U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School

From Academic Kids

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The U.S. Air Force Flight Test School is located on Edwards Air Force Base in California. Its mission is to produce test pilots and flight test engineers capable of testing new and experimental aircraft. The job is dangerous, and several test pilots have died as a result of the nature of experimental aircraft. While deaths due to hardware malfuctions are unavoidable, pilot errors ultimately are. This is why the test pilot school was established: to train already experienced pilots and engineers to eliminate as much human error as possible.

The fundamental key to success in aerospace flight test and evaluation is the individual member of the flight test team: the flight test pilot, of course, but nowadays the trained flight test engineer and navigator as well. Without him – and increasingly, her – the fundamental work of testing and flying experimental aircraft would be significantly more challenging.

Bravery and flying skills of the highest order have always been requirements for the flight test mission, but much more is demanded of today’s flight test professionals: scientific and engineering knowledge, critical and reasoned judgment, and managerial skills of the first order. A well-devised flight test program, skillfully carried out, calls forth the absolute performance of the aircraft and its associated systems. Finding the people who are capable of planning and flying such a program is not easy, nor is the process automatic.


What Students Learn

Nearly any given time of the year will find two separate classes undergoing the present 48-week curriculum of classroom academic, simulator training and flight exercises. No matter the primary flying experience of each incoming candidate, be it fighter, bomber or heavy transport, each student who successfully completes the demanding course will be fully capable of testing any type of aircraft and aircraft system likely to be encountered after graduation. Course work is taught in four main phases: Performance, Flying Qualities, Systems, and Test Management.

The test pilot will be taught to follow carefully-crafted flight profiles, not daring aerial maneuvers. He must be taught to handle his airplane with extraordinary precision: to control his airspeed to the nearest knot, and his altitude virtually to the foot--every time. Beyond this, the neophyte test pilot must have a natural affinity for mechanical systems, an ability to "feel" the airplane and have a well-honed sense of what is happening at any given time. Mature and reasoned judgment is also vital – human lives, and millions of dollars, depend upon how carefully a test mission is planned and flown. But all of these skills would be useless without knowledge and training – -systematic training in gathering flight data, and then interpreting it. Minutes spent in precision flying must be matched by hours of painstaking effort at computers, in the library, and around the conference table.

Who They Are

Contrary to the romanticized view of old Hollywood films, test pilots are not "born" to their talents – they are painstakingly made. Natural ability in the air is necessary, of course, but a delicate touch on the controls and absolute precision on the air are needed – not slapdash bravado.

The class sizes vary somewhat, but are kept small, each student benefiting from intensive personal attention from the TPS faculty. There is often a sprinkling of other uniforms among the Air Force blue--Navy, U.S. Marines, NATO and other foreign students admitted under the Foreign Military Sales program. Female students are no longer a rarity; since the first one appeared in 1974 more than 25 have graduated to date. Three of the women, so far, have become astronauts. Many of today’s students are not pilots; some 40 percent of them are student flight test engineers and navigators.

What They Do

The students often labor side by side with professionals, working test pilots from several flight test squadrons housed in nearby hangars. Visiting experts frequently are called upon to share their knowledge. Inevitably, all of this forges a strong camaraderie among each class, and close personal and professional bonds develop between them and their instructors as they are gradually initiated into the tightly-knit and highly selective world of the professional test airmen. The demands of the work level are legendary throughout the aviation community; TPS students holding medical degrees have compared its intensity to medical school, and late nights are common. There is occasional play as well as work: time snatched with family, impromptu parties and the formal graduation dinner. But work, of course, is the byword: math-filled lectures as the intricacies of aerodynamics are explored in the classroom; new computer techniques to absorb; and best of all, the hours spent in the cockpit mastering the precise flying techniques and building up the detailed knowledge of the aircraft and its systems which are hallmarks of the test professional.

The accelerating pace of technical development in today’s aerospace environment guarantees that the curriculum of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School remain in a continual state of evolution. New systems continually require the development of new testing methods, which in turn demand up-to-date training for test personnel. Systems management provides the trainees with the managerial skills and professional versatility necessary to cope with the ever more complex test programs required by the Flight Test Center’s customers. Today’s TPS graduates seldom work on basic performance and stability testing of new aircraft nor, in fact, is the U.S. Air Force their only customer. Other branches of the armed services, other government agencies, foreign nations and aerospace contractors are also served by the Air Force Flight Test Center and its TPS graduates. A Flight Test Engineer course was installed in February, 1973, allowing non-pilot student engineers to follow their own curriculum paralleling the work of the pilot students. A year later, similar provisions were made for student navigators. This approach allows a team approach to test program planning, data collection, analysis and final reporting.

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This article contains information that came from a public domain government website

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