Matthew “Fish” Hartkop is team leader of the experimental flight tests department and his job includes testing newly developed aircraft here at Pilatus. In this interview, he talks about some aircraft he has flown in his career so far. Pilatus Aircraft Ltd
“Fish” – that’s an unusual nickname for a pilot! How did you come by it?
All pilots are given a nickname early on. Back then, I was on an aircraft carrier in the US Navy, and every landing is filmed for debriefing. On one occasion, my approach was very wobbly. I flew my aircraft like a fish in water, said my superiors. That’s it – the story behind my nickname!
You used to fly in the US Navy and land on aircraft carriers. In that case, how did you end up in Central Switzerland, at Pilatus?
Under a two-year exchange programme, one F/A-18 pilot from Switzerland flies with a US Navy training squadron and one American pilot is dispatched to Switzerland. So, from 2003 to 2005, I worked as a flight instructor and squadron pilot in Switzerland as part of that programme. I was with Squadron 11 – the same as Obi (Reto Obrist, test pilot at Pilatus). I was friends with Aeschli (Reto Aeschlimann, former test pilot at Pilatus) at that time, too. After returning to the USA, Aeschli rang me one day in 2007 to let me know Pilatus was looking for a pilot. So here I am!
Yes, here you are! What exactly appealed to you at Pilatus? After all, there’s a big difference between flying an F/A-18 and working here as a test pilot!
The PC-21 was brand new back then. A very different aircraft to the F/A-18, of course, but the actual work is fairly similar. The PC-21 is an outstanding trainer: pilots can transfer direct to a jet after training on the PC-21.
Did you actually live on an aircraft carrier during your time with the navy?
Yes, I did. Navy recruits train every day for years to prepare for active duty one day. That involves periods living on aircraft carriers – together with up to 5,500 other people! Each assignment lasts approximately six months. My longest assignment was almost eight and a half months.
Have you flown any actual missions?
Yes, I was based in Iraq in 1999 where I took part in operation “Southern Watch”. There was no war. Our job was to protect the No Fly zone. I also served on the USS Enterprise in Afghanistan in 2001. On our way home we had to turn around and sail right back to Afghanistan – it was 11 September 2001. The missions that followed were difficult and challenging. There were some very long flights in the F/A-18 – the longest was nine hours, I recall.
Which aircraft do you prefer – the PC-21 or the F/A-18?
That’s a difficult question! The F/A-18 costs almost ten times as much as the PC-21. It’s like comparing a Formula 1 with a small sports car. Both are fast, manoeuvrable and great fun to fly!
What do you like best about working for Pilatus?
Pilatus is really special. I really love working with so many talented people. I come across dedicated people in every area of the company, all part of the same big team, all working to develop, certify and deliver fantastic aircraft. And another thing: we have everything right here, under one roof. We can talk to the design engineer if need be, for example, or check something with someone in Production. And my work as a pilot – flying test flights on all Pilatus aircraft – is absolutely fascinating. Working here is like being part of a flying squadron: a sense of fellowship is really important. Basically, everyone loves their work and gives of their best at all times!
What’s special about your job at Pilatus?
The variety! If you work as a test pilot with a big company, you may only get to fly one aircraft type, and then only for part of the programme. Here at Pilatus, we do everything. Yesterday, for example, I flew a production test flight with a new PC-24. Last week I delivered goods to England in a PC-12, and just a few weeks ago I did an experimental test flight with a PC-21.
Which other aircraft have you flown so far besides our own?
I’ve flown over 90 different aircraft so far. The best was the F/A-18 Super Hornet, which I flew for the last time back in 2007. But I need to get a P-51 Mustang in my flight log! I’d love to fly a vintage World War II aircraft like that one day.
What was your most difficult flight so far?
The flutter tests, I’d say. I’ve flown flutter tests on the PC-12, the PC-21 and the PC-24. We have only a very short timeframe in which to obtain the required test results – between six and eight seconds. If it doesn’t work out, we have to repeat the entire test another day. And we’re keen to avoid that, of course.
What about the best moments?
The best moments are the ones I spend flying about the clouds, with views of the Alps and the sunset. Yep, “cloud surfing” is a very special experience!
Could you, in theory, take off or land a Pilatus aircraft on an aircraft carrier – our aircraft are perfect for short runways, after all?
Yes, with the PC-6 – in theory! But it wouldn’t actually work in practice. Our aircraft just don’t have the necessary acceleration. Landing would be a problem, too. The jets are equipped with a hook which gets caught by a cable when they land. Our aircraft don’t come with that sort of equipment. When you land on a carrier, you stop within 330 feet (100 metres) – going from 132 knots (250 km/h) to zero at the same time. The F/A-18 operated by the Swiss Air Force could do it, but not the PC-21.
Customers who get the chance to fly with you love the experience. What’s your secret?
When I fly with customers, I try to find out what’s most important to them. Our products are first-class, I really don’t have to do anything special from that point of view. But, knowing the aircraft well, like I do, I can tailor the experience to show what interests the customer most. Some want to test the cabin comfort, others want to see what the aircraft is capable of, and sit up in the cockpit with me.
And you fly with them like you flew once with Sam Chui, the aviation blogger and YouTuber?
Yeah, he flew with me in the PC-24 cockpit from Stans to Gstaad, that was a great flight! He filmed it all for his YouTube channel. It’s crazy how many people still ask me about that. I reckon just about everyone has seen that video!
Last question: what would it be if you had to choose – hamburger or fondue?
A “fondue burger”! After a day on the ski slopes it would definitely be a fondue, but in the summer, I love a hamburger off the BBQ!
Thanks for all the great insights, Fish!