There seems to be a university degree for just about every conceivable subject these days, from golf management to surf science. But if you want to be a test pilot or flight test engineer, your best bet is to attend a course offered by one of eight schools officially approved by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP).
These include the UK’s Empire Test Pilot School (ETPS), the US Naval Test Pilot School, the US Air Force Test Pilot School, the French Test Pilot School (EPNER), the International Test Pilots School (Ontario, Canada), the US National Test Pilot School (NTPS), and the two most recent additions, the Indian Air Force Test Pilot School and the Brazilian Test Pilot School.
Aerospace Testing International spoke with two SETP-approved schools: the ETPS at MoD Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, UK, founded in 1943 as the first such institution of its type in the world, now run by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and defense contractor QinetiQ; and the NTPS, a not-for-profit institution established in 1981 as the first civilian school of its type, based in Mojave, California, where it has access to one of the finest flight test areas in the USA, namely the R-2508 Complex also used by Edwards AFB and China Lake NAWS.
Both were quick to highlight a strong industry need for a greater number of qualified test pilots, particularly for work in the growing commercial aviation sector.
“ETPS is currently moving to a model whereby it can support not just the military need for test pilots and flight test engineers, but also address the emerging markets for civil flight test professionals, particularly civil test pilots,” explains Nick Lay, operations director for QinetiQ’s Air & Space business division.
“We have taken as our starting point not just the needs of our principal customer, the RAF’s Air Warfare Centre [AWC], but also the recent regulatory requirements introduced by the European Aviation Safety Agency [EASA], which require civil test pilots to have a flight test rating along with a commercial pilot license,” continues Lay.
As a result, the ETPS has radically revised its course structure, moving to a more modular approach to better meet changing civil requirements: “We are turning from a very tailored and specific set of courses lasting either six months or a year, to a more modular approach that is going to enable us to deliver not just our existing courses, but also new courses to reflect the changing needs of our customers,” explains Lay.
“This will enable us to look at avionics systems, for example, with much more consideration of systems as opposed to the traditional focus on handling qualities and stick-and-rudder stuff.”
Meanwhile, as the world’s only civilian test pilot school, the NTPS has long recognized the needs of the commercial sector. “We are different because we are a total flight test education and training organization that is dedicated to providing the worldwide flight test community with the flight test education and training that they need,” says Dr Allen Peterson, president and CEO, NTPS.
“We were the first civilian test pilot school in the world recognized by the SETP, but it’s much more than that,” he continues. “Because we are a total flight test education and training organization, we provide a wide range of courses and services to meet the needs of the worldwide flight test community and we are also extremely customer focused. We were the first test pilot school in the world to be certified as a flight test approved training organization (ATO) by EASA. We were the first test pilot school in the world to offer a master’s degree in flight test. We were the first test pilot school in the world to devote a significant portion of the curriculum for all students to systems testing. And
we were the first test pilot school in the world to put an extensive emphasis on civil certification regulations testing.”
The greater emphasis on commercial aviation needs has seen both schools invest heavily in new aircraft, as well as working hard to achieve EASA certification.
The ETPS was recognized by EASA as an ATO, certified to train test pilots to civil standards, this February. The accreditation means that ETPS is just one of three schools in the world able to provide test pilots with course completion certificates needed to obtain civil flight test ratings in compliance with the new EASA regulations.
“All civilian test pilots in Europe, such as those working in-house for aircraft manufacturers or graduates seeking commercial work, must now receive training from an accredited school,” explains Paul Shakespeare, head of the ETPS at QinetiQ. “Our ability to provide this vital training will be greatly welcomed by our existing customers, and will create growth opportunities in new international markets as companies and individuals react to the new EASA rules.”
The accreditation supports the school’s continuing modernization program, under which QinetiQ and the MoD are investing £85m (US$109m) to transform its courses and the air fleet used to deliver them. The program is part of a £1bn (US$1.3bn) contract, announced in December 2016, which ensures QinetiQ will continue to manage the ETPS until at least 2028.
Implementation of the modernization program began in January 2017 with the purchase of two Pilatus PC-21 fixed-wing aircraft, destined to carry out duties currently performed by an aging fleet that includes Hawks and Alpha Jets.
“We have introduced new civil registered types that have modern glass cockpit displays, with complex systems that enable us to deliver on the new elements of our courses,” explains the ETPS’s Lay. “On the fixed-wing side we are going to be retiring our two Short Tucanos [a two-seat turboprop basic trainer], our one remaining Hawk and our Alpha Jets. All those types will be retired at the end of 2018. In their place will come two Grob G 120TPs and two Pilatus PC-21s. We’re also going to be using aircraft from other suppliers and partners to make sure we get the breadth of experience that the students need to graduate.”
QinetiQ has also coughed up £15m (US$19m) for four Airbus H125 helicopters to replace the ETPS’s existing Airbus Gazelles, which will be retired at the end of 2018. The deal will see Airbus Helicopters’ UK design team upgrade the Garmin G500-equipped aircraft with,
among other capabilities, a three-axis autopilot, dedicated communications equipment and traffic awareness systems. This is in addition to a flight test instrumentation suite, which is used to test and evaluate aircraft design and performance – a critical part of a test pilot’s or flight test engineer’s training.
“We have listened to our customers and refreshed our approach to focus more on the things that matter to them,” adds QinetiQ’s Shakespeare. “While we continue to deliver the military training for which we are renowned, civilian trainees will benefit from shorter
and more flexible courses, enabling a better balance between learning and working. Newer, more advanced aircraft and updated teaching methods will keep the ETPS at the forefront of test aircrew training, reasserting the reputation for excellence we have maintained for nearly 75 years.”
However, the NTPS’s Peterson is quick to point out that the Mojave-based school was actually the first to achieve EASA certification, becoming a Part-ORA ATO for Part-FCL flight test training in June 2016, at which time it was the only test pilot school in the world to be certified by EASA to provide flight test ratings. “We were the first test pilot school in the world – and the only civil school – to attain certification by EASA,” he says proudly.
The NTPS has been equally busy buying more modern aircraft. “We have recently purchased an EC-145 helicopter, two Aero L-39 Albatross trainer jets and two King Air C90 twin turboprops,” continues Peterson. “All the aircraft we chose to purchase or lease are evaluated for several factors that we think are important for an aircraft on one or more of our courses.”
But it’s not just aircraft that have caught Peterson’s eye. “We have or are in the process of updating all our instrumentation systems on the aircraft to include the DAQ 9000 data acquisition system from Nginuity in the UK,” he says. “We stay in close touch with our customers and with the flight test community through the SETP and the Society of Flight Test Engineers (SFTE), to make sure we are buying the right sort of equipment.”The ETPS has also ensured that its new aircraft will feature suitably sophisticated onboard systems. “We worked very closely with Pilatus, which is supplying us with an instrumentation suite for the PC-21,” confirms Lay.
“The suite is based on the flight test instrumentation system designed as part of Pilatus’s original development program but incorporating dedicated displays in the cockpit that can draw on the information available on the avionics buses to give our students immediate feedback during the tasks they are performing and whether they’ve carried out that input correctly or not. That’s a real time saver. Previously we had to land the aircraft, take out the memory unit, get it calibrated, read and then re-expressed for analysis. Now we can do it in the air almost instantaneously. It’s this sort of investment that is really going to move us forward in terms of the ability to get the most out of every flying hour.”
Despite the increasing sophistication of cockpit technology and flight test equipment, the fundamentals of flight testing remain the same.
“The skills required to be a good test pilot really do not change, but the tools they use to evaluate the aircraft and systems change with technological advances,” says Peterson. “A good test pilot should be above average in all things but most especially in flying skills, analytical skills, writing skills, decision making and judgment. They must also have integrity and moral courage.”
Make the grade
Students are taught academics in the classroom and laboratories, and numerous flight test techniques are honed in aircraft, simulators and laboratories. “The students are evaluated through written and oral examinations, written and oral reports, and graded flying exercises,” confirms Peterson.
“Students are required to plan, execute and report on flight test exercises,” he continues. “They must be able to plan how the flight should be conducted to acquire the data and then fly the required points and collect all the required data. Once collected, the data must be analyzed and conclusions drawn so that the reports can be written. Students are also required to present oral reports to students and faculty.”
It’s extremely rare for any students to fail, although some have faltered in the past: “Most students pass the courses,” says the NTPS’s Peterson. “NTPS students and customers come from a variety of backgrounds including military organizations, the aerospace industry, governments and certification agencies. Some are even private citizens. The students are normally vetted very seriously before they come, because the organizations want to send the best people who have the best chance of success. That being said, we do occasionally have students who cannot successfully complete the courses, because they are indeed very challenging.”
Anthony James is the editor-in-chief for UKi Media and Events