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.