Test pilot lands in classroom Super Hornet flier moves to academy as Navy bolsters faculty

September 06, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Go to the top law or medical school in the country, and you'll study under lawyers and doctors at the top of their field.

Similarly, the Navy thinks students at one of the country's premier military schools, the Naval Academy, need more exposure to the top performers of their chosen profession.

That's why Cmdr. Rob Niewoehner, 39, is leaving one of the Navy's most enviable jobs -- lead test pilot for the controversial new F/A-18 Super Hornet jet fighter -- to become one of the academy's new "permanent military professors."

Last month, he flew his last flight in the plane he helped improve during three years at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland. He now begins teaching aeronautical engineering to the next generation of pilots.

What's different about Niewoehner's arrival in Annapolis is that in years past, Navy officers taught there for three years and then headed back to the fleet. Niewoehner and three others are assigned indefinitely.

Last year, a committee that reviewed problems at the 153-year-old academy determined it could decrease the number scandals at the campus by bringing in more military role models.

"We were looking for ways to show the young people here exactly the kinds of scholarly naval officer that you want to encourage them to be," said Judy Jolley Mohraz, president of Goucher College and co-chairwoman of the academy committee. wanted someone with an intellectual side as well as a professional side."

Landing Niewoehner as a professor, Mohraz and other academy officials said, is getting both worlds -- famed test pilot Chuck Yeager with a doctorate. In his office last week, Niewoehner (pronounced NEE-woaner) said he's had no second thoughts about leaving the cockpit for the classroom. "I'm pretty comfortable with not flying again. I really feel like my calling is teaching," he said.

It's clear he's got one trait of good teachers: He loves to talk, especially about jets and flying, a passion since he and his younger brother played with toy jets as children.

He is the real-life version of Tom Cruise, the icon of a fighter jock in "Top Gun."

"Commander Niewoehner has had a profound effect on the Super Hornet flight test program. He will be greatly missed here," said Capt. Bob Wirt, the government's flight test director for that program.

Childhood dreams

Niewoehner grew up in St. Louis, son of a materials engineer and a homemaker, reading C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels and dreaming of becoming a naval officer. He graduated from the academy in 1981 and was soon flying F-14 Tomcat fighters.

While stationed at Virginia Beach, Va., he met his future wife, Natalie, at a dinner party after the wake of a friend who was shot down over Lebanon.

"That's the business we're in," Niewoehner said.

Known to friends as "Knockers" -- a play on his name and "knee-knockers," the clutter on a ship's deck that bangs sailors' knees -- Niewoehner became a test pilot in 1989, was named Navy test pilot of the year in 1991 and was chosen in 1995 to become the lead Super Hornet test pilot.

'Envelope expansion'

Day after day, Niewoehner pushed the F/A-18 to its limits, a highly risky process known as "envelope expansion."

He gained renown when, during one early test flight of the F/A-18E, he became the first pilot to experience its notorious "wing drop." He was soaring high above the Chesapeake Bay on March 4, 1996, performing routine maneuvers, when one wing suddenly dipped.

Niewoehner was not alarmed and did not consider the problem a serious one for a prototype. But because the problem took so long and was so expensive to correct, it escalated into an all-out political battle over the costly aircraft.

"Those who opposed the program saw that as a scab that could be picked at," he said.

Today, with wing drop corrected and the first Super Hornets scheduled for delivery to the Navy in the spring, Niewoehner is proud of the three years he spent testing and improving the plane. He developed a philosophy of flight testing, which he considers a merger of flying and engineering. As the Navy's "purchasing agent," he was able to tell Boeing Co., the plane's manufacturer, what improvements to make and why.

"I'd tell them, 'Here's how this is going to impact a young 24-year-old pilot flying at night behind a ship,' " he said.

'Decisions to live with'

While he loved flying, it was also thrilling to have a direct impact on the Navy's next generation of fighter jets and on the next generation of pilots, which will include his students and, possibly, one of his four sons.

"There were decisions that Fred [Madenwald, Boeing's test pilot] and I made together that young lieutenants will have to live with, that my boys, if they wind up naval aviators, will have to live with," he said.

"That's exciting -- and a little scary, too."

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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