Eurofighter Expert: Stefan Leuthner 

Stephan ‘Grisu’ Leuthner is lucky. Each day he gets to do his dream job. He’s the Project Pilot Eurofighter Typhoon and Next Generation Fighter with Airbus in Manching. Here Grisu, as he is known to his colleagues, talks about his flying career, the people who inspired him and the key attributes you need to be a test pilot.

Picture credit: Martin Aguera

Talk to us about your career background. 

I'm doing what I've always dreamed of doing. My dad used to fly in the German Air Force, both on Starfighters and Tornados, so from being around six years old I knew I wanted to be a pilot too.

Growing up, we'd be at the squadron for family gatherings and I'd see my dad flying all the time. The first time I got into an airplane was when I was six. It was a motor glider and, when I got out, I said, ‘Okay, I'm going to be a pilot too.’ I never had a Plan B, so it is fortunate that it worked out for me!

I actually started my career in 1997 and went through the standard German Air Force officers’ training before going on to the Armed Forces University where I studied Aeronautical Engineering. I then started flying with the Air Force on Tornado and over time I moved to Lechfeld Air Base where I joined my dad's old squadron.

Then, in October 2011, when I was on a deployment in Afghanistan, I got a call from Cassidian (as Airbus Defence and Space was known) about a test pilot role. I went home from Kabul for a day for the job interview and on the way back they offered me the job. Three months later I had left the Air Force and was at the Empire Test Pilots’ School at RAF Boscombe Down in the UK doing my test pilot course. 

Before then I’d always said that I wanted to become a test pilot. But it's very seldom the opportunities in the Air Force arise. So, when that option came along, I was happy. 

Your father seems to have been an inspirational figure for you. Did he have any reservations about you becoming a pilot?

No. In fact, probably one of the proudest days for both him and me was when he pinned on my wings at Sheppard Airport Base during my graduation.

He is one of three people who are to blame for me taking this career path. Seeing him flying and hearing him talk about his job when he was back home was an inspiration. I remember going out to the squadron, being there for night flying and watching the planes come and go. The squad room felt like home. You could say that my dad is my idol, and I think I guess he's pretty proud too that I followed in his footsteps and of what I have achieved.

OK, so your father was one of three people who were highly influential in your decision to be a pilot. Who were the others? 
The second is Chuck Yeager (the US test pilot immortalised in the film and book The Right Stuff). I know it might sound funny, but I read his autobiography and saw the movie The Right Stuff and it was truly inspiring. In his book he describes his life and the flight test world back then and I found it genuinely exciting. That was a job that I wanted. I actually ran into him once at Oshkosh while I was still at the university — I think I was 19  — and he was doing a presentation. I introduced myself and asked him to sign a copy of his book.

Things are a lot different today than compared to Yeager’s era. It's a lot safer now — not least because we simply can't afford to lose an experimental air job every other week — but I think the attitude towards flight test is the same. We're trying to be as professional as we can. We try to get the maximum out of the aircraft — we test the limits and a bit beyond to make sure that there won't be any bad surprises in the future. 

The third guy is Tom Cruise. I remember going to movies when Top Gun came out. I went there with my dad, with a friend of ours who became a Typhoon and F-4 pilot in the German Air Force as well. I have lost count of the times I have seen it since. But it has been influential for me, as it has been for many others too, I guess. It's just cool. It just shows how cool and how much fun this job is as well. 

You've probably got one of the coolest job titles in the world, haven't you? 

Yeah, I think it’s one of the cooler jobs definitely. That said, when the new Top Gun movie came out, I went to see it with my dad and my son, who also wants to become a pilot. We were in the movie theatre and we're like, okay, we're probably the coolest guys in here — one former fighter pilot and a test pilot. But then a guy calls out to me from a couple of rows behind ‘Hey, Luets how are you?” So, we turned around and it was a former German astronaut who I know sitting there! I commented about it on his Facebook page and we had a good laugh about it. 

But yes, it is a cool job. However, from my point of view, the reason why has changed over the years. Today, the thing I enjoy most is working together with all the engineers and the mechanics. There are so many good people here and it's great working with them.

When I left the Air Force my Commanding General wished me good luck and told me, ‘Whatever happens, don't forget where you've come from. Don't forget your alma mater.’

My job is akin to being a translator. I try to interpret the operational use of aircraft to engineers and  try to explain engineering speak to operational pilots. It’s good to be able to work closely with guys who have brilliant ideas, and sometimes I am able to push something along that might not have been in the aircraft if not for some young guy who had an idea. 

Of course, sometimes you have to shut down an idea, but you try to do it in such a way that they don't lose the motivation to still keep thinking outside of the box. 

Of course, the flying is still cool. It's still a great feeling to strap into the aircraft, to start up the engines and go airborne, especially with Typhoon as it’s so powerful. But if I had to say what makes me happy about my job it’s really when we achieve little steps, make some new development or get something new on the aircraft. That's the really cool side of the job.  

As a test pilot do you consider yourself as an advocate for your former Air Force colleagues? 

I try to be yes. I hope I'm achieving that as well because cooperation between the Air Force and the company is important. When I left the Air Force my Commanding General wished me good luck and told me, ‘Whatever happens, don't forget where you've come from. Don't forget your alma mater.’

I try to live up to the promise I made back then. So yes, I wear the Airbus uniform but I always keep in mind the role my former colleagues and now younger pilots will be dealing with. When we make decisions, assess things, rate deficiencies and figure out new software, it's always in the back of my mind.

Tell my why your role is important.

What I really try to think about are two things. The first is the operational side, and trying to make sure that the product you deliver is as good as it can be within the constraints of the programme. 

The other aspect is the safety side. Even with an aircraft that's been in operation for 20 years now, with every development we do, every adjustment to the flight control system, every new store, you have to do assessments in the simulator and in the aircraft and you have to have safety in mind.

If you're too lax or don't make the effort to really find anything that can be found, it will come back to haunt some other pilot someday. It's going to be your responsibility. If we sign off on something as being safe for release to service, then it's our responsibility.

Flying is not dangerous, it's just terribly unforgiving.

Aside from being a world-class pilot, what kind of skills do you need then? 

I think the foremost quality or character trait you need is honesty. You have to be honest in what you do and what you communicate. If you find a deficiency on the aircraft, you need to be honest about it, so it does not become an issue for an operational pilot later on. 

It also means that if you screw up yourself — and there hasn't been a flight where I haven't made one mistake or another — then you need to be honest with yourself. First of all, because it's just not a job where you're supposed to hide things. But also, you need to lead by example because that's what you want from your engineers. You need to be able to talk about things that maybe went wrong or that might be improved or that might not be perfect. 

What are the main challenges of the role? 

It’s about always being self-critical. I'm 45 now and I've been flying for many years and you tend to get stuck in your ways. The older I have become, the more I have to tell myself to be open minded about something new coming up.

Sticking to things as they have always been would be the worst possible approach within developmental process because you have to assess new options, new possibilities, and new ways of thinking. I often have to ask myself if I really think something is deficient because it's no good or do I think it's deficient because I'm not used to it? It's a daily challenge to really question yourself.

It's going to be a test pilot's dream.

How excited are you about the future of the aircraft?
I'm really excited about it. Once the mid-life upgrades that are envisioned in the long term evolution come along there'll be so many interesting options in regard to development as well as to flight tests. It's going to be a test pilot's dream. 

You can look into flight controls, you can look into handling qualities, new stores, you expand the envelope. You might have a completely aerodynamically different aircraft with the aerodynamic mod kit. But you also have many great opportunities avionics wise — with the weapons system, with the integration of manned and unmanned teaming with the aircraft, with the design of new cockpit. Wherever you look there’s something interesting happening. 

From the outside it will still look like a Typhoon but it's going to be a new-generation aircraft. And being part of all that development right from the get-go, well that’s what this job is all about. 

Do you have a typical day? 

No not really and that's what I love, every day is different. Each presents different challenges. That said, my day always starts with a good cup of coffee to prepare me for what's ahead. Franzi at our on-site canteen makes the greatest espresso in the world! 

Then it depends. If we are in a flying phase then it's more like a typical pilot's day, where you start the day checking the weather, checking the airspace, getting a briefing, preparing the flight, then flying. It might be a phase where we are looking into preparing a flight test phase. Then it's more about reading about the software upgrades, sitting down with the engineers, writing the flight test programmes. Or we might have a simulator day where we do certification work. Here you have to assess the aircraft in a simulated environment, being aware that decisions you make are going to have an impact on flight safety once the product comes online. 

What's life like beyond the cockpit? 

Well, I'm married, I’ve got three kids, two horses and four dogs. Much of my spare time is spent with dogs because we're a kind of foster home for them. Over the past five years, we've had something like 75 dogs passing through our home. We try to socialise them and then find them new families. 

My other escape is gardening. When I get home from work, the first thing I usually do, is go into the garden and look at my roses. It's a good chance to wind down.