Salutes & Awards

October 12, 2012

NASA Dryden research pilot among 11 honored by Test Pilot Society


James W. Smolka, Director of Flight Operations at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., is among 11 persons selected to become Fellows of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

Smolka and the 10 other selectees for 2012, several of whom have had direct associations with NASA, the Air Force Test Center and Edwards Air Force Base, were honored during a ceremony the evening of Sept. 29 during the society’s annual symposium at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif.

A Fellow is the highest membership status in the SETP, and is bestowed by vote of other Fellows of the society for distinction in experimental flight testing.

“It is a great honor, and I am very humbled, to be included in the ranks of so many professional test pilots who have made aviation and space exploration history,” said Smolka. “These are exceptional pilots and astronauts whom I look up to, who are my role models, my colleagues, and my friends.”

Fellows of the SETP must have been a member of the organization for at least one year, have been an experimental test pilot for at least five years and have been designated for at least a year as an Associate Fellow of the society with at least 10 years of experimental flight test experience.

A veteran research test pilot at NASA Dryden, Smolka came to the center in 1985 after 13 years on active or reserve duty in the U.S. Air Force. Over the course of his 27 years at NASA Dryden, Smolka has flown a wide variety of specialized research and mission support aircraft, including work as project pilot on some of the center’s high-profile aeronautical research projects.

Included among them were the F-18 High Angle-of-Attack Research Vehicle (HARV), which explored engine thrust vectoring capabilities, the Advanced Controls Technology for Integrated Vehicles (ACTIVE) F-15, which explored axisymmetric thrust vectoring, and the F-15 QuietSpike(r) concept to reduce the effects of sonic booms generated by supersonic aircraft. Smolka, along with four others, was awarded Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine’s Laureate Award for Aeronautics/Propulsion for their work on the QuietSpike(r) project in 2008.

In his current position as Dryden’s Director for Flight Operations, Smolka is responsible for the center’s fleet of 22 highly modified manned and unmanned aircraft that are flown on worldwide science, astronomy, and flight research missions, as well as the flight and ground crews that fly and maintain them. He previously served as the center’s chief engineer for two years, in charge of the Airworthiness and Flight Safety Review process. Smolka has amassed nearly 9,000 hours of flight experience in his 40-year flying career.

A distinguished graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, Smolka was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force in 1972. He received his pilot wings in 1973 and served in a variety of flying roles during his active duty service, earning Air Force command pilot and master parachutist wings. Smolka retired from the Air Force Reserve with the rank of colonel in 1999 after 27 years of active and reserve service.

Other new Fellows of the SETP for 2012 with connections to the Antelope Valley or Edwards Air Force Base include:

  • Retired Air Force Flight Test Center commander and veteran test pilot Maj. Gen. W. D. “Doug” Pearson.
  • Former NASA astronaut and Air Force test pilot Charles Precourt.
  • Former Air Force and currently Boeing test pilot and SETP 2013 president Steven Rainey.
  • Former U.S. Army rotary-wing test pilot and NASA Ames Research Center pilot Daniel Dugan.
  • Former Air Force test pilot and current United Airlines captain Joseph Sobczak.



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