Meet the Test Pilot: Wayne Altman
Wayne Altman was an Air Force and National Guard pilot, a pharmacist and a small-business owner before coming to Gulfstream in the late 1980s. He recently retired from Gulfstream as a senior production test pilot, a job where he flew production aircraft and evaluated flight systems prior to final delivery. Altman, one of six initial test pilots in the Gulfstream GV program, is the first person to hold all the Gulfstream large-cabin type ratings, from the Gulfstream I to the G650. Altman talked to Nonstop about his passion for aviation, advances in avionics, and which of those rumors about pilots are true.
NS: How did a boy from Baxley, Georgia, end up a senior production test pilot at Gulfstream?
Altman: Well, it definitely wasn’t planned. As a kid, I built airplane models and they were hanging all over the ceiling of my room. I never thought I could do something like fly airplanes, though. I went to Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, where I earned a degree with a science concentration. All along, it was my plan to do scientific research at the CDC [Centers for Disease Control].
One day, I was playing cards with a fraternity brother and he turned to me and said, “Why don’t we drive down to Warner Robins [Georgia] and join the Air Force? We’d get to fly jets.” So, we went to the recruiter’s office and took the test. I truthfully had forgotten about it until two or three weeks later when someone called to offer me a spot in Officer Training School and Navigator Training. I told the guy that I wasn’t interested in navigator school; I wanted to go to pilot school. They agreed, and I started flight school.
I spent five and a half years in the Air Force, and when I got out, the airlines just weren’t hiring. My wife suggested that I apply to pharmacy school, so I applied to the University of Georgia and was accepted. To make ends meet—my wife and I had a child by that time—I flew for the Georgia Air National Guard.
After pharmacy school, I purchased a drugstore in Louisville, Georgia. I owned the business for eight years, and could see that little town was drying up and dying off, so I sold the store to one of my employees. That’s when I came to Savannah, Georgia, and flew in-flight test for the Guard.
During that time, a friend of mine who was working on the GIV flight test program called me up one Thursday and asked if I wanted to work at Gulfstream.
I said, “Sure. When do you want me to be there?” He said, “Monday.” I started working at Gulfstream on a contract basis, and was finally hired full time in January 1989.
NS: What spurred your interest in aviation?
Altman: My father ran a farm supply company in Baxley, Georgia, and there used to be this guy who’d come into the store who flew one of those old bi-wing Stearman crop-dusters. He’d come back from flying with pine boughs caught in his landing gear and I thought that was the coolest thing.
NS: You’re the first person to hold all the Gulfstream large-cabin type ratings, from the GI to the G650. How did that come about?
Altman: There was a corrosion control program going on at Gulfstream’s Brunswick, Georgia, site and John O’Meara [director, Flight Test] needed someone to get a GI type rating. When he asked who wanted to get their GI type rating, everyone around me put their head down or looked to the side, and I was the only one who happened to unwittingly make eye contact with John. He said, “You’re it, Wayne!”
I went through the training and I had to take my check ride in a customer aircraft, because GIs were pretty scarce at Gulfstream by then. We loaned the customer the use of a GII so I could complete my check ride in their GI, which took all of an hour and a half. And that hour and a half is all the time I ever logged on a GI.
I got my GIV type rating first, then the GII, GIII and GV. I was one of six initial test pilots in the GV program. I got my G650 type rating on October 26, 2012.
NS: What’s your favorite thing about flying and being a test pilot?
Altman: Variety. You don’t get bored. I get to do something different every day. You’ll learn that most pilots don’t like desk jobs.
NS: What’s the biggest misconception about test pilots?
Altman: The biggest misconception about test pilots is that we’re fearless. People don’t realize how much planning and review goes into test flights to make sure every flight is as safe as possible. It’s a lot of work.
NS: Which rumors are true?
Altman: [Laughing] Oh, that we’re all handsome and charming.
NS: Computers, automation and avionics have advanced so much from the GI to the G650. What are the advantages and disadvantages?
Altman: To be honest with you, I don’t know of any disadvantages. We’ve gone from those tiny old attitude indicators to the integrated computerized flat screen avionics of the G650. It’s all good and getting better all the time. It makes flying safer.
NS: How has pilot training changed from the GI to the G650?
Altman: A pilot can now get his or her type rating all in a simulator without ever flying the aircraft, although it’s not advisable to do that. The biggest part of being a pilot now is learning how to be a computer operator, whereas before you were flying by the seat of your pants, literally! Today, engines are more dependable, and the safety culture has grown and permeated every aspect of the job.
NS: How did your military experiences and career as a pharmacist impact your later life as a test pilot?
Altman: The discipline I gained from the Air Force training was very helpful, and pharmacy school required a lot of study. Both of those traits are essential for good test pilots.
NS: What’s next for you?
Altman: Believe it or not, I just got my single-engine checkout. I recently purchased a Nanchang CJ-6, an aircraft designed and built in China for use by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force as a basic trainer. It still has the original paint job on it, with the red star and red band. I’ll be renovating that, and then I can take you up for a flight when it’s ready!
NS: Let’s hear your best pilot joke.
Altman: What’s the difference between God and pilots? God never thinks he’s a pilot.
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