What is a test pilot?

Imagine for a moment rocketing at a thousand miles an hour in a plane spiraling down toward earth. Most people picture a diving aircraft and nightmarish images of crashing and burning but to a professional known as “Test Pilot” the scenario just describes another day on-the-job. Thrill seekers looking for fast-paced employment requiring constant, critical analysis and split-second decision-making skills will find a test pilot job is the perfect fit.

Military personnel and civilians are both eligible to pursue a career as a test pilot. Many test pilots will have gained experience while serving in the military by testing planes before they are used in general service on technical maneuvers. Civilians can get experience with commercial air carriers and airplane manufacturers working as “production test pilots” taking planes up and testing for any possible problems that might occur in the normal operation of that type of plane.

Career Preparation

Preparation for becoming a test pilot should begin in high school. Students need to focus on achieving high grades in mathematics and science courses to form the groundwork for gaining admission to college. Completing a bachelor’s degree with a major in aerospace engineering or mechanical engineering is usually the best route to follow when the goal is to become a test pilot. Completing college courses in communication and business can serve to round out the skills of a student pilot and provide solid preparation for on-the-job situations where writing or presenting reports on an aircraft is required. A bachelor’s degree is all that is required to become a test pilot but moving ahead and earning a master’s degree would be a strong advantage for an aspiring pilot with most employers.

And last but hardly least is the really fun part of the student pilot education program, attending a flight school to earn a test pilot’s license. There are separate flight schools that offer a “test pilot” license. Those students that already have a pilot’s license must add this advanced training license to their present flight training gear. The military operates several test pilot schools and training often takes less than one year to complete.

History of the Profession

Test piloting began during World War I at Great Britain’s Royal Aircraft Establishment. The RAE was well known for designing and testing anything and everything from balloons and dirigibles to experimental aircraft. And as WWI transitioned into WWII the testing of planes used in combat became increasingly important. The first formal training course for test pilots was offered at the Empire Test Pilots’ School, in Great Britain in 1943.

Back in the United States, around 1915, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was formed. And later, in 1958, the NACA would be renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School was first established by the Air Force in the fall of 1944 to provide for advanced flight training for test pilots, navigators and engineers carrying out tests and evaluations of new weapon systems.

Coursework at Test Pilot School

Test pilots can opt to complete their training at either the National Test Pilot School or at one of the academies run by the U.S. Navy or Air Force. A list appears offering links to more information on those facilities and more at the end of this article. During training future pilots will learn the basics of flying an airplane such as operating the controls, navigating using landmarks and satellites, and taking directions from the control tower. They will also study methods of managing their crew, the standards under which a task may or may not be performed and how to keep accurate flight records in a logbook.

Job Details

A test pilot’s main task is to fly planes that are either newly designed or that has been significantly modified in some way. Maneuvers called flight test techniques (FTTs) are used to test the new technology or design of an aircraft and to make certain evaluations according to the flight measurements. Much of the work involves pretending to make in-flight, catastrophic pilot errors. Test pilots propel ten tons of steel and four thousand gallons of jet fuel through the sky at speeds of more than a thousand miles an hour to test their plane at every angle and under every circumstance. They push state-of-the-art aircraft technology to its limit and beyond, place years of research and millions of dollars at risk of destruction, and defy the dangers placing their lives on the line. The test pilots try what has never been tried and fly what has never been flown. And they do it to insure that the next generation of pilots will have better civilian and military aircraft at their disposal.

Risks of the Job

A job that requires flying newly designed, untested airplanes is obviously going to carry with it a high risk of personal injury or death. The good news is that the number of test pilots killed on the job has gone down considerably especially when compared with the 1950’s when there was at least one test pilot casualty a week. Unfortunately test piloting remains an especially dangerous profession. Decreases in on-the-job test pilot deaths are attributed to improvements in aircraft technology, better methods of on-the-ground testing, simulating aircraft performance, and with highly untested aircraft technology, the use of unmanned in-flight testing.

List of Helpful Links


Cynthia Lopez