United States of America
Commander Wade McConvey, Commanding Officer, US Navy Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Two One – HX-21
In command of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Two One (HX-21) at Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division Patuxent River, Maryland, CDR Wade McConvey oversees developmental test and evaluation of all U.S. Navy and Marine Corps helicopters, tilt rotors and their upgrades. He leads 90 officers and enlisted personnel, 24 civilian squadron employees, and 450 contract maintainers responsible for 34 aircraft. Included in the squadron are 29 test pilots. “Those people have input to decision-makers who influence billion-dollar programs,” observes CDR McConvey. “I want them to focus on three things: test planning, test execution, test reporting. They’re here because they can look at a system, be critical of it, and provide an unbiased opinion of what happened. They’re not better pilots. They’re better observers and better at communicating that. They do it in a very safe manner.”
The HX-21 test fleet includes Ospreys, Romeo and Sierra Seahawks, Zulu and Whisky Cobras, single examples of the UH-1Y, MH-53E, CH-53E, NVH-3A, and NSH-60F, and, until the end of the fiscal year, an ancient CH-46E. The squadron recently deployed an MV-22 tilt-rotor aboard the carrier USS Bush to collect data supporting an Analysis of Alternatives for a new Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) aircraft. “What they do to replace the COD is not my decision,” explains CDR McConvey. “My team was tasked to go out there to provide an expanded envelope, both for vertical takeoffs and landings and for short takeoffs and minimum roll-on landings.” He concludes, “We provide data to decision-makers and let them run with that.”
Growing up in Blasdell, New York south of Buffalo, Wade McConvey had no early interest in aviation. “I didn’t grow up dreaming I’d go fly. I dreamt I’d go be a mechanical engineer at General Motors or something.” The future squadron CO also had no family military ties until his mother became a nurse in the Army Reserve. “She retired when I was a Lieutenant Commander,” he notes. “It took me a long time to out-rank my mother.” An assembly talk by a midshipman and a high school friend applying to Annapolis nevertheless sparked interest in the Naval Academy. “I went to visit the school in that fall of my senior year and I was hooked in 30 seconds. Top Gun had just come out a year before, and I said, ‘I can be an aviator too.’ They had me hook, line, and sinker.”
CDR McConvey recalls, “I wanted Aviation since Day One of the Naval Academy.” Graduating from Annapolis with a degree in mechanical engineering, flight school gave him both wings and unexpected direction. “I wanted jets, like 90% of the kids there. I had jet grades, but when you get to the end of flight school, it’s based on your grades and the needs of the Navy. Somebody else in my selection group got jets, and I got helos. It was the best decision the Navy ever made for me.”
With Fleet Replacement Squadron HS-1 at Jacksonville, McConvey was one of the first new pilots to fly the then-new SH-60F. “As a new lieutenant junior grade with wings, stepping into the Foxtrot from the TH-57, I was awestruck. It was an aircraft that weighed eight times as much. It had tremendous power. It was like a big sports car – the first aircraft I checked out in even had the new-car smell.”
Deployed with HS-11 aboard USS America in 1994, the CV Helo pilot supported Bosnian operations and protected the strike group. “The Mediterranean was still full of submarines, so we were actively pursuing that mission set. The community was quickly taking on an all-goggle fleet, so we were transitioning folks to Night Vision Goggles and practicing Combat Search and Rescue. I was trained in CSAR and SpecOps from the get-go, so I saw the whole gamut of what the helicopter can do right from my first tour.”
Senior squadron officers, themselves Navy Test Pilot School alumni, encouraged then-Lt. McConvey to apply to NTPS at Patuxent River. “I read George Wilson’s Flying The Edge when I was in flight school. That actually introduced me to the fact that there was a Test Pilot School, that it was taking fleet pilots and training them, and they sounded like real people, not John Glenn or Chuck Yeager.”
The NTPS curriculum nevertheless provided a different perspective on flying. CDR McConvey explains, “We’re not any better stick-and-rudder pilots, I think than a typical high-performing Weapons School Pilot, Fleet Readiness Squadron pilot, or Instructor Pilot in the fleet. What is instilled in Test Pilot School is flight discipline with respect to safety and risk management which is embedded in the entire process.
“The critical aspect of Test Pilot School is to become a very good communicator. You communicate in a language that is understood by decision-makers who may or may not understand your mission. You have to be able to communicate the relevancy of the test, how it applies to the mission, in a manner that is unbiased – as close to fact as possible.”
His first test assignment with HX-21 right out of NTPS sent Wade McConvey to the west coast to fly an SH-60F behind the island on USS Constellation. The dynamic interface testing aimed to give the helicopter an out-of-the-way refueling spot to keep the carrier deck open for continuous fixed-wing operations. A Pax River assignment made the returning test pilot the project officer for the MH-60S sea certification.
Another sea tour with HS-7 aboard USS Truman during Operation Iraqi Freedom taught the Developmental Test (DT) pilot squadron management. It was followed by an Operational Test (OT) billet at Pax River with VX-1 conducting the MH-60R Operational Evaluation. CDR McConvey explains, “The Operational Tester develops the entire test plan and the test scenarios around mission relation and mission execution. There’s a greater focus on the mission from an OT perspective.”
As Operational Test director for the Romeo Seahawk, McConvey found the MH-60R – with sonar, sonobuoys, radar, electro-optics, Electronic Support Measures and datalink – an eye-opener. “It was a generational leap in capability. The Romeo had multiple sensors sweeping a large area.” He acknowledges, “I was in my own little Foxtrot world just using your eyeballs. As a Romeo pilot, you need to learn to compartmentalize, make sure you focus. One guy is flying; one guy is executing the mission along with the crewman in back. You brief it well, and you fly the brief.”
A non-flying assignment as co-lead for the MH-60S Armed Helo Integrated Product Team was equally revealing. “I learned about acquisition,” says CDR McConvey. “I’d seen stuff from the development side, from the operational side; now I was going to see things from the Program Office side of it. I hadn’t quite realized how hard the guys in the Program Office worked to get stuff to us, to work out all those little challenges.” The IPT aimed to integrate the Black Hawk-Seahawk hybrid with off-the-shelf Hellfire missiles, guns, and aircraft survivability equipment. “The devil is in the details,” observes CDR McConvey. “Integration of known COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] components or known previously-developed components is never as easy as it first seems on the back of a napkin.”
Wade McConvey learned of his next testing assignment while again at sea, this time as Commanding Officer of HS-5, flying SH-60Fs and HH-60Hs from USS Eisenhower off the coast of Pakistan. He reported to HX-21 in April 2010 as the Chief Test Pilot and assumed command of the squadron in October 2011. The current test schedule includes cockpit upgrades for the Presidential helicopters and repeated software drops for the MV-22. “We tackle a lot of different software tests here.”
The tempo of HX-21 testing has benefitted from Lean Manufacturing-like disciplines in maintenance. CDR McConvey explains, “Part of test execution is maintenance – having a ready and available aircraft. I think we do a nice job of test planning, but available aircraft is sometimes something we haven’t had. We’ve had initiatives in the last couple of years where we’re really trying to get our aircraft through planned maintenance evolutions more efficiently.
“We’ve formed some teams. We’re on our third phase now using this team concept with the H-60s and we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in our phases. Notionally, in the last few years, we took about a three-month average to get a phase through. Our first one we did took us five weeks under this new process. We took just over two weeks on the second one.
“The change here is I’ve got an assigned team -- we’re not filtering people in and out. Having a phase team is not a new concept. People do it in fleet squadrons all the time. It’s the application; can you keep the team together, get them on board to do it? It’s the cultural inertia that we changed a little bit.”
Lengthy test periods have been criticized inside the Navy and out. “The amount of data we can collect due to technological advances almost drives us to that as the norm,” acknowledges CDR McConvey. “I’ve seen a ten-fold increase in the number of measurands for a similar type of test conducted now as opposed to 20 years ago. Just because you’ve got a computer that can crunch the numbers doesn’t mean the answer is going to be any different from what they were able to do with some good, hard thinking 20 years ago, and some reasonable application of assumptions. Part of my job is to help point that out – to bring a historical perspective.”
Flight test engineers are assigned to HX-21 by NAVAIR. “They’re not in my chain of command,” explains CDR McConvey, “but I consider them every bit as much a part of the HX-21 family as any one of my pilots or aircrew.” He notes, “The CH-53K is coming, and I’ve got my team working on that. That’s going to be a huge program. It’s great for the young engineers and the young pilots to get involved on that one. They’re going to cut their teeth on that one, and we’re going to get a great product in the end.”
Leadership Profile: Vertiflite July/August 2012