Have a plane, it will fly: Lockheed Martin’s chief test pilot lives the dream

Andrew Soundy wanted to fly since he was a little boy growing up in England.


Your office is a cockpit and you could be moving faster than the speed of sound hundreds of miles offshore over the Pacific Ocean or, with the push of a button, floating in place over the scorching California desert.

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Not a bad job for a boy who grew up in England dreaming of one day flying into the wild blue beyond.

Andrew Soundy is Lockheed Martin’s lead test pilot for its $80 million US F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. It’s a job he’s had for eight years and one he’ll always be grateful for.

“Literally flying the best plane in the world right now at 56 (years old),” said Soundy, who is in town for the Abbotsford Air Show.

Once it’s tied down, it’s like the plane is an extension of itself.

“For me, flying the F-35 is not like getting on the plane. It’s like I put it on.”

Canada is in talks with Lockheed Martin to possibly purchase 88 of the F-35s.

Helmets are custom fitted to each pilot and plug directly into the jet, and all tactical displays project onto the helmet screen. While the underside of the plane isn’t actually transparent, it could well be because the exterior cameras make it look like you can look through the floor to the field directly below you.

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“Just beautiful widescreen displays right in front of you,” Soundy said. “And from a driving perspective, it’s like a dream.”

For tests over the Pacific, Soundy will fly for half an hour from Edwards Air Force Base near Los Angeles, accompanied by a tanker truck for mid-air refueling, and then push the aircraft envelope, with the afterburner on full blast. , For a few hours. before returning.

“All the power… I wouldn’t have it otherwise.”

He’s in the cabin for the time it takes to fly from Vancouver to Maui.

“Only you’re not just sitting around watching a movie, you’re pushing the plane hard the whole time.”

Soundy was not the first civilian to fly the F-35, but he was the first civilian pilot to graduate from F-35 training at Eglin Air Force Base in North Florida.

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He’s wanted to fly since he was a little boy and made his first solo flight at age 16 in England in a glider with the Air Training Corp. He got his pilot’s license from Royal Roads at 19, before he could legally drive a car. .

Sitting by the sea in a Coal Harbor restaurant, the conversation ranged from Top Gun (“It’s entertainment. There are bits of it based on reality”), how he moved his wife Melanie from San Diego to the Canadian Forces Base in Cold Lake, Alta. , then promptly returned to Southern California and Edwards Air Force Base on her own (“The lovely lady is still with me”), how wonderful and gratifying it was to see the joy on her daughter Morgan’s face the first time she she saw it zip. for 100 meters from the ground and going at 800 kilometers per hour with the afterburner on (“she cried a little seeing what dad does”).

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The best real guns like Soundy, well let him explain:

“The control tower is watching you. I did some research on building heights in downtown Vancouver and from what I could see the average building height is about 500 feet.

“We are flying down to 100 feet. Imagine, that’s like the fifth floor level or something. If you’re on the upper floors, you’re looking down at an airplane (traveling near the speed of sound).”

The plane has experienced bizarre engine fires, crashes and other accidents, including a death after a Japanese pilot on a training run over the Pacific in 2019 radioed that he was aborting the drill and was never heard from again. .

Debris from his plane confirmed an accident. His body was found two months later.

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Soundy said he has never had such close calls.

It’s just shy of 100 hours on the F-35, which first flew eight years ago. The aircraft tops out at 700 knots, or about 1,300 kilometers per hour. Pilots wear a ribbed G-force suit because the plane can pull nine G’s into turns: blood has a hard time circulating, tunnel vision sets in, and the pilot weighs nine times what he would weigh if he were standing on solid ground.

For the 175-pound Soundy, nine Gs have it weighing in around 1,600 pounds. By comparison, the world highest g-force experienced on a roller coaster is the Tower of Terror in South Africa, which reaches 6.3 Gs.

Soundy’s job isn’t just flying, he also puts his engineering background to work, and every subtle improvement that’s made to the F-35, that’s a small part of him on that plane.

“It is not a normal race, in any way. You don’t plan these things, they happen, your life unfolds,” Soundy said. “It’s how I met my wife and why I have the loving family that I have now.

“We’re in the desert there at Edwards and I get to fly an amazing plane every day. Flying an F-35 at Edwards Air Force Base when I was a kid who wanted to fly, and here I am doing it.”

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