The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) research aircraft Falcon celebrates its 40th anniversary. In this interview DLR test pilot Philipp Weber explains what makes the Falcon so attractive and why it became the only aircraft to fly over Europe after the eruption of the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull volcano in spring 2010.
Falcon took to the skies for the first time 40 years ago today. It left the French aircraft manufacturer Dassault and headed to DLR Flight Operations in Oberpfaffenhofen. How is it that this aircraft is still being used for research to this day?
Yes, Falcon is celebrating its 40th anniversary today. However, it has completed very few flight hours in that time – just over 9000 in fact. If you divide that by 40, that is very little for an aircraft. We don't use Falcon for scheduled flights anymore, only research flights. In other words, we do not fly every day. So, this means that we have a lot more time between flight campaigns to conduct more intense care and maintenance. That is precisely one of the reasons why DLR's entire research fleet is in excellent condition.
What makes THE Falcon so attractive?
Its design is from the late 50s, early 60s. In those days, aircraft were constructed without the help of highly precise computer calculations, and these calculations mean that every gram of weight can be saved. Unlike today’s, these aircraft were designed to be much larger and spacious, as well as stable.
Does that mean that the Falcon is more robust than today's aircraft?
The Falcon is almost like a tank. She is almost indestructible – well, at least the structure. This means that we can, for example, fly closely behind other aircraft without having to worry that the aircraft will get damaged in the process. Nevertheless, the aircraft still has to be thoroughly checked by our engineers after those kinds of flights. That is what the Falcon offer – when you fly in the Falcon you feel safe, even when the mission is risky.
When was the first time you flew in the Falcon, and how excited were you?
It was in 2008, and I wasn't really excited. Flying is not like passing your driving test. By that I mean, if you learn to drive in a Golf, you can also drive a sports car. But with flying, you have to undergo additional training for each type of aircraft. You have to practise and get familiar with the aircraft on a full time basis over the course of several weeks in a simulator. That way, you get to know the aircraft quite well before you even sit in a real cockpit for the first time. Despite that, I was very anxious about my first flight in the Falcon. I had never been in a jet before. Before the Falcon, I had been flying the Do 228 and the Caravan with DLR for eight years.
How did you get over being anxious?
First of all, you fly circuits and practise taking off and landing over and over again. I was surprised at how easy she was to fly. Even after eight years, I think that my first landing in the Falcon was probably one of the smoothest landings of my career. It was almost spectacularly unspectacular.
Does she still fly the same today?
Exactly the same. The Falcon is such a great aircraft; there are never any surprises. Of course, it's a relatively old aircraft, and that is most noticeable in the flight deck. If you compare the HALO flight deck with the Falcon's, they are worlds apart. HALO has state-of-the-art cockpit technology, numerous displays and few switches. The Falcon, on the other hand, is well and truly full of controls. If you are an inexperienced pilot looking into the Falcon's cockpit, the first thing you'll note is the many, many displays and switches. But, after intensive theory and simulator training, the fear quickly subsides.
When the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull shut down European airspace in 2010, the Falcon became known all around the world as the 'Volcano Ash Hunter'. You were one of the DLR pilots whose measurement flights led to the reopening of the airspace. What was it like being up in the sky alone?
We were practically the only people flying in European airspace. Other transport services were crazy. Under normal circumstances, air traffic controls have to concentrate a lot to coordinate several aircraft at the same time and guide them through their sector, or the airspace they have been allocated. But it was very relaxed and laid back when we were conducting the ash flights. Over the radio we heard "oh, yes, DCMET [the ID for the DLR Falcon], it's ok, you can proceed". It was quite strange.
Were you in the clouds, and could you see anything else?
Not exactly. During a later flight I only flew to England and the Channel Islands. But during the first few flights, my colleagues flew directly to the Icelandic volcano. Unlike Iceland, England was no longer covered by a single cloud. But the air was very dirty. There was a thick, brownish streak on the horizon. We didn't really fly through a thick, dark ash cloud; it was more of a dirty haze, which stretched across the whole sky. We then flew over the layer of ash, carefully dived into it, measured the composition of the air, and then flew back out. Thanks to the scientists and the measurements they were taking on board, we knew what kind of air mass we were flying in at all times. It was not something you could recognise with the naked eye.
How did you become a DLR test pilot?
It was quite exotic. I never really worked towards becoming a professional pilot. After finishing school and mandatory community service, I didn't get a place on a university course. I somehow found out that DLR was offering an apprenticeship for a radio electronics engineer. That's how I came to the DLR site in Oberpfaffenhofen.
I then saw a poster in the cafeteria about the DLR group for sports aviation. I mentioned it at home, and my dad was excited about it. So, we started flying together at DLR.
After finishing the apprenticeship, I was then able to get a place at university and studied computer science. I continued to fly a little bit on the side. While I was studying, I often worked at various DLR institutes thanks to the contacts I had there. In 1997, I was approached by Flight Operations and asked if I could programme a website for them. Being a computer science student, this was no problem. I then wrote my dissertation whilst I was at Flight Operations. I developed automated pressure calibration equipment for the five-hole probe on the Falcon's nose boom. Little did I know that just a few years later, I would be flying the Falcon.
What happened next?
At the time, I only had a private pilot's licence for power gliders. I took lessons and tests whilst I was studying for my degree. I now had my degree in computer sciences, and after a few frustrating rounds of applications with various IT companies, I then jokingly asked DLR if they were looking for another pilot. At the time, there were a few changes being made at DLR Flight Operations, which meant that new members of staff were needed.
So, I started working at Flight Operations as an IT manager and studied for the commercial pilot's licence on the side. A year and a half later, I became a pilot. That was 16 years ago. In mid-2009, I spent several months in the National Test Pilot School (NTPS) in Mojave, California, where I got my test pilot certification.
Was the flight through the volcano ash your most exciting one?
It was definitely one of the most exciting flights, yes. But I have also flown some other interesting campaigns. In addition to three flight campaigns in the Antarctic, which were spread out over several months using two Do 228 from the Alfred Wegener Institute, we were also in Palmdale [California] in 2014, where we carried out flight tests with NASA and the Canadian research council, NRC, on alternative fuels. That was extraordinary. During the flights, we flew very closely behind the NASA DC8, a four-engine passenger jet, so we could analyse fuel emissions. That really was something special. For the first one or two flights, I didn't really know what to expect. In those moments, your heart beats faster than it normally would.
But the campaign in New Zealand was also very impressive (LINK). Even the way there... as you board the Falcon in Oberpfaffenhofen, the feeling you get knowing you're flying to the other side of the world... it's intense. It was a great experience, even though the journey took a whole week and 10 stops to refuel ... (laughs).
Many thanks for the interview, and good luck on your future flights!