Education, Engineering

What’s Test Pilot School Like?

Similar in nature to traditional military test pilot schools you may have heard of including the United States Naval Test Pilot School and U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, the test pilot school “professional course” I’m currently enrolled in at the National Test Pilot School (NTPS) is an intensive year-long course designed to develop skilled test pilots and flight test engineers. Because I get a lot of questions surrounding what the course is like, I thought I’d give you a brief overview of how the year is structured at NTPS (each test pilot school is going to have their own unique structure).

In another blog post I’ll get into the details of why I’ll be breaking my year into two six-month parts. (Hint: It’s part of my fellowship!)

The year-long professional course is broken down into two halves: the “Systems” phase and “Performance and Flying Qualities” (or P&FQ for short). Each six-month period is comprised of a series of 2-3 week long courses. Systems courses generally occur from January-June and P&FQ classes are held from July-December.

During the Systems phase you’re focusing on the testing of…well, systems. For example, we’ll complete courses learning about and testing GPS and other navigational systems, Night Vision Goggles (NVG) and Head Mounted Displays (HMD), avionics systems, and icing, just to name a few. Many of the flight tests involved in this phase are more qualitative in nature and things like evaluating pilot workload while operating certain systems is particularly important. There are a total of eight courses in the systems phase at NTPS.

As the name suggests, during P&FQ the focus shifts to evaluating the actual flying qualities and performance of aircraft. Some of the courses taken during this phase include takeoff and landing performance, stall theory, supersonic aero, elasticity, modern flight controls, and aircraft dynamics. In general, courses taken during this phase are much more math intensive and theoretical in nature because you need to understand the academics and theory behind the concepts before hopping into the airplane to perform P&FQ flight tests.

Each course generally looks something like this:

Week 1: One week of academic lectures in the classroom for a total of approximately 8 hours a day. On Friday morning you’ll sit for a written exam and will potentially have a short oral exam with an instructor.

Week 2: You’ll fly a demo flight to get familiar with what you’ll be analyzing during the flight test. Then you’ll work in a team of 3-4 students to plan a test and prepare test cards and potentially write a test plan, depending on the course. Sometimes the instructors will bring in relevant companies to explain and demo their products. For example, Thales came by to show us their Scorpion HMD and L3 Harris/Wescam demoed one of their Electro-Optical/Infrared turrets.

Week 3: This week you’ll perform an actual flight test with your team in an airplane, helicopter, or in a simulator (depending on the class), write a daily flight test report following the flight and work to analyze the data you collected. Finally, you’ll work throughout the week to prepare an oral briefing of your flight test and results which you will present on Friday morning either individually or as a team (again, depending on the course).

If you’d like me to explain something in further detail, or you liked this blog post, leave me a comment!

Keep your eyes peeled for a future blog post where I’ll list the minimum requirements for applying to test pilot school.

Ad Astra,

Kate

Note: I don’t speak officially on behalf of NTPS. All opinions here are my own.

Education, Engineering

Part II: Careers in Flight Test Engineering

After announcing my big news that I was selected on a full fellowship to attend the National Test Pilot School, I received a lot of interest from readers wanting to know a whole lot more about flight test engineering and the adventure I’ll be embarking on come January 2022!

This is part two of a three part series on Flight Test Engineering.

You can find part one by clicking here. It gives a brief introduction to flight test engineering, the role flight test engineers play, and why flight test engineering is a crucial step to the development and certification of aircraft and spacecraft.

In part two we’ll discuss the unique skills required of flight test engineers and some examples of where you might work as a Flight Test Engineer.

Finally, in part three I’ll tell you how I scored an opportunity to get paid to attend the National Test Pilot School and how you can apply in the future!

If you’ve decided that flight test engineering sounds like a pretty cool career, it’s helpful to understand some of the skills that make a good Flight Test Engineer. I’ve listed a few below that might help when applying to and interviewing for FTE jobs.

Leadership & Teamwork: As I mentioned in part one, FTEs are responsible for many phases of a flight test program. As such, a Flight Test Engineer must possess the skills required to successfully integrate and coordinate a diverse team that can effectively work together to fulfill the objectives of the test campaign.

Problem Solving & Communication Skills: Flight Test Engineers are able to break down a problem into finite characteristics that can be fixed and succinctly convey their findings in a way that will get the stakeholders to spend money on it. Further, because FTEs must write test plans & reports and present test findings, excellent verbal and written communication skills become even more crucial.

Safety/Risk Management: No matter where you work, safety and the management of risks will undoubtedly be a priority for the company, especially in the aerospace and space industries where almost every decision you make could have dire consequences. As a Flight Test Engineer, you’ll learn how to safely design and execute a test and effectively communicate the results.

Technical Competence & Confidence: Everyone I have spoken to who has been through a flight test engineering program has told me that test pilot school will undoubtedly challenge you in many ways. Mainly, between classes, presentations, flying, etc., you’ll feel like you have more tasks to complete than hours available in a week. It’s important to learn how to prioritize tasks accordingly. The payoff is that you’ll graduate from the program with the expertise to lead with confidence and the technical competence to back it up.

In reality, the skills you acquire as a Flight Test Engineer can be leveraged to make you a great candidate for an incredibly wide range of jobs in nearly any industry. Remember, just because a job doesn’t specifically ask for a flight test engineering certification, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak to the unique skills and experience you can bring to the table. In actuality, the skills learned in a flight test engineering professional course, have the ability to bring depth to many areas of an aerospace/space professional’s career.

Where can you work as a Flight Test Engineer? Here is just a short list of the endless possibilities (in alphabetical order).

Stay tuned for part three and drop a comment here or on Instagram if you liked this post or have any questions!

Kate

Education, Engineering

Part I: Intro to Flight Test Engineering

After announcing my big news that I was selected on a full fellowship to attend the National Test Pilot School, I received a lot of interest from readers wanting to know a whole lot more about flight test engineering and the adventure I’ll be embarking on come January 2022!

This is the first of a three part series on flight test engineering.

In part one, I will introduce the field of flight test engineering, the important role Flight Test Engineers play in the field of aerospace, and explain why flight test engineering is crucial to the development and certification of aircraft and spacecraft.

Part two will highlight the special skills required of flight test engineers and some examples of where you can work as a flight test engineer.

Finally, part three will discuss how I snagged a coveted spot to get paid to attend the National Test Pilot School and how you can apply for the same opportunity in the future!

*It’s worth noting that FTE is short for both flight test engineering, the discipline, and Flight Test Engineer, the person who is responsible for managing a flight test campaign.

What is Flight Test Engineering?

Very broadly, flight test engineering is the engineering associated with the in-flight performance evaluation and testing of aircraft, spacecraft, and their systems. It requires the assimilation of data to substantiate design assumptions or demonstrate that the vehicle and/or its equipment achieve specified levels of performance. Further, flight test plays an integral role in the development and certification of new aircraft and spacecraft designs. For example, when NASA and SpaceX flew Demo-2 in 2020, this was the Crewed Dragon spacecraft’s final flight test prior to certification for regular crewed flights to the International Space Station. Astronaut Bob Behnken’s background as a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School Flight Test Engineer course was likely a major reason he was one of two NASA astronauts selected for the Demo-2 mission.

What do Flight Test Engineers do?

Flight Test Engineers are responsible for the definition, planning, and execution of flight tests, and the data analysis and presentation of results obtained for the duration of a test program. The FTE plays a monumental role throughout the test campaign, often coordinating and managing the entire test team of test pilots, technical specialists, various engineers across several disciplines, and even maintenance engineers to ensure all objectives of the campaign are met. During the execution of the flight test, the Flight Test Engineer is usually either on board the aircraft or located in a control room, tracking the status of the flight test in real-time.

Why is Flight Test Engineering Important?

In aerospace, the mantra “test like you fly” is repeated often and for good reason. It can be nearly impossible to replicate truly realistic flight conditions on the ground, especially when dealing with spaceflight applications. Some flight conditions are just too complicated or not well enough defined or understood to accurately model. At the same time, flight test data is essential to refining the models and simulations that are becoming increasingly integral to the design, development and certification processes. Furthermore, aircraft have a multitude of systems which interact in very complex ways that are often impossible to understand without flight testing the entire vehicle.

Stay tuned for part two and drop a comment here or on Instagram if you liked this article or have any questions!

Kate

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