The United States Air Force Test Pilot School, known for transforming the best Air Force pilots, navigators, and engineers into elite test professionals, has finally opened its doors to enlisted personnel. April 18, 12 enlisted Airmen earned the distinction of being the first class to graduate from the school’s two-week Enlisted Flight Test Course.
New programs, such as the Boeing KC-46A tanker and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, along with legacy systems such as the B-52 Stratofortress, C-130J Super Hercules, and F-16 Fighting Falcon make it clear that technology is rapidly advancing and becoming increasingly complex across the board. Coupled with the Air Force’s budget-conscious future, the flight test community is presented with new and unique challenges in their quest to continue providing cutting-edge technology to the warfighter.
“For example, we are now asking our test professionals to test a certain component of a weapon system that’s highly reliant on cyber. How do you do that? Every new and legacy system is going to have a cyber component,” said Col. Noel Zamot, USAF TPS commandant. “Can you imagine having one person on that team or several people who don’t know what you’re testing or what the objective is? Can you imagine playing on a basketball team with only three players? That would be decimating to the overall results.”
Recognizing flight test’s challenges of tomorrow, the USAF TPS developed a curriculum geared towards empowering enlisted flight test personnel and teaching them to speak the same language and communicate effectively with pilots, navigators and engineers who attend the school.
“It’s absolutely essential for these guys to speak the same language because these systems are so complex,” said Zamot.
The two-week EFTC broadly adheres to the same overall structure as the 48-week course for Test Pilot School and focuses on understanding the big picture of flight test.
The curriculum was tailored specifically to meet the needs of enlisted personnel and covered the basics of test management, flight sciences and mission systems. During the EFTC, students were given unique insight into the world of flight test with glider flights in Tehachapi, Calif., as well as C-12 Huron and KC-135 flights. Key courses were condensed and streamlined to fit into the time window. The cyber class, typically four to six hours in length was condensed to demonstrate key vulnerabilities during flight test. Students also participated in a one-day test management project exercise before graduating April 18.
“The students now know test conduct, how the test will proceed, what the objectives of the test are, and why those objectives are possibly different from operational objectives. They now speak the same language,” said Zamot. “Now that they know the language, they can be an integral part of the team. Ultimately, we need to do what’s best for our nation and the taxpayer by eking out the last bit of capability of legacy systems. You can only do that if the entire test team really knows what they’re supposed to be doing: the process, tools, objectives, and the expected outcome.”
Although interest in developing the class existed for many years, the process did not move forward until Senior Master Sgt. Daniel Halverstadt, USAF TPS superintendent, and Master Sgt. Thomas Ireland, 445th Flight Test Squadron superintendent, came to Edwards with very different backgrounds and began discussing the need for the EFTC.
“We actually came from two very different worlds. I was thrown into the world of test and some things didn’t really make a whole lot of sense,” said Halverstadt. “Sergeant Ireland came from the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center and thought it was interesting that there was no training in place, considering he spent an immense amount of time being shown how the test process works. That’s when we figured out that there was a need for this training in developmental test.”
Working together, Halverstadt and Ireland spent more than a year tailoring the curriculum to ensure that graduates of the class would move forward and play a more substantial role in the flight test process. In addition to the valuable networking opportunities, the EFTC offered students necessary resources to adapt to flight test, effectively communicate and successfully contribute to the test process.
“We are empowering the students through knowledge to go out there and be effective testers,” said Ireland. “They’ll be able to contribute even more to the flight test environment, than their specialty after taking this class.”
When the Air Force begins testing the new KC-46A tanker, enlisted personnel will face unprecedented challenges. For Ireland, the material covered in the EFTC will help him to be successful during difficult flight test missions.
“This is a huge priority program. Graduates of the EFTC will be equipped to objectively look at it and make sure that the warfighter is getting the best product,” said Ireland. “With everything in the news about taxpayers’ money, we need to be spending that money right. We need to safely, efficiently and successfully execute these test missions. This class plays an important role in making that possible.”
Students came from as far as Eglin AFB in Florida and even included representation from helicopter and remotely piloted aircraft programs. The results of the class will be assessed through unit and commanding officer feedback. The goal of the class is to not only maximize contributions from enlisted flight test personnel, but also to eventually have accreditation through the Community College of the Air Force.