After spending more than 30 years of living on the edge while test flying America’s multi-million dollar military fighter jets and expending the flight envelope of each airplane he tested, Lancaster, Calif., resident John Fergione, now retired, says today he’s enjoying a well-earned kickback life of leisure.
Fergione says when he first starting flying he never expected to join the ranks of America’s elite, he said becoming a tester of the most powerful and fastest machines in the world, just sort of happened.
“Things fell into place where I was given the opportunity to fly,” Fergione said. He modestly says once he started flying he discovered he had a little bit of an aptitude for it.
He admits today, however, that after 36 years of flying fighters he became pretty good at it.
Fergione’s career in flight test began in the early 1970s. Armed with a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering, he was commissioned into the U.S. Navy where he continued his education and earned both, a Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Systems and his Naval Aviator wings.
Once he earned his wings, Fergione said the Navy put him through an extensive flying instruction program.
“It takes a lot of [specialized] training before the Navy will actually let you take one of their airplanes and let you try to land it on a carrier,” he said. Fergione said pilots have to prove themselves before being handed over that kind of responsibility.
After completing all the aviation training the Navy had to offer, Fergione served two tours on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal.
While stationed on the Forrestal, he logged nearly 300 carrier landings and was selected for the Naval Test Pilot School [Top Gun], where he graduated with honors and recognized as a “Distinguished Student” in 1977.
Fergione followed that tour serving as assistant strike operations officer aboard the USS Eisenhower and describes carrier takeoffs and landings as unforgiving.
“If you don’t do it right each time, you stand a very good chance of not making it to the next day,” he said.
Shrugging off the element of danger that’s goes along with his chosen career, Fergione says what keep him going with flight testing was the excitement of it all.
“Once you get there and get past the terrifying experiences, it gets to be so much fun that you can’t wait to get to the next catapult shot.”
The “cat shots” this highly-skilled professional so casually talks about have been described by many as like being shot out of a cannon.
Fergione served 10 years of active duty in the Navy followed by 17 years in the Navy Reserves, during which time he went to work for General Dynamics, which later became part of the Lockheed family that is now the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, the aerospace company that Fergione worked for until he retired from the demanding and complex business of flight test in 2007.
While at Lockheed, Fergione tested the F-16 Fighting Falcons over the turbulent skies of Fort Worth, Texas, and Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and he boomed Edwards AFB, Calif., in the single-seat, twin engine F-22 Raptor more times than he can remember.
In all, however, Fergione tested more than 40 different aircraft during an exciting career that lasted more than three decades.
He’s one of those guys who, by well-known author Tom Wolfe’s definition, certainly have “the right stuff.”
Fergione may have retired from flight testing, but his life today is just as full as ever.
He is a past president and fellow member of The Society of Experimental Test Pilots and currently serves as vice-chairman for the SETP and the SETP Scholarship Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships to children of deceased or disabled test pilots.
Fergione has also served as president of the Antelope Valley Board of Trade and continues to serve on that board. He is past director of the Antelope Valley Boys and Girls Clubs and is currently serving as a director with the Edwards AFB Civilian-Military Support Group as the group’s historian and newsletter editor.
He spends a lot of his time giving back to his community and has a special interest in young people destined to become tomorrow’s leaders.
“I believe it’s important to be a mentor to students, because while I was in school I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up,” Fergione said.
He said when talking to high school students today he finds that many of them are in the same boat and haven’t yet discovered their call.
“The message I try to bring to Antelope Valley students is to find out what they are truly passionate about. I tell them once they find something they really like to do, then go for it and be the best that they can be.”
He recalled an incident a few years back when he took a student up in an F-16 and flew over Edwards for about an hour. He even let the student take the controls for a short while. He said years later an Air Force major came up to him and introduced himself.
“He turned out to be the kid I took flying in an F-16. He became a major in the Air Force and a pilot instructor.”
Fergione says mentors never know which student they will touch and turn their life around.
Of all the aircraft Fergione tested he side steps the question of which was his favorite and says instead that he had lots of fun in most of them.
“I’ve had lots of fun in several aircraft; the turbine-powered U-6 called the Beaver was a lot of fun. I spent a lot of time flying the T-2 Buckeye, which was the trainer the Navy used back in the 1960s and 1970s.”
He said the A-7 was the most complicated airplane he ever flew, and the F-22 is the aircraft that opened his eyes, “… when I saw what the combat-ready fifth-generation really meant.”
Of all the aircraft he tested, Fergione logged the most flight hours in the F-16, “I would guess that I had the most fun in that airplane than anything,” he said.
Fergione’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, he was designated a certified professional manager by the National Management Association in 1994 and was inducted into the Aerospace Walk of Honor in Lancaster in 2009.