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Howdy! Welcome to "Test Pilot Stuff". I'm Eric Volstad, a test pilot with the Canadian Air Force. Whether you're young or old, I hope you enjoy the information I've collected for you here.
When I told my mother that I was going to be a test pilot, she wasn't quite as excited as I was. Perhaps one reason was that, like many people, she had only a vague notion of what test piloting was all about. So for Mom, and for anyone with a passing interest in the subject, here's an introduction to this unusual profession.
Experimental test pilots fly new and modified airplanes; occasionally fool around with nerdy calculus equations; and generally spend entirely too much time writing long, technical reports. Their job is to determine if the planes they test can safely do what they were designed to do, before the rest of the flying world takes them into the air.
Western air forces select from their ranks experienced pilots who appear to have a certain tolerance of such things, and send them for a year of specialized training at any of the half-dozen test pilot schools in the US and Europe. They usually have a degree or two in engineering, and an operational background flying helicopters, fighters, or large multi-engine aircraft. Military test pilots might hang out at centres dedicated to flight testing, such as the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment (AETE) of the Canadian Air Force. (Those are the nice folks who were kind enough to send me to the International Test Pilot School in Woodford, England.)
Their civilian counterparts in the aerospace industry, like Boeing's chief 777 test pilot , are sometimes engineers who work their way into this field with an aircraft company. Others get involved in pure research, testing new concepts in the air before they're incorporated in new designs.
Test pilots may or may not have so-called "golden arms", but they need to have a good grip on what makes planes fly the way they do...as well as the powers of observation, reason, and persuasion to help ensure that the good designs make it into service and the bad ones don't. NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, which are the tools that test pilot uses to measure aircraft performance and handling.
Test piloting has come a long way. Gone is any notion of "kicking the tires, lighting the fires." Today, engineers are much better at predicting the behaviour of new and modified aircraft. The test pilot may have spent many hours in a fairly realistic flight simulator, but certain unknowns always remain until a design is tested in the air. Modern flight testing also recognizes that an aircraft that "should" fly well can reveal some interesting problems when a human is placed at the controls, particularly in demanding tasks like air-to-air refuelling or short-field landings. So one of the newer tricks of the flight test trade is to have the test pilot simulate such tasks relatively early in a test program and rate the handling qualities, to shake out such problems while it's relatively practical to fix them.
The Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP) allows test pilots to share their experiences, furthering the state of the art. Its Flight Test Safety Committee has on-line "best practices & checklists" , and its flight safety workshops web page includes some examples of lessons learned--the hard way.
Whoa! Am I starting to make it sound kind of boring, or what? In fact, doing interesting things in a wide variety of aircraft makes for a wonderfully challenging profession.
(c) 1998 Eric Volstad