In the west, most experimental test pilots have a strong background in academics and military flying. They usually have at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and significant operational experience. I started my training with a degree in mechanical engineering, and about 5000 flying hours (mostly in the C-130 Hercules, as well as a couple of instructing jobs.) The selection process varies, but in Canada, a prospective test pilot is invited to the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment for a week of flying in unfamiliar aircraft, as well as a math exam, all of which is intended to allow both the military and the candidate to decide whether the candidate has the peculiar bent for for flying and engineering that the job demands. If everybody’s happy, he or she waits for a course opening to become available, signs a five-year contract, and then packs up the family and moves to the US, France, or England for a year.
Family… It seems that most test pilot candidates are in their late 20’s or early 30’s, with established families. Most of us at this stage have gotten any “cowboy” tendencies out of our blood, and have settled into a more cautious attitude toward flying. And the support of an understanding family can make a very intense year of test pilot training that much more pleasant. My own family found our year in England to be a wonderful adventure for all of us!
There are four military and two civilian schools in the west. They are all co-located with flight test centres, allowing the use of various resources such as aircraft, instrumentation, and telemetry. Some air forces, such as Canada’s, make use of all the schools in order to gain the broadest variety of flight test expertise. The schools also cooperate to some extent, with exchange visits for both staff and students.
These six schools are:
- The US Air Force Test Pilot School, at Edwards AFB in the Mojave desert, California;
- The US Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland. Currently the busiest school, training about 72 people a year;
- The École du Personnel Navigant d’Essais et de Réception (EPNER) at Istres air base, France;
- The Empire Test Pilots School, at Boscombe Down, England;
- The International Test Pilots School, at Woodford, England (civilian-owned); and
- The National Test Pilot School, at Mojave, California (civilian-owned).
Test pilot training is also done in other countries, such as Brazil, India, Japan, and, of course, Russia. Zhukovsky is the home of Russian flight testing , as well as their test pilot school.
Test pilot courses typically cover three broad areas of flight testing: aircraft performance; aircraft stability and control; and systems testing. These, in turn, are broken down into a large number of specific subjects, such as spins and cockpit displays. At each step, the theory and test procedures are covered in the classroom, and then practical exercises are carried out in an airplane or helicopter. Teams of test pilot and flight test engineering students draw up detailed test plans, test the aircraft in flight, analyse results, and report on their findings – sometimes with an oral presentation; sometimes with a written report. The big challenge – and a large measure of a test pilot’s worth – is to make credible, persuasive arguments to support sound conclusions and recommendations.
Computers and simulators both play a large role in modern test piloting, so they’re used extensively throughout the course.
Visits to industry, other flight test organisations, and symposia also broaden the the fledgling test pilot’s awareness of the unique culture of flight testing.
The choice of aircraft for a particular exercise depends on a number of factors, but all test pilot schools strive to give their students an exposure to a very wide variety of interesting aircraft. For every exercise, the students are required to evaluate it with a very specific role in mind. Point defence fighter; police helicopter; tactical transport; ground-attack…each role has different requirements, which the test pilot must understand and test the aircraft for. In my case, my background and future test piloting employment involve multi-engine, multi-crew aircraft, so my course at the International Test Pilots School tended to focus on this kind of work. Helicopter and “fast jet” test pilots receive the equivalent emphasis in their courses. However, we all get to fly a really neat variety of aircraft. Perhaps a few examples are in order.
At ITPS, we used a Cessna 406 Caravan II for many of our air lessons and basic exercises. It had a pair of 500 hp turboprop engines, and a removable suite of instrumentation for recording accelerations, control forces, speed and altitude, and so on. (Although it’s a Cessna, it’s an unfamiliar sight in North America: It’s actually built exclusively in Reims, France, in the heart of the Champagne district.)
Cessna 406 Caravan II (fully instrumented for flight testing.)
We tested the climb performance of this lovely Citation 500 business jet. The plane was absolutely delightful to fly! (Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to express such enthusiasm in my formal reports…)
The nice-handling Cessna Citation 500
We flew this classic Lockheed L-188 Electra from Edinburgh, Scotland on a couple of occasions, testing cruise performance and engine-out handling. The aircraft has roughly the same engines as the Hercules, but goes a little faster.
Four-engine Lockheed Electra (Edinburgh, Scotland.)
A dream come true! Flying a wonderful old DC-3 tail dragger, with a couple of big radial engines. The cockpit is like the cab of an old steam locomotive, full of odd gauges and levers in the most awkward places. We measured its stall speeds and found some interesting handling qualities in the process. I banked a little time for the end of the flight, to allow a few touch-and-go landings. The sound and feel of those engines was sensational!
A fabulous old DC-3.
We went to Cape May, New Jersey, to fly a couple of deHavilland Canada DHC-4A Caribou. One was a stock aircraft, with the original 1450-hp radial piston engines. The other was an experimental prototype fitted with big PT-6 turbines. For our exercise, we compared the performance, range and payload of the two aircraft.
An experimental prototype Caribou with PT-6 turbine engines (Cape May, NJ)
The Jet Provost Mk. 5A had a long history of service with the Royal Air Force as a basic jet trainer. It’s thoroughly British, and quite fun to fly.
Jet Provost 5A
We’ve been to Russia twice, to fly the MiG-29. In November ’97, I flew four sorties from Lukhovitsy, primarily to test its climb and turning performance. But I also had ample opportunity to evaluate its peculiarly Russian instruments and avionics – the cloud ceiling was typically 300 feet. The plane was remarkably easy to fly, which is a handy feature in a machine which can pull 9 “G” and rocket up to 35,000 feet in a minute and change! Our Russian test pilot hosts were wonderfully accommodating.
MiG-29UB (Lukhovitsy, Russia.) Great time – four flights in the front seat, flying with MiG’s top test pilots, testing some eye-popping performance!
Standard Russian attitude indicator. Had to figure out real quick how to use it – I entered cloud in a steep climb just seconds after the first takeoff.
We devoted a week to flying a Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter, testing its engine-out performance. This was the purest “seat-of-the-pants” flying I’ve done, and perhaps the most hair-raising, as we chopped the throttle from increasingly tricky speeds and altitudes and autorotated to forced landings on a bumpy grass strip. I learned a new respect for my rotary-winged friends!
Spin testing is an intensive part of a test pilot course. Spins are a very complex phenomenon, and an aircraft may tend to spin in many different ways – either intentionally or unintentionally. The course covers the mechanics of spinning in some detail, and then explores the spin characteristics of a number of aircraft. We started with on with which I was already familiar – the Slingsby T67 Firefly, a piston trainer in use with several air forces and a reputation as plane that “likes” to spin. We then went to Corpus Christi, Texas, to spin a Chinese CJ-6 trainer (akin to the Yak-52), as well as a beautiful Hunter T-7 jet. The CJ-6 had remarkably nice, light, well-harmonized controls, and was a delight to fly. But it proved to be relatively resistant to spinning.
Corpus Christi, Texas: Chinese CJ-6 military trainer (a variant of the Russian Yak-52). Flew much nicer than it looks!
Another bunch of peculiar instruments – Chinese labels, metric units, upside-down colours.
This Hunter was fitted with special instrument panels to help the pilots keep their wits during the changing accelerations and gyrations of a spin. We spun the Hunter, both erect and inverted, from 42,000 ft over the Gulf of Mexico. It proved to be highly oscillatory around all axes, even spontaneously reversing its direction of rotation. But it always recovered without any fuss. Altogether, a remarkable experience!
Course mate Pete Earle, tutor Mike Brooke, and me. We spun this gorgeous 1950’s Hawker Hunter from 42,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico. (Yes, Mom, I was careful…)
Me and Mr. Brooke and a very nice jet
Calspan Corporation has developed a lot of experience in studying problems with aircraft controllability which can lead to pilot-induced oscillations (PIOs). They visited the school to give us a week of training on their highly-modified Lear 25, which they call a “Variable Stability Simulator.” The standard mechanical controls are fitted at the left seat, but are replaced with fly-by-wire electronic controls at the right seat. The Calspan instructor, in the left seat, can program all sorts of characteristics into the electronic controls for the student in the right seat, to allow him to experience some of the problems of badly-designed control systems. The result is some… very interesting and memorable approaches, landings and overshoots.
Calspan’s Lear 25 VSS, with fly-by-wire controllers for the student test pilot in the right seat.
The following week we had a chance to apply some of those lessons in a “real” fly-by-wire aircraft: the Airbus A320 prototype, in Toulouse, France. Airbus, unlike Boeing, uses side stick controllers in the cockpit instead of the traditional control column and yoke. (To work up for my four hours in the captain’s seat, I trained my left hand to use a joystick while “flying” a Microsoft flight simulator on my home computer.) We actually spent a good part of our time watching it fly itself, while we assessed its automatic landing capability with various engine failure scenarios. But it was also quite nice to fly by hand. I quite enjoyed the A320, and I’m sure the wrinkles in the wings following my first hand-flown landing were only superficial…
The Airbus A320 prototype at Toulouse, France.
We flew the prototype Falcon 2000 from Dassault’s facility at Istres, France, in order to evaluate a newfangled head-up guidance system. Borrowing from fighter aircraft HUD technology, this system went a step further by generating very precise visual cues which allowed us to manually take off and land completely “blind”. This test aircraft was specially fitted with LCD panels in the pilots windows, which could be made completely opaque with the flick of a switch by the safety pilot in the right seat.
The prototype Falcon 2000 at Istres, France, with Head-up Guidance System (HGS).
I took a break from the test planning and report-writing for half an hour of pure bliss in a Piper Cub, on a sunny afternoon in March… Sorry I forgot my camera!
Another interesting exercise on the Cessna 406 – this time, from the factory at Reims. A prototype had been fitted with external stores, “dummy” pods simulating the weight and aerodynamics of gun or rocket pods. We tested the aircraft for the ground attack role, and worked out the optimum pop-up attack profile during a series of simulated attacks on unsuspecting vineyards. Not surprisingly, the Cessna 406 didn’t have the manoeuvrability of an F-16… But it made for a very interesting exercise!
A prototype installation of external stores on a Cessna 406 in Reims, France.
We spent a week at the French military test pilot school, EPNER, flying a classic hot rod, the Mirage III. While I performed various stability and control tests, both subsonic and supersonic, my engineer course mate on the ground monitored critical parameters like roll rates in real time in a telemetry control room. Flight testing requires teamwork, even when you’re alone in the cockpit.
The Mirage III at Istres.
We flew this nifty Aerospatiale A355 Ecureuil (Twin Squirrel) police helicopter in Gloucester, evaluating an infrared imaging system which they use for tracking down bad guys at night. The system worked well…but the flying was the best part!
My course mate Pete with the Twin Squirrel and imaging system.
We flew this RAF Dominie (a modified Hawker-Siddely 125) from Cranwell over the North Sea, to evaluate the range and azimuth resolution and accuracy of its ground-mapping radar system. The system worked well…but the flying was the best part!
The RAF Dominie.
We spent a dozen or so hours in British Aerospace’s engineering simulator at Woodford. It had visuals, but no motion, and can be programmed to simulate all sorts of handling qualities. It’s an essential design tool, but also serves as an excellent training aid. As well, we flew a number of full-motion airline training simulators, including the A320, BAe 146 and RJ, Concorde, and Boeing 747-400.
The Concorde simulator at Bristol.
We had the opportunity to fly nearly 15 hours in a British Aerospace 146 regional airliner, from Woodford, Stanstead, and Inverness. The exercise was to evaluate it for use as a military tactical transport aircraft. So, to test various systems in the low-level, tactical environment, I decided to fly down the length of Loch Ness and past Ben Nevis at 1000 ft. All in a day’s work, as they say!
The BAe 146 we evaluated for the tactical transport role.
Two more weeks in Russia, this time at Zhukovsky. We flew with a couple of very impressive gentlemen who had recently been honoured as “Heroes of Russia” for their contributions to Russian aviation. Our exercise again focused on performance and handling qualities of the MiG-29. On one flight, wearing a special suit in case the cockpit depressurised, I tested the acceleration at 40,000 feet to Mach 2.1. Then I pulled to 40 degrees of pitch, and zoomed to over 70,000 feet. (What did I actually prove, of lasting value to humankind? Well, let’s see…that the sky’s a deeper shade of blue at that altitude…and that Russian pressure suits are decidedly uncomfortable.) Other interesting sorties were devoted to the tail slide and cobra manoeuvres, which generally aren’t done in western fighters.
MiG-29UB (Zhukovsky, Russia.)
The front office of the MiG-29UB.
Pete and I teamed up for our last big project: an evaluation of the new Airbus/SATIC A300-600ST Super Transporter, better know as the Beluga. It’s the most spacious plane in the world, and it was purpose-built to replace the aging Boeing Super Guppy for transporting Airbus fuselages and wings between plants in Europe. We flew the fourth and final Beluga; it had only 19 hours on it when we began testing it, and it still smelled like a new car inside! (Yes; I would have felt REAL bad if I’d bent it.) The Beluga had a pretty nice “glass cockpit” (electronic flight instruments and displays), and all it handled remarkably well for such a big and odd-shaped aircraft. And, because the typical payload was more bulky than heavy, it proved to have very good performance.
Everything about the Beluga is BIG, including the two-ton cargo door.
The Beluga has conventional boosted flight controls, and a cockpit similar to the A310.
Airbus/SATIC A300-600ST Super Transporter, better know as the Beluga.
The last several weeks of the course brought opportunities to perform qualitative evaluations of a number of other interesting aircraft, to further broaden our experience.
A Folland Gnat. This squirrelly little jet trainer had been used by the RAF, and is now owned by David Gilmour (of Pink Floyd).
The venerable North American Harvard.
The unusual Scottish Aviation Twin Pioneer. On a grass strip, with a good headwind, we landed and took off again – all in the length of a football field! (This spectacular STOL performance made up for the mediocre handling qualities…)
A Shorts 360 – a workhorse that handles about as nice as it looks….
Another Citation 500. We evaluated it in formation flight with the Shorts 360.
Lest I leave the reader with the impression that it was all fun and games, I must say, I learned a heck of a lot about flight testing aircraft during my year at the International Test Pilots School. And that’s what it’s all about.
(c) 1998 Eric Volstad