June, 1974, Canadian Aviation
Robert H. Fowler, Chief Engineering Test Pilot at de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd. for the past 14 years, has been awarded the 1973 Trans-Canada (McKee) Trophy, Canada’s highest award in aviation.
The Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute cited Fowler primarily for his efforts in assisting in the development of STOL operating criteria and flight programs. Also cited was his research in the human factors involved, along with the development of flight controls and propeller systems.
“Mr. Fowler’s ability to perceive problems and communicate with his engineering associates have made his contributions invaluable in the design and development of Canadian aircraft,” the citation read.
Fowler took his first flying lesson in a J-3 Cub at Toronto’s old Barker Field in 1939 and has since piled up more than 11,000 hours in about 65 types of aircraft. Fourteen months after that first flight, but with only six hours in his logbook, Fowler soloed.
“It involved a lot of fibbing every time I went back to Barker Field to try to book another half hour…to try and give them the impression that it was only last week and not four months ago that I had been there for the last half hour,” he joked in an interview. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget riding up Dufferin Street on a bicycle, parking the bike behind a hangar, taking the bicycle clip from my pants and putting it in my pocket, and then shaking out the pant leg to look very operational as I walked inside the hangar.”
He joined the RCAF in 1942 and flew 48 missions over Europe in twin-engine bombers on day and night, low- and medium-level raids. After the war, he studied law for a year and then went back to airplanes, flying a Grumman Goose for an oil company and then modified Lockheed P-38s at 35,000 ft. on high-level photographic missions for a survey company.
Fowler joined de Havilland in 1952 as a Test Pilot, Sales. “But I wasn’t there for very long before I realized that it was much easier to be called a test pilot than to actually be one.”
His engineering test flying began with the latter stages of the Caribou flight test program. After that, he was heavily involved with the modulated jet thrust system installed on a single engine Otter, first flight of the prototype General Electric T64 engines and, following that came the Turbo Beaver, Buffalo, Twin Otter in land, sea and ski versions, and most recently the augmenter wing Buffalo with Boeing and NASA.
Like most test pilots, Fowler is reticent to talk about the job. To them, test flying is just a job, albeit a sometimes exciting one. As he put it, “The amount of risk that is actually undertaken is so clearly understood these days as compared with years ago that now this well-directed test flying is almost relegated to the point where the unexpected shows up so seldom that the whole undertaking is much more procedural than it used to be.”
Fowler recalled the initial testing of the Twin Otter floatplane. The original floats were mounted a little too far aft and the extreme C of G positions produced “some pretty impressive porpoising.”
“As we’d increase speed after applying take-off power, the airplane, without any help from the pilot, would start an oscillatory pitching motion at about one cycle every second. In the pitch down we’d sometimes wonder if we were going to end up at the bottom of Toronto Harbour.”
Moving the floats a few inches forward solved the problem and today the Twin Otter is one of the most successful float conversions ever produced.
When a problem does occur in test flying, the test pilot must often decide himself when the cut-off point has been reached. “You can’t be too conservative about this, either, because some things can get to pretty alarming levels and still be quite recoverable.”
A test pilot must do with an airplane all he possibly can to make sure that he understands what it is likely to do, or what potential it has for getting into difficulties, before the airplane ever gets into the hands of an operational pilot.
“But let’s face it, in the end, the operational pilot really knows more about the operational capabilities of his airplane than any test pilot ever knows, because he is the ultimate user. He knows what he can put into that airplane and still take it in and out of certain places.”
“The test pilot’s responsibility is to make very sure that nothing will have been missed in the development of the airplane that could lead to any serious handling difficulties.”
This article originally appeared in the June, 1974 edition of Canadian Aviation magazine.