Gary Freeman, Experimental Test Pilot at Gulfstream
By Christine S. Lucas
Published in Richmond Hill Reflections , Guys in the Sky Issue
Don’t call Gary Freeman macho. The retired Naval Commander wants it made clear that he puts his pants on one leg at a time–like the rest of us. The only difference is that–when he’s flying a plane and an engine cuts off–this Experimental Test Pilot for Gulfstream doesn’t bend over and kiss his tush good-bye.
“I always had an innate desire to fly,” Gary says. His father was a Naval Fighter Pilot who flew propeller planes in World War II and retired as a Rear Admiral. Gary suspects that his love of aviation trickled down from his father–even though he was not one to talk about his work.
Like most teenagers, Gary’s initial jobs weren’t glamorous. While living in Interlachen, Florida he worked for a chicken farmer–collecting eggs, tending feeders, removing dead birds. Gary cared for around thirty thousand chickens during the sticky summer months, and he was paid one dollar an hour. “To make eight bucks a day in the 60s was doing pretty well,” he says.
One wonders whether it was amongst the chickens that Gary first scratched out his designs for a military career. He didn’t get into the Annapolis Naval Academy on the first try, so he attended their prep school for a year in 1971. When he showed up for his first day at the Naval Academy, a year later, his father was still on active duty and along with Gary’s mother lived at the NATO base in Italy.
The Aerospace Engineering major recalls his time as a Plebe, a name given to freshman. “To me, it was all grueling,” Gary says. “It was a lot more than I expected.” The Naval Academy’s way of instilling time-management skills was to make sure its freshman were never sitting still. They were always studying, learning, or doing something the upperclassmen had asked of them.
When Gary finished his first year at Annapolis he kept himself busy–eventually becoming a SCUBA instructor and Skydiving Jump Master. “All that stuff that doesn’t involve sitting around doing nothing,” Gary laughs. If there is a common trait among pilots it seems to be learning and doing more all the time. Gary has flown F4 Phantoms, and F14 Tom Cats. He’s an FAA Certified Airframes and Powerplant Mechanic. What the heck does that mean? He can inspect his own darn planes, a Beechcraft Baron and single-engine Mooney.
Gary met his wife Lisa as a child and married her twenty-six years ago. They have two daughters: Mary Beth, 24, and Virginia, 22. Most Richmond Hill residents recall the outpouring of affection and respect paid to the Freeman’s when their son Matthew, a Captain in the Navy, was killed in action in 2009. The Freemans are long-time residents of this area. Routes 17 and 144 were 2-lane roads when they showed up.
Gary believes his position as a test-pilot with Gulfstream is not as dangerous as the time he spent in Carrier Aviation. “The toughest challenge was landing super-sonic jets on a pitching deck in the middle of the ocean,” he says. According to Gary there was nowhere to go if something went wrong, and many planes have been lost over the years. Fewer planes are lost now, Gary explains, because of larger carriers, better planes and things like Global Positioning Systems.
The Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland is where Gary went to Test Pilot school. As with his other pursuits, he ended up teaching there as well. He became an Experimental Test Pilot with Gulfstream in October of 2008. Test Pilots at Gulfstream perform a range of tests. The number of test flights Gary flies in a single day is usually two or three. He recalls having flown as many as eight. “Some tests are routine,” Gary tells me. “Others involve flying a plane at low altitude and turning off one of the engines.”
Fear does not play a role in Gary’s job, but preparation does. It’s necessary to minimize all possible risks. “There are situations where you don’t know what the outcome will be,” he explains, “And you’re saying, ‘Hmm, hope this works.’” Gary is asked to do things sometimes that even he doesn’t want to do. “But that’s the job–so you do it,” he says.
When Gary has time, he likes to test himself. His idea of fun is sailing across oceans or hiking 4,000 vertical feet with a 40-pound pack on his back. The lack of cell service on these jaunts makes it all the more enticing for this self-reliant chap. “It’s relaxing, because you’re just walking around,” he says. He doesn’t seem to get that there are large populations of people who would need to be chased by someone with a knife to endure that kind of walk.
So is this test pilot thing really that cool? “It’s twice as cool,” Gary says, and I think I detect a grin through the phone. What makes it all that? “I get to go up in multimillion dollar jets on a daily basis, and the company trusts me,” Gary says. “There are a lot of people whose jobs rely on me taking care of that jet.”