Saturday, May 1, 2004
Experimental Aircraft Expert
Ken George spent most of his aviation career in the defense industry where he got to do what many mechanics only dream of: work on experimental and prototype aircraft.
His experience working on military aircraft reads like a laundry list from a Jane's All the World's Aircraft and his resume is full of defense industry contractors with which he has shared his expertise. But it all started with his service in the U.S. Air Force.
George followed his father's footsteps and joined the Air Force from 1977 until 1984. During his tenure, he worked on F111Fs at a base in England, FB111s at Strategic Air Command, and, in his last two years as an enlisted man, he worked on the F117 stealth fighter (long before the military ever admitted it even existed).
After his discharge from the Air Force, George got his start in the defense industry on the flight line as an hourly employee doing final operational checks and equipment installations before the first flight at Northrop Grumman.
George spent several years at Northrop's Nevada test site-also known as "Dreamland" or "Area 51"-working on Air Force flight tests. He flew on an unmarked Boeing 737 back and forth to work every day. George's time there exposed him to many prototypes and developmental aircraft, but before long he would begin traveling all over the world to military bases to test new aircraft.
That happened when George took a salaried position as a tech rep at General Dynamics (now Lockheed Martin) where he worked on the F-16 program worldwide for eight years. He also worked at Edwards Air Force Base testing B2 stealth bombers and watched the competitions between the YF22 and the YF23. Of course, the YF22 won the competition and is now known as the F22 Raptor that is currently in production.
"The F22 had never been flown," George recalled. "It had all sorts of new technology and new weapons, like fourth-generation stealth technology, super cruise on the engines, and thrust vectoring flight controls. That's what I liked about the defense industry. That's where all the new gee-whiz, high tech toys come from."
From Edwards he landed in Germany for 18 months to test the then-new F-16. "Overseas bases would receive the airplanes with about 20 hours of flight time," said George, who has been stationed in England, Greece, Scotland, Canada, Germany, and beyond. "We worked with the pilots and the maintenance people to help them get familiar with the new systems."
When he was in Germany working for Lockheed in 1994, George was sent to Turkey on several occasions as part of the Provide Comfort campaign, a post-Iraq program sponsored by the U.S. Air Force in Europe that enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq.
"The Air Force was flying over the northern Iraq no-fly zone trying to keep Saddam Hussein from bombing the Turkish Kurds," he said. "There was danger and excitement that I can't talk about. I was introduced to the local Kurdish terrorists my second day there. They blew up a chunk of the main water line going into a base there at Incirlik. So I was without running water for most of the time I was there, living on bottled water."
Major layoffs in the defense industry forced George to hang up his flight-testing goggles and trade them for maintenance tools. George joined Banyan Air Service in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida as an avionics technician about four years ago. George is adjusting to the sharp contrast between government and private-sector work.
"In the defense industry your client is the military and you are dealing with the maintenance personnel and the pilots," said George. But in the civilian world things are different. "In general aviation you are dealing with the owners of the aircraft themselves; small Cessna 172s owned by some guy that bought the airplane 10 years ago and flies it on the weekends, up to corporate customers."
George has had a full career of seeing the latest and greatest long before the general public, having worked on aircraft for at least a dozen different governments from Israel and Pakistan to Taiwan and Venezuela, just to name a few. His experience in the defense industry has left him well prepared to work on the new-fangled technology found in modern airplanes. For example, George notes that GPS systems were once reserved for military aircraft but can be found in most light airplanes today, along with color map displays. For George, he still gets a thrill out of all the gee-whiz technology, no matter who is flying the airplane.
Airplanes have been a constant in George's life. "I've always loved airplanes," he said. "I've always worked on airplanes and I probably always will work on airplanes."