Mark is part of the G-force team - 9Gs in fact...

Mark Holton of BAE Systems
Mark Holton of BAE Systems
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When it comes to getting the job done, there’s no-one faster than Fylde Flight Test Engineer Mark Holton.

For while most of the Flight Test team at BAE Systems’ site in Warton get no closer to jet fighters than analysing their data, Mark sees life at the sharp end of the business.

He is the only civilian in the UK qualified to sit in the back of the cockpit during gruelling test flights of the aircraft, as BAE Systems pilots put some of the world’s most advanced combat and training jets through their paces.

As a highly specialised Flight Test Observer, he has sat in the back of 95 test flights in the past three years, experiencing test runs on Hawk and Typhoon first hand.

As the test pilots examine how the aircraft handle low-level flying, 9G pulls or rapid descent, Mark is there to look at how they are performing from an engineering point of view, which could include shooting video, watching radar displays or watching how adjacent aircraft are performing and what improvements need to be made.

And the 37-year-old, from Fylde, who has worked as an engineer at Warton for more than 13 years, says not only does he feel privileged to take on the unique role, even the training is out of the ordinary.

He said: “I was recommended for the job. It is all around how you interact with the pilots - when they are up there pulling those kinds of speeds, they need to trust you.

“Once you get recommended you do a series of training exercises and that in itself is interesting because most people are used to work training courses being boring, but pretty much all the courses we do just show you how to stay alive.

“We will go to the Fleetwood Offshore Survival Centre where we will get dressed in full flying kit and get hung off a five metre diving board, in the dark, with a wave machine on. Then they drop you in and pull a parachute over you and you have to get yourself into a life raft.

“Then there’s the hyperbaric oxygen chamber at Boscombe Down, where they simulate high altitude and you get to know your own limits as to when you become hypoxic.

“We also do various parachute drills and desert survival. We don’t learn how to fly the aircraft, but we get similar training to the pilots in survival.

“There is no real similar role anywhere else. Everyone else flying in the back of jets tend to be RAF personnel. It is an amazing opportunity.”

The role was something of a lifelong dream for Mark, who flew with his father in small aircraft from the age of eight years old and harboured dreams of becoming a commercial pilot until he was told his eyesight was not good enough.

“I went cold turkey on flying for a while after that,” he added. “It’s ironic that 20 years later I’m flying in the back of jet fighters.

“The first couple of flights you do are a real shock to the body. Usually you will do a ‘work-up’, so you start off in a propeller plane and then a Hawk and finally a Typhoon.

“But when I did my first flight none of the other planes were available, so my first flight was in a Typhoon. It took a couple of days to recover from that.

“There is nothing to compare it to, the performance of the Typhoon is just incredible. We do reheat take-offs, where one minute you are stationary and eight or nine seconds later you are flying vertically, looking back at the runway.

“At 3G the trousers in the suit start to inflate to allow blood to get to your head, then the jacket inflates, then at 6G you are getting air squeezed into your lungs. It keeps you conscious but it is nothing like your body has experienced before.”

Away from the cockpit, Mark, who came to BAE Systems after studying aeronautical engineer at London’s City University, is part of a highly skilled team of test flight engineers based at Warton.

“Whenever we upgrade anything on an aircraft we are presented with the product and it is our role to work out the best way to test it.

“We try to become the specialists so we can brief the pilots and then understand any problems and feed them back to the designers,” he adds.

“The pilots will give us feedback and we will also analyse reams of data on performance.

“We also now tend to introduce the product to the RAF and other customers. It makes the timescales a lot shorter and ensures we give them the product they want.”