--the aircraft tumbled out of control while the pilot ejected to safety. Brown's plane was too close to the ground for him to eject. Thinking fast, he idled the bad engine and lowered the landing gear. Then, on final approach, the other engine started to fail. With just seconds to spare before the jet lost power, he landed the aircraft, shut it down, and ran from it in case there was a fire. Happily, there wasn't.

”Had I followed the emergency procedures verbatim, I could have ended up in a world of hurt,” he says in a jovial Alabama twang. ”But, hey, I get to fly one of the most powerful airplanes in the world. I'm a 53-year-old guy doing stuff teens dream about.”

Brown is an experimental test pilot: a special breed of aviator trained in engineering who test-flies experimental craft and then conveys the problems he encounters and his suggestions for improvements in terms that his earthbound counterparts can understand. Each world has its own language, Brown explains. ”Someone who's trained solely as a pilot would say, ’Yeah, it flew great.' An engineer would say, ’The short-period campaign is adequate.' As a test pilot, I'm able to translate between them.”

Having logged 7600 flight hours in 124 types of airplanes, he's been specializing in the US $150 million F-22 for the past six years, routinely traveling 18 000 meters above the ground at 2600 kilometers per hour and subjecting his body to 9 g's. Nothing on Earth quite compares, he says. ”I've cruised at Mach 2 and 60 000 feet, covering a mile every three seconds, watched the parallax from my plane's shock waves distort the Earth's features, stared at the blackness of space and the stars at noon, then looked at the horizon and saw the curvature of the Earth.”

Brown got his first taste of flying from his father, an amateur pilot, and dreamed of becoming an astronaut. After getting a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Virginia Military Institute, in Lexington, he entered the yearlong Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training program in 1977. From 1979 to 1985, he flew the F-4 Phantom II in Germany and the F-5E Tiger II in England.

Pursuing the astronaut dream, he enrolled in the competitive Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, a program that requires an engineering degree and that all aspiring astronaut pilots must complete. He went on to test-fly experimental military planes, along the way rising to the rank of major.

In 1991, Brown interviewed with Lockheed Martin to be a test pilot and was awaiting an opening when the cold war ended and the U.S. defense budget was slashed. He then spent two long years as a United Airlines pilot traversing North and Central America. ”After fighter jets, flying airliners wasn't in my blood,” he laughs. ”Let's just leave it at that.”

All the while, he kept applying to the NASA astronaut-training program. But his third rejection proved definitive. ”There was an electrocardiogram they didn't like, and they told me to go pound sand,” he says.

In late 1994, Lockheed finally had a job for him. He started with the Fâ''117 Nighthawk, the original stealth fighter, and then switched to the F-22. With the plane's avionics and capabilities well established, Brown's work tends toward modifying onboard computers, software, navigation systems, and weapons, assisting with the pilot interface of systems design, and translating between the pilots and engineers.

Despite the planes being far along in their development, there's still a constant danger that something could go seriously, sometimes fatally, wrong.

”Yes, I've lost friends, but I look at it pragmatically,” he says. ”There are engineering reasons why fate caught up with you.” Every accident is extensively studied so as to learn from those mistakes, he notes. ”We all accept that the job is risky, but if we can't eliminate the risk, then we work diligently to reduce it.”

Twelve-hour days are typical. Flying days can start as early as 5 a.m. with a 90-minute premission briefing, followed by an hour of preflight tests, a 3½-hour flight with eight midair refuelings, and an hour of debriefing. Then Brown stumbles to his desk to sift through e-mails and write a flight report. He also finds time to speak at local schools, using aviation to illustrate the importance of setting goals, working hard, and avoiding distractions.

When he's not in the air, Brown's vehicle of choice is a fairly unsexy 2003 maroon Pontiac Grand Am. The ground-hugging engineering crew may drive Corvettes, he says, but the test pilots ”tend to drive sensible cars because we have nothing to prove.”

Of course, there are times when it's useful to pull out the fighter pilot chutzpah. Brown managed to avoid a speeding ticket that way. ”The officer looked at me and said, ’What are you, a jet pilot?' And I said, ’Well, as a matter of fact….' He was laughing so hard, he let me go.”