Our first letter is from a young man named Scott. Here it is, along with my reply.
Hello Major Volstad:
I am in fifth grade at West Elementary School in Napoleon, Ohio. We are having a career fair in May. I am researching experimental test pilots as a career choice. Could you please answer some questions for me?
Thank-you for your letter and your interest in test piloting. You express yourself very clearly in writing, young man! My dad always told me that being able to communicate clearly is an important skill to learn. I've certainly found this to be true for test piloting--we're only as good as the reports we deliver. So keep it up!
I'll try to answer your questions below.
1. What is the average salary for test pilots.
Military test pilots typically get the same salary and allowances as any other military pilot having the same rank and experience. I'm not sure how much this would be in the US (I'm Canadian), but you can call your local recruiting centre and find out. For civilian test pilots, the income varies enormously, just like it does in some other professions (like sports and acting). Some probably struggle to get by, while some make well over $100,000 a year. But I don't know anybody who got into test piloting to get rich--it's the interesting flying that draws us into this line of work.
2. What is the chance of getting a job as a test pilot?
That's a tough question, Scott. First of all, you have to be blessed with reasonably good health--at least, good enough to pass the military or civil aviation exams, like any pilot. Beyond that, I guess it depends, more than anything else, on how motivated you are. If you like the idea of being a test pilot because you think it would be glamorous or something, forget it. But if you love airplanes, and think you'd like to work with other people who do too, then go for it. And don't listen to people who tell you you're going against the odds!
3. Why did you decide to be a test pilot?
Ever since I was a kid, I've been crazy about airplanes and excited about the freedom of flying. On my 16th birthday, my big brother bought me an introductory flight in a small plane at the local flying club, and I was completely hooked. I just knew I had to fly! I guess I also have a knack for tinkering with things and solving problems, and really enjoyed studying engineering in university. This love of flying, and interest in engineering, are common to all test pilots. Anyway, a couple of friends got into test piloting, and told me all about the work they did, and it sounded really exciting. They got to fly lots of different planes, and use their brains a lot, and do stuff that nobody had ever done before. Somehow, I knew this was right up my alley. But, like most people, I wasn't sure if I was "good enough" to be a test pilot. So I kept putting off applying for test pilot training. Finally, after years of studying and flying, and lots of encouragement from my friends, I worked up the courage to give it a try. And here I am!
4. What is it like being a test pilot? What is your favourite thing about being a test pilot?
From what I've seen so far, test pilots are very busy people. There are always projects to plan, meetings to attend, and reports to write. We don't spend as many hours in the cockpit as, say, an airline pilot does--we're lucky if we fly an hour a day, on average. But the time we do spend in the cockpit is always very interesting and rewarding.
My favourite thing about being a test pilot? That's a real toss-up, Scott. It's such a thrill to fly different airplanes. But it's also wonderful to work with great people who share a common interest in flying and engineering.
5. Where do you work, did you have to move to work where you do?
I live with my wife and children at a big Canadian air force base in Cold Lake, Alberta. I had to move there last fall, when I finished my test pilot training in England. My office is in Cold Lake, at the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment, and a lot of flight testing is done in that part of the country because there's lots of open space there. But I also have to spend a lot of time away from home, for lots of different reasons. Right now I'm on a three-month course in Ontario, learning all about an airplane I'll be working on quite a bit over the next few years. The time away from my family isn't so much fun, as you can imagine.
6. Do test pilots work for a manufacturer or do you freelance as a test pilot?
Many civilian test pilots work for aircraft manufacturers, testing new designs as well as production aircraft coming off the assembly lines. Other test pilots do "freelance" work. Some work for the government. (NASA test pilots get to do really neat research work, flying some very unusual airplanes.) Others, like me, work for the military testing airplanes and modifications before they enter general service.
7. As a test pilot, do you consider it an active job or a sitting down job?
A bit of both. There's plenty of "running around", but a certain amount of desk work too. The cockpit itself can be kind of a stressful place at times, particularly if you're pulling lots of "G" in a military jet, so test pilots often like to exercise or play sports to stay physically fit for flying.
I enjoyed your website. Thank you for your help,
Thanks again for your enthusiasm, Scott. I hope I've answered your questions for you. Stay on top of your schoolwork, and you'll find that your career options will be just about unlimited, when the time comes to make that choice. But in the meantime, don't forget to be a kid and have so me fun, okay?
Major Eric Volstad, Canadian Air Force
Our next letter is from Canada's capital city.
----- Original Message -----
From: Glenn Weir
Hello Mr. Weir,
Thanks for your interest in test piloting. To answer your questions:
Mathematics can be very important to test pilots, because they help us understand why airplanes behave the way they do. For example: Have you ever been up in an airliner that's only half full of passengers? If so, you may have noticed that the passengers aren't all seated together at the front or the back of the airplane. They're kind of spread out all over. That's not just because they don't like the smell of each other! It's because the airline people have to spread the weight of the passengers out so the plane is balanced, kind of like a teeter-totter. If too much weight is at the front or the back of the plane, the plane becomes a lot harder for the pilots to fly. Test pilots do carefully-planned experiments in a new airplane to figure out what range of weights and balance will allow the airplane to be safely flown, so that the airlines will know the best way to load the plane. To understand these experiments--we call them tests--we need to understand the science of flight really well, and like a lot of sciences, this one involves lots of mathematical equations which describe how things relate to each other. We learn some of this stuff in high school, and more of it in university, and even more of it during our special training as test pilots. But it's all based on the mathematics that we all had to learn in elementary and junior high school. It's not hard, really. In fact, it's kind of neat when we use math to predict how a plane will fly under certain conditions, and then go out and test it and find out we were right.
As important as mathematics are to a test pilot, I would argue that communication skills are even more so. That's because the most important part of our job, next to safely piloting an airplane, is telling people how the airplane behaves. If I discover a problem with the handing qualities of an airplane, I have to be able to explain it in precise technical terms to the airplane designers so that they'll know how to fix it. I also have to be able to explain the problem in very simple terms to the business people who control the money, so that they'll be willing to pay for fixing the problem. And, if we all decide we can live with the problem, I have to be able to explain it in even simpler terms for other pilots, who will want to read about it in the airplane's flight manual. Some of this communication involves talking, and some requires writing. When we present a report, whether oral or written, it has to be clear, interesting, and easy to understand, or nobody pay any attention to it! Some of us find communication skills a lot harder to master than, say, flying a Russian MiG-29. No kidding!
I hope I've been of some help to you and the students, Mr. Weir. Most of all, I hope I haven't turned any of them off flying! It's what makes the job so much fun.
(c) 1998 Eric Volstad