Test pilots are aviators who fly new and modified aircraft in specific maneuvers, allowing the results to be measured and the design to be evaluated.
Francis Evans (USMC), explored the best way to recover from spins, 1917
Test pilots may work for military organizations or private, (mostly aerospace) companies. Testing military aircraft, in particular, is regarded as the most challenging and risky flying conducted in peacetime, and is therefore the pinnacle of military aviation. Risks for test pilots have decreased substantially since the 1960s. In the 1950s, test pilots were being killed at the rate of about one a week, but the risks have shrunk to a fraction of that, thanks to the maturation of aircraft technology, better ground-testing and simulation of aircraft performance, and, lately, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to test experimental aircraft features. Still, piloting experimental aircraft remains more dangerous than most other types of flying.
A test pilot must be able to:
- Understand a test plan;
- Stick to a test plan, flying a plane in a highly specific way;
- Carefully document the results of each test;
- Have an excellent feel for the aircraft, and sense exactly how it is behaving oddly if it is doing so;
- Solve problems quickly if anything goes wrong with the aircraft during a test;
- Cope with many different things going wrong at once.
Test pilots must have an excellent knowledge of aeronautical engineering, in order to understand how they are testing and why. Natural piloting ability is not as important as analytical skill, and the ability to follow a flight plan. Thrill-seeking sky-jocks are often not best suited for the job, though this did not stop many of the American pilots during the 1950s, who later became astronauts. Despite their image as fun-loving dare-devils, their flying had to be ruthlessly precise and professional.
Test flying as a systematic activity started during the First World War, at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in the United Kingdom. During the 1920s, test flying was further developed by the RAE in the UK, and by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in the United States. In the 1950s, NACA was transformed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. During these years, as work was done into aircraft stability and handling qualities, test flying evolved towards a more qualitative scientific profession.
The world’s oldest test pilot school is what is now called the Empire Test Pilots’ School, at RAF Boscombe Down in the UK. In America, the United States Air Force Test Pilot School is located at Edwards Air Force Base, the United States Naval Test Pilot School is located at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland and the private National Test Pilot School is located in Mojave, California. Another School is EPNER (Ecole du Personnel Navigant d’Essai et de Reception/School for flight test and acceptance personnel), the French test pilot school, located in Istres, France.
Notable test pilots
Some notable test pilots include:
- Neil Armstrong, X-15 pilot and first man on the moon
- Eric “Winkle” Brown, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having flown more aircraft types (487) than any other pilot in the world and first pilot to land a jet aircraft on an aircraft carrier
- Scott Crossfield, Yeager’s direct rival and the first pilot known to have reached Mach 2
- John Cunningham, test-piloted the world’s first jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet
- “Tex” Johnston, who piloted the Boeing 707 prototype
- Anthony W. “Tony” LeVier, air racer and test pilot for the Lockheed Corporation
- Mike Melvill, first privately funded pilot in space
- Hanna Reitsch, the German female test pilot of the V-1 buzz bomb program
- RAF Flt Lt PEG Gerry Sayer, test pilot of Britain’s first jet aircraft, Sir Frank Whittle’s Gloster E.28/39, in 1941.
- Joe Walker, X-15 pilot, first to reach the internationally-recognized boundary to space in a spaceplane
- George Welch, a test pilot for North American Aviation, whom some contest broke the sound barrier before Yeager.
- Fritz Wendel, Messerschmitt’s chief test pilot, who broke the world speed record with the Messerschmitt 209 and first flew the Messerschmitt 262, the world’s first operational jet fighter
- USAF Major General Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager, the first pilot known to have broken the sound barrier; the very image of a “test pilot” in public opinion.
- Test Pilots: Frontiersmen of Flight, Richard P. Hallion, Smithsonian Press.
- The Society of Experimental Test Pilots
- Society of Flight Test Engineers
- Empire Test Pilots School, United Kingdom
- U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, Edwards AFB, California
- U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, NAS Patuxent River, Maryland
- école du Personnel Navigant d’Essais et de Réception, France’s test pilot school (unofficial site, in French)