Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America

From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite Summer 2009

Colonel Christopher C. Sullivan, Commanding Officer, US Army Aviation Technical Test Center

Colonel Sullivan served his first tour as an experimental test pilot at the US Army Aviation Technical Test Center (ATTC) in 1994 working on Apache and drone Huey/Cobra programs.  Today, he leads the busy test organization responsible for airworthiness qualification and systems testing on all Army aircraft.  ATTC has more than 450 people assigned including approximately 50 experimental test pilots (XPs).  Some of those pilots are deployed with Combat Aviation Brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan and will bring combat insight to the Apache Longbow Block III and other ongoing test programs.   Colonel Sullivan notes, “The way you evaluate an aircraft today must be closely linked to the tactics that are being employed in-theater.  And the only way to know is to go.”

The ATTC commander explains, “The single most important thing XPs do is apply mission-relation to the evaluation of a system or an aircraft.  They have to connect the theoretical or mathematical engineer-speak with the practical.  In order to do that, they have to understand the mission of that aircraft or that system that they’re evaluating.  They have to have fought it.  They have to have flown it in an operational sense.”

As the son of a surface Navy officer, Chris Sullivan was born in Bremerton, Washington and grew up in Jacksonville, Florida.  Commander Harold Sullivan commanded five Navy ships during his career but steered his sons to Army commissions at the US Military Academy.  “My father pushed us there because he spent so much time at sea, and it detracted from the family,” says Colonel Sullivan.  

West Point offered the future Army test pilot a general engineering education with elective concentrations.  Colonel Sullivan recalls, “There were aero components in the curriculum, but my focus was in chemistry.  My brother went to medical school right out of the Academy, and I thought that’s what I wanted to do too.”  The cadet sophomore changed direction after a summer camp ride in an OH-58.  “I figured I could go to medical school later, but I couldn’t always fly.”

With a bachelor’s degree and orders for flight school, Second Lieutenant Sullivan was commissioned in 1981 in the field artillery. (Army Aviation was not yet a dedicated branch of the service.)  Officer’s basic school at Fort Sill, Oklahoma preceded flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama.  Graduation from flight school sent the newly-qualified OH-58 pilot to an attack helicopter company at Fort Ord, California.  

  A subsequent tour as an aeroscout instructor pilot at Fort Rucker introduced the possibility of becoming a test pilot.  “I realized that I wanted to go to Test Pilot School when I was an Instructor Pilot,” says Colonel Sullivan.  “One of the other instructors – later one of the Army’s Comanche test pilots, CW4 John Armbrust -- was talking about applying to the Naval Test Pilot School.  I didn’t know anything about it until I had that conversation with him.  It sounded like a good deal, and I had an engineering bend, so I thought, ‘I’ll apply.’”

  Four years later, after a subsequent assignment to Korea and two years at the Naval Postgraduate School to earn a masters’ degree, the Army aviator was selected for the US Naval Test Pilot School.  NTPS at Patuxent River, Maryland afforded flying opportunities in a range of rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft from the little TH-6 helicopter to the four-engined C-141 jet transport.  “The flight that everyone remembers is the autorotation assessment,” says Colonel Sullivan.   “You fly to the edges of that H-V [height-velocity] curve in the OH-58.  Everyone remembers that flight because your senses are so heightened.” 

Just as important as engineering and piloting skills, NTPS taught lasting lessons about the test process.   “The first thing is you’ve got to work as a team,” observes Colonel Sullivan.  “That’s similar to being a line pilot. . .You fight together as a team, but you also test as a team in that you have a guy sitting next to you or behind you in the cockpit.  You have flight test engineers either on the ground or in the aircraft with you, protecting you -- they’re telling you when to knock it off.  You’ve also got a whole host of technicians, maintenance people, and data reduction people supporting the test.  It takes that whole team to complete a successful test program.”

NTPS also taught the role of the test pilot.   According to Colonel Sullivan, “It’s not good enough, for example, to say that a flight control system holds you within plus-or-minus two degrees in yaw in diving flight.  An engineer could look at a strip chart and tell you that. The crucial question is why is holding that parameter so precisely important?  What effect does that have on the weapon system, on pilot workload?  What effect does that have on overall system performance?  That’s what a test pilot does, and that’s what I learned at Test Pilot School.”

The Pax River graduate went  on to the Army Aviation Technical Test Center at Fort Rucker and teamed with Honeywell engineers on a Universal Drone Control System for the White Sands target fleet and a planned Hokum-X threat simulator. Colonel Sullivan recalls, “The flight control system actually worked to control a Cobra or a Huey through a range of flight profiles from a takeoff to a landing.”

Three years at ATTC led to a new assignment to the Army Aero flight dynamics Directorate (AFDD) at NASA Ames Research Center.  Unfortunately, the timing coincided with the exodus of the unique NASA test fleet from Ames’ Moffett Field to Dryden Flight Research Center. The small AFDD test operation remaining at Ames had only two UH-60s and an AH-1. “We were able to restart the flight operation there under an Army flag,” explains Colonel Sullivan.  “We worked on validating the ADS-33 handling specification in flight on one of the UH-60s and then on validating the data collection tools that were used to analyze flight control issues with aircraft.”  Colonel Sullivan adds, “They’re using those tools right now on the UH-60M Upgrade program.”

The AFDD test experience ended with a re-assignment to ATTC as commander of the Flight Test Directorate at Fort Rucker in the relatively quiet times around the fall of 1999.  The Comanche test program at West Palm Beach, Florida had only modest Army involvement.  However, the Joint Shipboard Integration Process – J-SHIP – that put Black Hawks, Apaches, Chinooks, and Kiowa Warriors on Navy ships launched an important new round of testing in 2000.  A full Airworthiness and Flying Characteristics program for the MH-6M Mission Enhanced Little Bird gave ATTC added momentum in 2001.   “That really served as a break-out program for the unit in terms of developing our capability,” says Colonel Sullivan.  

“We just built on our success from there.  We’ve gone from having limited capability to really being an amazing place to work now with our people, our capability, and our infrastructure -- and success begets success.”   Colonel Sullivan notes, “We have very little trouble now finding young, energetic engineers who want to do test work. We have an exciting mission. We are involved with weapons systems going straight to the field.  A young engineer can come here and do hands-on work and affect something that’s going straight into the hands of an aviator in theater.”

ATTC at Fort Rucker today remains the airworthiness qualification and airborne systems flight test authority for all Army aircraft throughout their lifecycles.  “We’re focused in two areas,” explains Colonel Sullivan.  “One is the current fight, the systems we’ve got to qualify right now for the combat theater.  The other is the long-term aviation transformation.”  For Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, ATTC testers helped field and de-bug the Common Missile Warning System (CMWS) on rotary and fixed-wing aircraft.  They verified the airworthiness of new Apache infrared exhaust suppressors and have similar tests underway for the Black Hawk and Chinook.  To meet an immediate need for a more reliable weapon, ATTC did a rapid, partial airworthiness qualification for the new MP3 machine gun now deployed on some OH-58D Kiowa Warriors.  “It took less than two months from ‘go’ to shooting bad guys with the thing,” notes Colonel Sullivan.  Full qualification of the gun begins soon.

Farther-reaching transformational programs include testing the new UH-60M Baseline, UH-60M Upgrade, CH-47F, and AH-64D Block III helicopters with new dynamics and new systems. According to Colonel Sullivan, “All of these programs we do in a Combined Test Team fashion. That means we team with the OEMs, share the cockpits, the engineering requirements, and the data to reduce the test cycle time and to save money.” Despite the cancellation of the ARH-70, the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter program was a notable Combined Test Team success.

 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) plans will consolidate ATTC with the Redstone Technical Test Center fully in 2011.  The move to Redstone Arsenal, Alabama puts ATTC in close proximity to the Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM), the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC), the Program Executive Officer - Aviation, and NASA researchers. “You’re going to have this huge grouping of engineering talent,” says Colonel Sullivan.  “General Myles has coined the phrase Aviation Technology Center of Excellence.  We will become part of that, and flight testing, I believe, will grow there tremendously.”

ATTC today does about half of its test work at contractor facilities or other off-site locations.   “The Air Force and the Navy have their programs brought to their single-site test facilities.  I think that BRAC is going to enable the establishment of a single-site Army flight test facility,” says Colonel Sullivan.  “When you have the prototypers right next to the testers, that’s powerful.  I see a lot more Combined Test Team operations. I see a lot more partnership with the folks at Redstone.”

ATTC remains a reimbursable organization paid by Army Program Managers for testing.  “The PMs can go to anybody they want to get developmental testing done,” observes Colonel Sullivan.  “Essentially, we have to earn their business.”  Despite improved analytical tools and simulation, flight testing remains essential.   “The guys out at Ames and elsewhere have great tools to predict the way a helicopter is going to fly. But, helicopters are non-linear things, and you never know when you’re going to reach some non-linearity. In the end, you’ve got to go out and get that last test point. You just can’t predict it.”

ATTC test pilots meanwhile add unique value to the test process.  Colonel Sullivan says, “The thing that I’m most proud of in this command is four-and-a-half years ago, we deployed our first experimental test pilot with a combat aviation brigade.  Since that time, we have had a continuous presence in-theater.”  One ATTC pilot is currently evaluating VUIT-2 (Video from Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Interoperability Teaming Level II) in the field and will lend operational expertise to Apache Longbow Block III development and testing; another is gathering lessons learned from the first UH-60M combat deployment. “The test pilots are adding so much to the combat aviation brigades over there, it’s really hard to overstate it.  And I think it has dramatically improved the product that we are able to create here because we have a greater ability to mission-relate. Why is it important the Army have military test pilots? It’s because our unique training allows us to answer the question why is this system or aircraft capable of performing its mission.”