Michael (Gerz) Gerzanics is a former test pilot with the US Air Force who, after stints with United Airlines and Boeing, now flies 737s for Southwest. For the past 22 years he has filed flight test reports for Flight International magazine, evaluating more than 100 types during that time from fighters to business jets, and widebody airliners to light aircraft
Where did you grow up and when and where did you get the aviation bug?
I grew up in Waterford, a township near Pontiac just north of Detroit, Michigan. I got the aviation bug in grade school, fueled in part by reading of the exploits of Second World War aviators. In high school I worked in a grocery store to pay for flight lessons. My instructor was the son of a family up the street. He had flown Hueys in Vietnam as a warrant officer, and flew general aviation on the side after his return. He was an excellent instructor and mentor with a large personality and affable character. He never charged for his instruction. I think he was paying it forward, before paying it forward was cool.
How did you become a test/training pilot in the US Air Force, and what made that job special?
I had always wanted to be a fighter pilot, and was fortunate to get a [General Dynamics] F-111 at RAF Upper Heyford for my first assignment. My second assignment was as a forward air controller flying O-2s [Cessna Skymaster], which from a flying perspective was a bit of a let down from the F-111. My unit also supported the 82nd Airborne Division, so in an effort to spice up my duties I started jumping. I found parachuting exhilarating, and the promise of a [Lockheed Martin] F-16 follow-on assignment added to its allure.
The F-16 was everything I had hoped for, but as a now senior captain I was looking at a desk job after my stint in the cockpit. I had done engineering at the US Air Force Academy, and thought being a test pilot would allow me to exercise both disciplines while still staying in the cockpit. I found being a military test pilot challenged my piloting and engineering skills. Being afforded the opportunity to define and solve problems in a dynamic environment was very rewarding.
What particular skills and attributes do you need to be a military test pilot?
Passion and an open analytical mind are necessary attributes. Skills can be learned, but at a minimum a test pilot needs be a proficient and technically competent pilot. Additionally, an understanding of the science and engineering aspects is needed. Finally, and by all means not least, are communication skills. A test pilot must translate between engineers and pilots, and be fluent in both languages.
Thousands did it and still do, but what was it like leaving the air force and moving into the commercial world?
Daunting at first. Transitioning from the fly-by-wire F-16 to the Boeing 727 forced me to relearn basic flying skills, a fun challenge. Going from a military single-seat mindset to being part of a two/three-man crew was a bigger step. Technical problems in the commercial world are fairly well scripted. Working with a crew and customers is by far the most challenging and rewarding part of my job.
How has your commercial career progressed?
Not how I thought it was going to! My first stop out of the Air Force was as an engineering pilot for United Airlines. After nine years of flying everything from the 727 to the 777 I was laid off not long after 9-11, but was fortunate to land a job as a C-17 experimental test pilot with Boeing. Juggling the commute to my new job with family commitments however, made Boeing a short lived affair. When Southwest Airlines called with a job offer 16 years ago, I leapt at the chance and haven’t looked back.
In the meantime, I started writing flight test reports for Flight International, while with United. My first article was the Boeing 717 published in the 26 May 1999 issue.
How many types have you flown? What is one aircraft you’d gladly jump back in tomorrow, and is there one cockpit you’d never want to step in again?
Enough to know that I still have a lot to learn! As a rated pilot in command, it’s well into double digits. As an Air Force test pilot, it’s in the score. As FlightGlobal’s flight test pilot, a role I’ve relished for nearly 22 years, it’s round about 100.
The aircraft I’d want to jump back into is the F-16 MATV [multi-axis thrust vectoring]. One cockpit I’d never want to go back to: none springs to mind.
Over the several decades of your career, how would you say the world of the pilot has changed for the better, and for the worse?
The laws of aerodynamics haven’t changed since I soloed in 1975, yet much else has: carburetor to FADEC [full authority digital engine control], NDB [non-directional radio beacon] to GPS, round dial to glass, and control cable to FBW. Flying has undoubtedly become safer and more precise, but the pilot’s role has become less tactile and visceral in the process. While a price shouldn’t be put on safety, the value found in the joy of flying shouldn’t be discounted either.
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