Test Pilot, Dick Newman, Fails Retirement

March 11, 2011

By Madeleine Kolb

Some people are lucky to know exactly what career path they want to take and are able to turn their interests and hobbies into a living. It is no wonder that people like this have a hard time leaving a job that is so much a part of who they are. As Dick Newman, a lifelong pilot says, “I’m failing retirement.”

When Dick Newman was 16, he started flying lessons. While his high-school classmates were learning to drive, Dick was learning to fly. In fact, he got his pilot’s license before he got his driver’s license. It was the first step in what was to become his life’s work.

A Passion For Flying

Fifty-plus years later, Dick is still flying and has decades of aviation experience. He’s been an airline pilot, taught Safety Engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, and worked in the FAA’s airplane certification group in Seattle.

In 1974, he received a Master’s Degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Purdue and in 1994 completed requirements for a PhD.  His thesis was based on research done under contract to the U.S. Air Force. The following year his book Head-Up Displays: Designing the Way Ahead, based on that research, was published.

Mostly, though, he’s worked as a test pilot–evaluating whether a new airplane was safe for pilots to fly. His clients were airlines, airplane manufacturers, and federal agencies, including the FAA, NASA, and the Department of Defense.

The Real Life of a Test Pilot

Pilot with planeHere’s how Dick describes it, “Don’t believe what you see in the movies. If you do it right, being a test pilot is really boring.” By that he means that it’s precise and exacting work. True enough, but some of his jobs sound anything but boring.

One of his jobs was evaluating airplane performance in the U.S., Chile, and the north Atlantic by doing something that pilots normally go out of their way to avoid. That is looking for weather conditions which cause ice to form on an airplane and intentionally flying into it see how the airplane performs.

Another one of his stories started when he received a Cessna 150 two-seater airplane as payment from a client who was short on money and used it to fly from Ohio to Brazil. There he was part of an international team working for the Brazilian equivalent of the FAA, then certifying its first airplane.

Technically, getting to Brazil by flying alone in a small airplane was not part of the job. It was Dick’s idea which he threw out while schmoozing with other pilots one day. One of them said, “You can’t do that,” citing the risk of piranha-infested waters and other unspeakable dangers. That’s all it took for Dick to decide that he could and would do it.

Even to plan such a trip was a formidable effort, given the number of separate government jurisdictions and associated paperwork, currencies, and languages, to contend with at airports where he planned to refuel.

In June 1984, he took off with ten pounds of maps and an auxiliary fuel-tank in place of the passenger seat. He was well-prepared, but no one could anticipate such events as landing to fuel at Suriname (formerly named Dutch Guinea) in the middle of an insurrection and being surrounded by teenage boys armed with AK-47s.

After surviving that terrifying experience he moved to Ottawa, Ontario for several years with his then-wife and young son Jim to work for Transport Canada as a flight-test engineer. He very much enjoyed his work there and did not mind at all the absence of flesh-eating fish or armed rebellion.

Flying small aircraft always carries a certain amount of risk but one time a plane crash probably saved his life. At the time he was flying a Cessna 206 to the Patuxent (Pax) River Naval Air Station in Maryland for a flight test meeting and calibration of the airplane. As he flew over Chesapeake Bay heading for the base, the airplane’s engine threw a connecting rod. In Dick’s words, “When I heard a noise and the cabin filled with smoke, I said ‘Oh, dear.’”

He called Air Traffic Control at the base to report the problem. There wasn’t time to make it to land, and Dick had to ditch the airplane in the bay. Since he can barely swim, Dick was greatly relieved to see U.S. Navy helicopters hovering overheard. Terrifying as this experience was, it may haved saved his life since Dick was to fly that very airplane across the Atlantic Ocean in a few weeks.

Dick Fails Retirement

Through all the dangerous and terrifying experiences, Dick has always loved his work. He’s passionate about flying and making airplanes safe. It’s that passion that keeps him from retiring. And when he does manage to retire from one job, he quickly gets another and goes right back to work. The technical term for this, he says is a “failed retirement.”

The most recent example of a failed retirement was when he retired in March, 2009 from his job with the FAA’s airplane certification group in Seattle. Not even a year later he began a job at Pax River in January, 2010. He’s a true “graybeard,” working on certification of Navy airplanes and approval of unmanned aircraft as well as teaching at the base’s test-pilot school.

But It’s Not All Work

Dick loves hockey. These days he enjoys watching the game on TV and says he’s working on becoming a fan of the Washington Capitals. In college he played intramural hockey and refereed high school games. Dick readily admits that he was never very good at it and that his only Hockey Claim to Fame is that one of his college coaches went on to coach Gordy Howe of the Detroit Red Wings. Dick recalls driving from Indianapolis to Detroit in the 1970’s with his son Jim to see Howe play. Unfortunately, Jim was killed in a car accident when he was 18.

Dick is still flying his Cessna 150 for fun. Last spring he returned to Seattle to get the airplane, left behind when he drove to the Pax River area to begin his job. In 3 1/2 days, he flew across the Rocky Mountains and on to Maryland, racing ahead of fierce thunderstorms.

He also travels for pleasure–and since airline travel offers so little of that these days–he takes the train when he can. In October, 2010, he took a commercial flight to San Francisco to participate in an aging pilot study. He returned on AMTRAK’s California Zephyr through the spectacularly scenic Sierra Nevada, across the Rocky Mountains, and on to Chicago. From there he took the Capital Limited to Washington, DC.

What Next?

There is plenty of work to be done in aviation. It’s possible that Dick will change his specific focus, perhaps doing more writing and less of something else. Perhaps he’ll reduce his hours, but these days he plans to keep on keeping on. Retirement just doesn’t work for him.

Madeleine KolbAbout the Author: Madeleine started her blog, Age Myths, after noticing her experiences with aging were different than the depressing stereotypes usually associated with growing older.

She has degrees in zoology and genetics and worked in the environmental field for 20 years. She then returned to school for a certificate in Technical Writing and worked as a technical writer for a federal agency.

She now lives in Maryland with her boyfriend and has a passion for cooking healthy food, exercising, reading, birdwatching, and writing. She has been active in Toastmasters for 10 years and is currently an Advanced Toastmaster Gold.

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