Dr. Eileen Bjorkman, the executive director of the Air Force Test Center, has an affinity for Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.
Before she retired as a colonel after nearly 30 years of active duty with the Air Force, Bjorkman had stints at Holloman AFB, N.M., Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and the Pentagon.
But it was the Air Force Flight Test Pilot School at Edwards where she qualified to do her testing in the backseats of planes like the F-4 and F-16. Also, it’s where she created the base’s first computer network in 1988, when there were only around 100,000 internet hosts.
“Since the 1940s, in one form or another, the aviation history that was cutting edge, that led into the space program, almost all of it was at Edwards,” Bjorkman said.
“The culture at Edwards — the willingness to take risks and push boundaries — I found that very appealing. Even today, we push the bar.”
And now the Air Force Test Center is training the next generation of flyers: the Space Force. On April 6, 2021, the inaugural class of the Space Test Fundamentals Class graduated. Fifteen enlisted, officer, civilian Airmen and Guardians took the class designed to deliver a combat-ready Space Force.
The daughter of an Air Force lieutenant colonel, Bjorkman never considered a military career for herself in high school. There were few opportunities for women: they weren’t allowed into military academies or in combat.
But after earning an undergraduate degree in computer science at the University of Seattle, and working for a year, she found programming computers less than satisfying. An encounter with on-campus Air Force recruiters interviewing for officers made Bjorkman realize that in the six years since high school, more opportunity had opened for women.
Before joining the Air Force, Bjorkman wasn’t all that interested in airplanes, but her attraction grew. She wanted pilot training, but her eyesight wasn’t good enough. A stint in the AF Institute of Technology earned her a second degree in aeronautical engineering and placement in Test Pilot School as an engineer, so she could fly in the backseat of fighters.
Bjorkman’s favorite aircraft from her flight test engineer days is the F-4. She donated money to the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards to maintain an RF-4C on display there.
She loved the F-4 because “it was an aircraft that had served in Vietnam. Not that the ones we were testing on had been in combat, but that model had been. There’s a lot of history there, and it’s a solid, honest aircraft. It had a lot of performance. It was a lot of fun.”
When asked what character traits were necessary for a career in testing, Bjorkman said: “The most important soft skill is being able to navigate change. There’s a saying that ‘a battle plan never survives first contact with the enemy,’ and I always say: ‘a test plan doesn’t survive first contact with the test.’ There’s always something that needs to happen that won’t, or something that shouldn’t happen that does, and you need to be able to be flexible.
“You need to be able to coordinate with other people when things go wrong. As a team member you need to be able to communicate calmly to get things done. You can yell, and rant and rave, but you don’t want people to help just because you’re yelling at them. You want them to cooperate because they want to.”
Bjorkman sees opportunity for test work in many different capacities. “The Test Center is not all about flying. There’s plenty of room for people who are interested in other disciplines, and not just at Edwards.
“We have several wind tunnels at Arnold AFB in Tennessee that are unique facilities,” she said.
The Propulsion Wind Tunnel Facility there does aerodynamic and propulsion integration testing of large-scale aircraft models in two 16-foot and one 4-foot tunnels.
McKinley Climatic Laboratory at Eglin AFB., Fla., can replicate any climate on Earth, according to the base’s website, with temperatures in the chamber ranging between minus-65 degrees Fahrenheit to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and can simulate all climatic conditions including heat, snow, rain, wind, sand, and dust.
Another example of test capability is the Test Flag Enterprise, where real-time, independently executed Large Force Test Events are held at Edwards’ R-2508 complex in California, the Gulf Test and Training Range in Florida, and the Nevada Test and Training Range. The three sites were recently linked with airborne Link-16 networks and transmitted targeting data across roughly 1,500 miles, according to https://www.aftc.af.mil/. One such event, Orange, Emerald, and Black Flag was held in October of 2021.
Bjorkman said that young people interested in test engineering as a career should take all the math and science classes they can find, as well as take advantage of things not available when she was in high school, like robotics.
With all the computerized automotive technology today, “Young people can’t really work on cars anymore,” she said, so they should do whatever hands-on STEM activity they can find.
When asked if she misses the flight testing she used to do, Bjorkman said: “Sometimes, I’d just like to be in a control room, or flying and collecting data. It’s very exciting. But the higher-level jobs are the ones that enable me to provide the funding and the personnel to do the work, and that has value. I have more control over my schedule. I don’t miss getting up at 4 a.m. to get to an early flight briefing only to then have the mission cancel.”
“I just love what I do, and I like the feeling that what I do makes a difference.
Bjorkman still flies; she became a private pilot, and owns a Decathlon, kept in Washington State where she owns a house.