Working As A NASA And Air Force Test Pilot, With Greg Slover
J.R. Lowry is joined by his college mate and the best man at his wedding Greg Slover to share his experiences as a test pilot for NASA. He talks about going to four corners of the planet piloting aircraft for scientific research. Greg looks back on his favorite years and memories of serving as a Career Air Force Officer and how it influenced his leadership views. He also talks about his pilot training, the aircrafts he experienced flying, and what’s next for his career.
Check out the full series of "Career Sessions, Career Lessons" podcasts here or visit pathwise.io/podcast/. A full written transcript of this episode is also available at https://pathwise.io/podcasts/greg-slover/
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Working As A NASA And Air Force Test Pilot, With Greg Slover
Lt. Colonel, US Air Force (Retired)
My guest is Greg Slover, who was my college mate of two years, and the best man at my wedding. He is a test pilot for NASA, where he pilots aircraft conducting a wide range of research. Prior to joining NASA, he was a Lieutenant Colonel and a pilot in the Air Force. In his years in the military, Greg flew tanker aircraft, led and instructed other pilots, performed operational leadership roles in aviation and program management, and he also spent time as a test pilot.
His years in the military took him to Arizona, California, Maine, the United Kingdom, Oklahoma, Ohio, and many deployed nations across Europe and the Middle East. Greg earned his Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering at Duke. He and his wife live in Coastal Virginia and have a son in college. Greg, welcome. Thanks for joining me.
It's a pleasure. It's good to see you and chat across the ocean with you.
We don't get to see each other all that often. We will this summer, but it's been a while since the last time we were together. It’s so good to catch up. Let's start with what you are doing. You are a NASA test pilot, which is pretty cool. I would imagine most people hear that and think you are testing spacecraft or some experimental aircraft, but your work's a bit different than that. Why don't you give the audience an overview?
Being a NASA test pilot is different than being an astronaut. There is some confusion at the beginning of conversations especially if you are in a flight suit and it happens to match a color that they have seen an astronaut in the past. I do have to get past that conversation occasionally. If you think of NASA and the words National Aeronautics and Space Administration, I handle the testing of the aeronautics side of things, the big A in NASA. We take either an experimental vehicle or an experimental concept, and we try and do the testing needed to do what might be difficult for the industry to do on its own because the government has a decent amount of resources it can put towards problems.
It may be a research project that the industry isn't even interested in yet, but that our own government researchers are interested in, and we will modify an airplane to try and do that thing. As a test pilot, I will have to make sure that the airplane is safe for us to go and do that research in. Once we get the airplane to a safe point, the researchers like to be on the airplane doing their research.
There are usually a bunch of PhDs involved with any research project that I'm doing. They will do the design of experiments and things like that, and then my job is to go out and use the airplane in whatever fashion they have thought about and try and get them the data they are interested in. If it's an aeronautics project, we are looking at atmospheric and airframe changes in issues.
It might be airspace things. It might be how different airplanes and air traffic controllers interact with some possible new technologies that might be able to stuff more airplanes into the same amount of airspace as what we do and all with the interest of trying to keep the same level of safety we have always enjoyed in both from the airworthiness of the airplane and the safety of the airspace or the airfield.
That's the aeronautics side of the research that we do. It doesn't show up in the title of NASA, but we do a lot of science stuff. That science might be exploring a planet, a moon, or outer space, but we also look inward and we do a lot of exploration of our own planet and we use airplanes to do that. We have outfitted a bunch of airplanes within NASA with special instruments, special holes that look in all directions, special windows, and the like.
We will do that to try and understand our atmosphere. It might be the surface of the earth or it might be the upper atmosphere too. We do some imaging on sounding rockets that deploy equipment out in not quite outer space, but upper space or upper atmosphere, and then we learn about the atmosphere all the way down to the surface using our airplanes.
There's a lot of variety in what I do. It shows that path to variety versus going the route of the airlines as a lot of my peers did. That's kept me busy and challenged. It's an enjoyable thing to be able to do. The side of flying being government service makes it somewhat rewarding knowing that I'm helping our US citizens in learning what we want to learn about our planet.
How big is the fleet of test aircraft that NASA owns and how many test pilots like you do they have?
NASA has six flying centers. Those flying centers all have different missions. The big one that people think about might be Johnson Space Center and the flight operations they do there are centered mostly on astronaut training and preparation. They have a fleet of about 30 T-38s. Most of the other airplanes that NASA has are one-of-a-kind types of airplanes and span from a small single-engine piston airplane all the way through a 747-sized airplane.
There's not a fleet common thing among them. They are all individually different. We have a four-engine jet airplane DC-8. We have a four-engine propeller airplane X Navy P-3, and those are outfitted as airborne science labs. We have a couple of Gulfstreams, a couple of Gulfstream IIIs and Gulfstream V. We use those for high-altitude platform research.
The next largest center is probably Armstrong Flight Research Center out in California at Edwards Air Force Base. They have the type of test capability that you think of traditionally for aeronautics flight tests. They have some F-18 and F-15 X Fighter airplanes that they use for high-speed research. They have some Gulfstreams that they use for middle-speed research, and they also have something like a T-34 Turboprop. They have a motor glider when they need to do some gliding-type things. They use gliders to shut the motor off and then be gliding through the air in order to take sound measurements at a particular altitude of maybe something that's flying overhead or underneath.
The type of airplanes we have spans from small and light to large and fast. They do everything from using infrared telescopes to look at outer space to having LiDARs which are essentially laser detected and ranging. They use LiDARs to remotely measure things like the atmosphere. We can put pylons on an airplane or probes on the fuselage of an airplane and we can take in situ measurements of the atmosphere so that you can have the real-time composition of the air that you are flying through.
Kennedy Space Center has a helicopter operation and they use that for range support with regard to rocket launches and recovery-type missions that they use. We have a small flight research center at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Their center of research is icing research, so how it affects engines and airframes. That's most of their history histories there.
We have a small center at Wallops Flight Facility, which is out on the Eastern shore of Virginia, and they do a lot of the airborne science work that I talked about. There's the center I'm assigned to, which is Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and we have a small operation of about five airplanes and we do a variety. We do cross the realm of the aeronautics flight test and the airborne science flight test.
How many pilots overall roughly?
It seems like we probably have about 50 or so NASA pilots.
Across those six centers.
Yeah, excluding the astronaut core. Many of them are pilots as well, and they fly airplanes, but they are not necessarily hired on to do aeronautics and airborne science research.
When you go up, what type of plane are you typically flying or does it vary a lot?
It can vary. When I have a mission, I stick with the same airplane for a month at a time, and then I will stop that mission and move on to another one, but I'm qualified in four airplanes. I fly the single-engine pistons we have which are a Lancair and the Cirrus SR22. We have a twin end twin Turboprop B200 King Air. I will fly that.
We have a Gulfstream III and Gulfstream IV. I'm only on the Gulfstream III. We retired an ex-Coast Guard airplane, an HU25 which is a French Dassault Falcon 20 that was militarized and we converted it into a research platform. We retired that and I flew that. I also fly the DC-8 which is out on the West Coast in California, and that is an airplane pretty similar to what I flew in the Air Force. It's a good match there, but I have to travel out to go do that. That's not too often. It's a bunch of airplanes that I have to fly and relearn each one as each campaign begins because we don't have the ability to go keep regular currency like most pilots are familiar with.
From a time perspective or a budget perspective?
Both. It is a government budget, so it's not unlimited and we have to be very conscious to spend the money wisely as a taxpayer. I'm sure you appreciate that when we speak about that. Time-wise, the airplanes themselves are either in a maintenance period, a modification period, or a research period. I only get to fly them during that research period, which is probably only a third of the time that the airplane has in the calendar year.
Some airplanes do well and they don't break throughout the year, and they might get 50% of their time as research time. In general, you first have to have a research project first then it has to fit on an airplane, and then you have to have the airplane’s availability. It then gets assigned and you engineer the solution and you go out, test it, and then do the research.
What are some of the more interesting places that you have gone to while you have been doing this?
By joining NASA, I have gotten to go to all four corners of the earth, if you believe in a flat earth. I will let all the readers think about that for a little bit. A NASA person is saying flat earth. It is round. I have seen it, but NASA has taken me to the South Pole and the North Pole. One of the most unique things I got to do is fly a mission where we were measuring the ice thickness over Antarctica, and we would do this multiple years in a row and measure the same locations so we could see what the changes were year to year.
One of the profiles was to fly directly over the South Pole on their return leg and that was always fun. Being right over the South Pole, the navigation systems on your airplane don't behave correctly. They all turn upside down and tumble and you have to then fly away from the South Pole for a little while and then resurrect them. That's neat.
On the North Pole side of things, I never did get to overfly directly over the North Pole, but get to go 200 miles from it, which is still pretty intense when you are up there over the Arctic Ocean. You see nothing but sea ice and it's flat and white. That's neat and NASA's also taken me down to South America, over to Europe, and out West to Asia and Korea. I have been traveling as much with NASA as I did in my military career.
How often are you out and what are you doing when you are not out?
We usually are able to keep our pilot participation to about three weeks if it's United States based and then we will rotate in and out if it's longer than that. If it's international, we will probably go for maybe a month and then rotate out. If the deployment is within a month, then we will send one crew to go there and back.
In between those missions is where all of our preparation comes. There's a lot of preparation that goes into these research flights because they are never in the same place. You are coordinating with new air traffic controllers, new airspace, and new airfields, and all that coordination needs to occur upfront, and that can be months’ worth of effort to get two weeks of data somewhere. The lead time required to get foreign permission to overfly their country, or do research in their country usually takes quite a lead time.
It's supported if the country that you are doing research over is inviting you to do it. Sometimes our scientists want to do something that the nation that we are flying over has no interest in. That can be interesting to try and coordinate. Other times, the nation that we are flying over is interested in the same exact data and you have a good relationship and then they smooth the road to success by providing you an invitation to come to their country. We have to figure out how to do that in either of those scenarios.
How much connection is there between the part of NASA that you are in and what they are doing that's more traditionally what people know NASA for the space piece?
Not too much surprisingly. The space piece is very self-sufficient. They get a lot of attention, therefore a lot of funding. Johnson Space Center has airplanes that do science work as well as astronaut support. Their community sees that and all that goes on. From somebody looking outside in NASA, I don't think you would intuitively think about these airplanes and what they do.
You would learn about these missions if you are interested in science and aeronautics and whatnot. We get a lot of coordination with universities. We do a student airborne research project every year and it might be in one center or another, but every year NASA tries to open up our airborne research methodology and access to the airplanes to students so students throughout the United States get to apply for this program. Some of them then turn into NASA researchers later on after they get their PhDs and whatnot. We have a couple at Langley Research Center who took that path. They first saw NASA through a student research project.
Do you work a lot with the NOAA?
We have parallel or a good set of missions that work well together, but usually, we are not designing a research program in coordination with them. NOAA is very much interested in the atmosphere as much as NASA. We have airplanes that are outfitted with similar equipment, and we are out there going and getting different things.
The thrust of NASA is more the scientific research and the thrust of NOAA is more of a tactical thing. They are interested in making sure that we know what the weather is like and they have to understand the atmosphere to be able to do that. The research that NASA and NOAA do both end up feeding the different weather models that we all rely on for day-to-day, things like hurricane forecasts and daily weather forecasts.
Before you were at NASA, you were a Career Air Force Officer. You served a lot longer than I did, so thanks for that. How long were you in the military overall?
I was in for 21 years and that was a wonderful 21 years. It spanned seven different assignments. About a third of that, the first third was operational flying in KC-135 refueling tankers. Those assignments took me from initial pilot training in Arizona through Maine for my first assignment, to England for my second assignment, and then to Oklahoma where I instructed in the airplanes for my third, and that's where I got picked up to go to Air Force test pilot school.
From that point forward in my career, I stayed in the flight test environment, at least with Air Force Materiel Command. You might remember it as Air Force Systems Command. I did that for two assignments at Edwards Air Force Base. In between those two assignments, I did a program manager assignment at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. That was three years in non-flying and it’s just rewarding.
You got to see what I did.
You were doing on planes. I was doing it on satellites when I was in the military. When you and I met, we were both freshmen at Duke. From then on, you wanted to be a pilot. When did you decide that was what you wanted to do?
I'd always been interested in being a pilot. I remember going to some career fairs in middle school and seeing the pilot career numbers, what a pilot did, and how much they earned. I ruled it out as something that I could ever do. It seemed way too far away from reality for a kid like that. I had always been interested in anything that moves, cars, planes, and rockets, so I figured I would be working in that environment somehow, and that's what got me interested in engineering.
It wasn't until I got to Duke and in the engineering school and in ROTC that I saw some Air Force pilots come back and talk to our ROTC class. I saw that they had done pretty much all the same things that I was doing at that time, going to a school, getting an engineering degree, and going through ROTC. When I saw that that's the path they took, I was like, “Maybe this is a path I can also take,” so I started pursuing that. When I started ROTC, I didn't have a pilot slot. It was during that process that I applied for a pilot slot. When I was accepted to one, then it was just full throttle from that point forward trying to keep that momentum up and make sure I made it through all the different gates.
How did you find your way into Air Force ROTC? What was your path toward that?
That's an interesting story. I was initially looking at the US Naval Academy as a place to go to for college. I had my congressional nomination to the Naval Academy and was going through that process when I had a little bit of a pause about if the Naval Academy came back, said yes, and gave me admission. I would have felt a large patriotic duty to go there and do that.
Yet I hadn't found myself in a position where I thought that was right. I stopped my application partway through because I felt if they came back and said yes, I would say yes in response to that and I might find myself somewhere where it wasn't a good fit. I stopped that. I knew that Duke was an opportunity for me because I got accepted there. I decided that once I got to Duke, I would look into ROTC.
As you recall, I came to Duke in January. That's a little bit odd there, but I walked on campus and went to the Navy ROTC unit right away and wanted to find out what was available in Navy ROTC. Their freshman class conflicted with my Calculus class. Air Force ROTC was one floor up. I walked up the stairs to the next ROTC unit and started talking to them.
I was welcome there from the outset and there was no conflict in the classes so I started. I remember being the new kid on the block. All the other freshmen had already been there for a whole semester. I was new and trying to figure my way around and I remember having to be counseled to cut my hair three weeks in a row because each time I did it wasn't enough. I don't have that problem these days.
You and me both. I'm sure I knew this at the time but I have forgotten it, so thanks for the refresher. In my case, my dad was certainly a strong proponent of considering it because he looked at it as a great economic deal to get a full scholarship and do four years in the military. Anyway, different paths.
I knew you were working on your pilot's license. We were seniors at that point. It used to drive me crazy on Saturday mornings because you'd want to get up early to study before you took your pilot's lesson for the day and you did the snooze alarm fifteen times, so I got up early on Saturday mornings whether I wanted to or not. Did doing the pilot training before help you when you got into Air Force Pilot training?
Two phases there. It helped a lot. In the first phase of ROTC, you had to go through what was called a flight screening program, and that was in the summer of your sophomore year. That was done on a Cessna 172. One of the things I did prior to going to that screening program was I went and paid for my own lessons.
That wasn't enough to get my pilot's license by that time, but it was enough to get me through solo, and that was a big confidence builder to go through lessons in a Cessna 172 up to the point of solo. When I went to the Air Force screening program, it wasn't all new to me. That was a huge confidence builder and a high contributor to me successfully making it through the screening program.
From sophomore summer through graduation, I took that opportunity to after having about 10 to 20 hours of flight time and applying it towards the license, which you can get about 40 hours of flight time. I went ahead and finished up the lessons and I wanted to get that done before Air Force Pilot training started to see if that confidence boost worked again. Maybe I'd gain the extra knowledge needed.
I knew that when I started flying with the Air Force, I probably wouldn't be able to follow through on that license bit. I wanted to get that done before my attention got diverted from it. That was the thrust in getting it done before graduating. Did that have an impact on pilot training? Not as much as the flight screening program, because in the pilot training, they break everybody down to the same pulp and then build everybody up.
There are some people who struggle in Air Force pilot training who had their licenses. If they had been flying civilian for a while, they could have picked up some bad habits and that might not have translated well to what the Air Force flight training was trying to do. I had just enough to boost my confidence, not enough to build bad habits, and it helped in that way.Some people struggle in Air Force pilot training who had their licenses. If they had been flying civilian for a while, they could have picked up some bad habits that might not have translated well to what the Air Force flight training was trying to do. Click To Tweet
Walk through the progression of training that you go through when you decide to be an Air Force pilot and the length and types of things that you are doing along the way.
Air Force pilot training, when I went through, is about a year-long process, and there are two phases. The 1st phase was in the T-37, and the 2nd phase was in the T-38. The T-37 was a small unpressurized twin-engine jet trainer and it was aerobatic. You would learn initially how to land the airplane, how to do normal procedures, how to do emergency procedures, and then you'd roll into learning how to do some aerobatics, and then you would learn in how to do instrument flying.
Towards the end, you would get some introduction to formation flying. That particular phase, once you complete that, then you go onto the T-38 s. The T-38s is a heavier, pressurized jet trainer, and it's supersonic also. At that point in time, the Air Force is trying to train you to be universally assignable to any airplane that they have at that point in time.
It's a pretty challenging airplane to fly, which is good. If you graduate from Air Force pilot training in a T-38, the likelihood of you being able to fly any follow-on airplane is high, and then your concentration is more on how to employ that airplane in the mission that the assignment is. You don't want a fighter airplane to be so hard to fly that you can't concentrate on fighting the enemy or employing weapons, and that concept would apply to any airplane.
If you can get the flying through the T-38 phase, you knew you could fly any other airplane basically. That was the second half of pilot training all told it was about 200 flight hours between the two airplanes. In the T-38, you got more instrument flying, more formation flying, and you got more skilled at it all because it's a more difficult airplane. You got to think faster because it's going a lot faster in speed.
When you were doing pilot training, what portion of people ended up washing out?
We started out with about 25 people in my class and graduated with about 20. Somewhere about 25% of the people washed out. I'd say half of that was self-initiated and the other half was probably performance-related. You do get into pilot training and start it and sometimes you don't have a good idea what it is. Throughout that year, it's okay for you to figure out that this is not what's right for me, and I think everybody wants that. If you don't think you are a good fit, then you can stop training and go on to something else.
There was a period of time where if you went to the Air Force Academy and you had the medical qualifications to be a pilot, you were expected to go to pilot training. You had to go see the commandant to get out of it. There were a lot of people who ended up going to pilot training where it wasn't their interest, and then they might leave at that point in time. That is no longer the case. The people at the Air Force Academy have to compete for a flying slot as we did in ROTC. Now, there's more interest in succeeding than perhaps before because you had to compete for your slot to get there in the first place.
There were a lot of people at the base I was at, which is outside of Boston, where we did not have any planes at that base. One of the coaches used to be that people who had bailed out of pilot training liked to go there because they didn't have a bunch of planes around to remind them that did not work out. You finished the T-38 training, and then they start trying to specialize you based on what they have seen. What did you do next after that?
I went to the KC-135, which is an air fueling tanker and our mission was to refuel other airplanes in flight. At the time, Strategic Air Command existed, and all the KC-135s were essentially assigned to Strategic Air Commands. They were on alert for the nuclear mission, so that if the siren went off, the tankers and the bombers would all lift off from their various base, and then they would meet up in mid-air. The tankers would give their gas to the bombers, and the bombers would go on their way and be part of the nuclear triad. Would also be used to refuel fighter airplanes and cargo airplanes and the like, but we were assigned a Strategic Air Command primarily for that nuclear deterrent mission.
Around 1992, Strategic Air Command was dissolved and all the assets were absorbed into either Air Mobility Command or Air Combat Command, and all the tankers went to mobility command and started to behave more like an air lifter than they were like a strategic deterrent asset. At that time, I moved over to Europe. My assignment was over to the US Air Forces in Europe. We were aligned more or less with refueling the fighter airplanes that were stationed up there as well.
There was a base right next to ours that housed F-111s and F-15s, and then there were a lot of F-16s over in Germany and Italy that we would refuel. We would get to do a lot of refueling of NATO aircraft forces as well as long as they had compatible airplanes. Norway had F-16s and we would refuel them a bunch. Sometimes we would do the probe and drogue configuration on the airplane and we could refuel British airplanes or German aircraft. The assignment in Europe was great for that for doing more than United States support.
I got to go up once in a tanker. I don't know if you did too. This is when we were at Duke. In ROTC, they took us out to base further out in North Carolina. We went out to Seymour Johnson, got to go up in a tanker, and got to sit down in the belly of the plane next to the guy who was controlling the boom. It was a pretty cool experience. Seeing it firsthand, you appreciate that it requires a lot of precision from both pilots. You are probably biased, but who do you think has the harder job? The tanker pilot or the plane being refueled in terms of that connection?
The receiver pilot has the harder job. They are the ones who have to match the speed, match the altitude, and things like that. The tanker pilot's job is to be as stable as possible, and they are usually doing that on an autopilot. It's not that hard. When the autopilot breaks, that's when you have to shine with your skills a little bit. We practice that and we make sure that we can do it, in case the autopilot doesn't work, but in general, the autopilot is a better option for making a stable platform for the receiver pilot. It's harder for them.Being a receiver pilot is a hard job. They are the ones who have to match the speed and altitude, while tanker pilots are usually doing that on autopilot. Click To Tweet
You went through your progression of roles earlier. You end up getting accepted into test pilot school or the test pilot program within the Air Force, and you are out at Vandenberg in California, am I remembering this right?
Edwards Air Force Base. Vandenberg does the missile launches.
You are out at Edwards. What were the kinds of things that you were doing when you were in your test pilot days with the Air Force?
At Edwards, the first job I was assigned was to essentially run the tanker testing program. Any new receiver airplane needs to get qualified in refueling behind the existing tankers. We had a tanker airplane at Edwards that was instrumented with loads and fuel flows. We would use that airplane in concert with a new receiver that needed to get qualified.
The airplane at the time that was under test was the F-22. We were the first ones to refuel the F-22. I greatly remember that experience well because in your general tanker job, you don't get to know the receiver pilots very well at all. Since you are all combined there at the test wing at Edwards, you get to know everybody a little bit Friday night at the club thing.
The F-22 test pilot who did the very first hookup was Steve Rainey. I still remember his name to this day because of how well of a connection we had as a test team. The first thing that I did as a test pilot at Edwards was the airy fueling certification aspects and the major player at the time was the F-22. We did that in other realms when the F-35 had a fly-off. They had the X-32 and the X-35.
We were the ones to do the refueling of those two airplanes, so that was fun. I also got checked out in the C-9 which was going through some avionics upgrades. They went through an engine hush kit upgrade. They went through some airspace qualifications called reduced vertical separation, and we had to qualify the altimetry system to a tighter standard.
I did all that with the C-9 for about two years, and I also got checked out in the C-17, for the last two years of my assignment there. We would do a variety of testing in the C-17. You would be doing airdrop testing and personnel drop testing. We were testing the increased capability of engines. We were testing formation station-keeping systems because the fleet had found some issues with them after they got fielded. We were getting new software updates to those systems and having to create the scenarios of multiple airplanes and how they would fly in formation together for their missions. Quite a bit of a variety of testing that I did in my first assignment.
The second assignment of the flight test was more on the management side of things. I ended up, for the first year back, I was on test pilot, the school staff. I was instructing the TPS students in the large aircraft flying test techniques and then ended up getting to be a squadron commander of a small unit. That small unit had a single KC-135 assigned to it, and it was an avionics test bed, essentially a communications test bed. It would also fly distinguished visitors around the world because it was outfitted very well with a nice cabin.
If we had some communications or avionics testing that was good for flying around the world, we could also put a four-star Air Force officer on board and take them where they needed to go for their mission of completing the senior leader Air Force objectives and that could have been anywhere in the world. That was unique to get back into worldwide flying for the last couple of years of my career there.
In the last two years of my final assignment, the Air Force, I worked at the operations group level as the deputy. We had an O-6 Colonel as a commander and a couple of Lieutenant Colonels as deputies, but we had a lot going on. We had seven flying squadrons and an operational support squadron, a dozen runways, and lake beds to worry about. There was a lot going on and we needed people to help manage that. That was what I did for the last couple of years.
In the 21 years you were in, when you look back, what were your favorite years? What were your favorite parts?
Location-wise, it was England. Four years in England was a unique thing. It was a brand-new squadron, so the people all showed up at the same time. In a military assignment, you come in and leave somewhere in about a three-year rotation. At any one time, in the third year, people are always rotating out. This squadron was unique in that everybody showed up to stand it up from the beginning, and we were together for the first three years, and then people started rotating out. It was unique to get to know people at a deeper level at that assignment because you were there together longer and did some pretty unique flying at the time.
England was my best location. It's also where I met my wife, so we both have memories from that. That weighs very strongly on our hearts. Flying-wise, it was probably test pilot school and the flight test activity afterward. In test pilot school, I got to fly 35 different airplanes in a year. You are not qualified in all of them. You are qualified maybe in about 3 or 4 of them throughout the year to go fly on your solo aspect of things. You are with an instructor on the others, but they exposed you to a variety of airplanes.
That's where I got to fly some fighters. I got to fly some cargo airplanes. I got to fly an old warbird-type airplane. I got to fly a MiG-17. There were some exciting things going on during test pilot school and then that gave you a flavor of how airplanes flew, old, new, big, small, fast, and slow. When you are out there testing your airplane later, you have a framer reference that is a much broader perspective than you might have on a normal operational pilot assignment path.
How did your time in the military shape your views in terms of leadership?
What I found was you had formal leadership positions and then you had informal leadership. Most of the work got done on the informal leadership side of things. In military structure, you have got that formal hierarchy and you have got designations in front of your name, whether it's lieutenant, captain, or sergeant.
You have those positions of authority, but most of the work gets done through figuring out those relationships with different organizations and different people, and then how to get that informal group of people to have the same objective and to go help you get your mission done. You are working in an informal way. An easy example might be in a crew of four on a KC-135. If I was the co-pilot, I'm not the leader of that airplane, but I do have a voice.
How do I influence the outcome of that flight? I have got to feel welcome enough to speak up. I have a crew that's going to listen to me. Therefore, I have got to be in a position where they trust what I have to say. That comes through becoming a professional at what you are doing, having discipline and integrity, and being a subject matter expert in what you are supposed to be working on. Once you get all that, then you have some informal authority to help influence something.
What I found throughout 21 years is I wasn't always assigned a formal leadership position where I was barking orders. Most of the time, I was working in a team and in that team, I wasn't necessarily always the leader, but you always had the opportunity to shape the outcome of the team through informal leadership and whatnot.
The times that I did have formal leadership positions, what I learned most from them was my job wasn't to bark orders but it was to break down barriers for them so that the rest of the team could be successful. You learned how to serve a larger community when you are a formal leader, and you are given a group of people to be responsible for. That's a huge weight on your shoulders. I tried to raise my hand and stand up and take on those challenges when I could.
I learned a lot. It helped me be a better informal leader later on in life when I wasn't assigned those leadership roles anymore, but I'm back to being an aircraft commander of four people or something like that. The military teaches you a lot about leadership and then gives you an opportunity to apply it on a day-to-day basis. Most of the people in the military learn how to become informal leaders because very few of us get to become formal leaders.
Briefly, what's ahead for you? What are you thinking about in your post-NASA days?
Post-NASA days, what I have learned about in trying to get ready for this next phase which ultimately includes retirement is that I need to come up with something to retire to, not retire from. As I execute probably like the last few years of my NASA time, I'm trying to branch out and learn new things. If I'm retired and say no longer earning an income, I still want to be interested in aviation somehow.
A couple of things catch my attention. One might be something like Civil Air Patrol, where you can donate your time and be a pilot inside Civil Air Patrol. Another thing that I found a connection to was a humanitarian airlift through a charity, and that parlays back to some of the satisfaction I got in the military when I was flying the KC-135. We got to participate in some of these disasters that occurred.
Whether it was a wartime disaster or a natural disaster, we would often do humanitarian support to that. That was always a rewarding mission to do. When you are delivering supplies or when you are delivering fuel to somebody else who's delivering supplies, it was always a rewarding mission. I found that my background flying the DC-8 for NASA matched up well with an organization that does international disaster relief on the other DC-8 that operates in the United States, and so I have been able to connect with them and help them out a little bit and that's been rewarding. I'm looking forward to, when I'm done flying with NASA, having something to retire to.
That's a good way to think about it, something we could certainly spend a lot more time on than we are going to have now. Having that glide path into what you want to do and not all of a sudden shocking the system and having to figure out what next then.
The glide path is a term I use often as opposed to a step function.
It's been great catching up. I'm looking forward to seeing you and the family and having you over here in London. I appreciate the time and thanks for going deep into the world of being a test pilot, so thanks.
Thank you. I hope that it helps somebody out there and I enjoyed catching up and talking to you. I appreciate it.
Take care. It was great catching up with Greg and knowing what it's like to be a NASA test pilot and also one in the Air Force, and a bit about his broader military career as well. If you are ready to take control of your career, visit PathWise.io. If you'd like more regular career insights, you could become a PathWise member. It's free. You can also sign up on a website for the PathWise newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Thanks and have a great day.
About Greg Slover
Greg Slover is currently a test pilot for NASA, where he pilots aircraft conducting a range of aircraft- and atmospheric-related experiments.
Prior to joining NASA, Greg was a Lieutenant Colonel and pilot in the US Air Force. In his years in the military, Greg flew tanker aircraft, led and instructed other pilots, and performed operational leadership roles in aviation and program management. He also spent time as a test pilot while in the Air Force. His years in the military took him to Arizona, California, Maine, United Kingdom, Oklahoma, Ohio and many deployed locations in Europe and Middle East.
Greg earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering at Duke. He and his wife live in coastal Virginia and have a son in college.