The U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School is where the Air Force’s top pilots, navigators and engineers learn how to conduct flight tests and generate the data needed to carry out test missions. Human lives and millions of dollars depend upon how carefully a test mission is planned and flown. The comprehensive curriculum of Test Pilot School is fundamental to the success of flight test and evaluation.
The early years
An airplane — any airplane — is absolutely useless unless its flying characteristics are known. What pilot would take a plane into the air without knowing its stalling speed, its good traits, its idiosyncrasies? Beyond this, its performance levels must be known before any profitable use can be made of the machine: how high and how fast can it fly, yes, but also its best climbing speed, its most useful altitude, its load-carrying ability, its dependability in flight.
As long as the United States has had military airplanes, it has needed skilled test pilots. In the very earliest days, the nation’s entire air force consisted of two Wright biplanes and a handful of officers and men in the tiny Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. These stalwart airmen did their own testing and maintenance, and often taught each other how to fly. World War I, and the sudden realization that European nations were far ahead in aeronautics, speedily brought an end to this comfortable arrangement.
In 1914, the Army set up its first dedicated aeronautical research and development establishment at North Island, in San Diego. Before World War I had ended, it transferred the function to McCook Field at Dayton, Ohio, and set up an impressive aviation engineering laboratory. There, working from McCook’s infamously short 1,000-foot grass runway, some 12 to 15 Army test pilots flew development and evaluation missions and conducted major research projects as well. Lieutenants Jimmy Doolittle, John Macready and Harold Harris were among these aviation pioneers — some of the very best pilots in the business.
Aviation’s golden age
As American aviation began its great boom in the 1920s, the Army found itself increasingly hard-pressed to keep up with civilian developments. Private racing planes began to challenge Army pursuit ships, and much of the nation’s best design and research work was being done in private companies.
McCook Field was becoming far too small for modern planes, and so the newly-formed Materiel Division developed another facility for aeronautical development, this one at nearby Wright Field. Although the new location had much more space for facilities and flight activities, the bulk of the nation’s basic flight research was soon shifted to the civilian National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. During the 1920s and early 1930s, numerous aviation companies sprouted up around the country and were encouraged to conduct the flight verification of their own products.
In 1934, the Baker Board ended the Army’s practice of developing its own aircraft, and the Materiel Division reduced its own flight testing role to verifying the performance of planes from private manufacturers and to a limited amount of research flying. These activities came to be carried out by a small and hardy cadre of some five or six test pilots in the Flight Test Section, aided by a flight test engineer or two.
During the Depression-ridden 1930s, the Army Air Corps selected its test personnel from a variety of sources. Some of its brightest and most skilled pilots continued to volunteer for the exacting duty, attracted by the technical demands and the excitement of new frontiers. Others, usually instructor pilots, were simply assigned to the job. Occasionally a bewildered rookie, fresh out of flying school, found himself on the way to Dayton. One of these, Lt Donald Putt, later recalled that “ … out of the blue, I got orders to report to Dayton … I had not shown any interest of wanting to be a test pilot.” Nevertheless he became one, survived the experience, and went on to retire at three-star rank.
It was just as well that these men were skilled in the air. Although the testing of aircraft was rapidly evolving into a disciplined science during the interwar years, the training of test pilots was apt to be decidedly informal.
Incoming pilots were first shown the flight line and then told to get qualified on each aircraft type available — a matter of one hour of flying time and five landings. Once the neophyte had accomplished this task, a flight test engineer would explain the section’s flying techniques and data-gathering methods, and the pilot would then begin regular flying duty. A formal engineering background was not particularly wanted, nor was the pilot expected to exercise much judgment — just to follow the instructions on the card and fly the airplane accordingly. Once back on the ground, the test pilot would write up his own data and then discuss it with an engineer. For a year or two, the new pilot would serve an apprenticeship as a “functional” test pilot, performing routine tasks, until he gradually became acknowledged as a professional.
This casual tempo lasted until the booming demands of another world war once more forced a move toward greater professionalism. Experienced test pilots and engineers began systematically tutoring the neophytes and setting them to the task of evaluating an aircraft whose performance levels were already well known. If the new pilot’s report was acceptable, he was immediately set to work. Col. Ernest K. Warburton, chief of the Flight Section at Wright Field, was determined to formalize the process even further. Inspired by the Royal Air Force, which under the press of war had just established its Empire Test Pilots’ School at Boscombe Down, he was determined to follow suit. The need for standardization had become obvious to many in the flight test community, and the U. S. Air Force Air Technical Service Command set up its Flight Test Training Unit on Sept. 9, 1944. Maj. Ralph C. Hoewing was the officer in charge and later served as its commandant.
The new school was staffed at first by only three or four instructors, who set up a formal three-month long curriculum stressing performance flight test theory and piloting techniques. A basic pattern soon developed which served for the next five decades: hours spent in the classroom alternated with time in the cockpit, applying the newly-presented lessons in a practical manner.
The first class used the reliable T-6 trainer. After a single class, the school was redesignated the Flight Performance School and took up quarters at nearby Vandalia Municipal Airport (now the Dayton International Airport). It remained there for a single year, adding P-51s, B-17s and B-25s to its roster.
In the meantime, Col. Albert Boyd had become Chief of the Flight Test Division. A vastly experienced test pilot in his own right, Boyd was known throughout the Army Air Corps for his exacting professional standards and for the type of disciplined military leadership which could transform the most exuberant young pilots into steady professionals. Later known as the “father of modern Air Force flight test,” Boyd was exactly the right person to help the Army Air Forces cope with the enormous technological leaps which were coming thick and fast. He began by personally choosing his new pilots and then assigning them to his Flight Test Division’s Accelerated Service Test Section. Those who survived his scrutiny and who continued to meet his exacting standards, then found themselves undergoing formal training in the classroom.
While Boyd was coping with the surge of wartime work, teams of Wright Field pilots and engineers were shuttling out to Muroc Dry Lake in Southern California.
There, in the clear and uncongested skies over the Mojave Desert, development work had begun on the nation’s first two jet aircraft, first Bell’s pioneering P-59 and then Lockheed’s elegant new P-80. These planes, with their quantum advance in propulsion technology, were already beginning to force a rapid evolution in the entire world of flight testing. More and more, pilots had to combine their flying skills with the knowledge of trained engineers — to have a workable technical knowledge of the phenomena they were encountering, and to translate that into the language of the designer and the engineer. The Flight Performance School developed a four-month stability and control course for its curriculum in 1946, and a P-80 Shooting Star was added to the school’s fleet a year later.
The move west
Throughout the war, the focus of the nation’s progress in military aviation had gradually shifted westward, toward the great airplane companies along the West Coast.
With Muroc Air Force Base providing an ideal flying environment, it was becoming increasingly obvious that Wright Field should move its entire flight test operations there — and its test pilot school as well. In September 1949, Boyd had been selected for brigadier general and had assumed command of Muroc Air Force Base, and he began preparations to move the newly-renamed Air Materiel Command Experimental Test Pilot School westward.
Two years later, the arrangements had been completed and the school was moved to the newly-renamed Edwards Air Force Base on Feb. 4, 1951. Two aircraft accompanied the transfer, and the training establishment took up residence in a wooden maintenance hangar located on what later came to be known as South Base. Two months later, the Air Force created the Air Research and Development Command and assigned all R&D activities to the new organization. The ARDC assumed administrative control over the base and the school’s official designation likewise changed once more, to the ARDC Experimental Test Pilot School.
If the school’s new home was made up of rickety wartime buildings located far from urban entertainment, at least its flying environment was superb. The immense 6-by-12 mile expanse of Edwards Dry Lake offered a comforting alternative to the base’s runway and a new 15,000-foot concrete strip — the longest in the United States — was soon to be built.
The flying weather was likewise excellent; during its first seven months of operations, the school lost only two flying days because of bad weather conditions. Because the air is generally smoother in the morning hours, the daily schedule changed to mornings in the cockpit, followed by afternoons in the classroom. Student pilots soon discovered, however, that the delights of clear air and uncluttered airspace were counterbalanced to some degree by the drudgery of data reduction. After each test or training flight, the numerous data points recorded on film or oscillograph paper had to be laboriously transcribed and then reduced by hand into a coherent report — easily the least popular part of the curriculum.
Scarcely a year after the move to Edwards Air Force Base, the school’s name changed once more, to the U.S. Air Force Experimental Flight Test Pilot School.
This change was more significant than it might appear. Throughout its early years, the school had coexisted with the Flight Test Division, which supplied the bulk of its students. Even after the move to Edwards, many students were simply chosen from volunteers from the local test support squadron. Now, however, the school began to draw on a much wider pool of candidates from across the entire Air Force spectrum. More importantly, entrance requirements were tightened and the selection process became intensely competitive, as it remains today. Candidates not only had to be outstanding pilots, but were expected to satisfy stringent academic requirements as well — it was becoming increasingly obvious that only the very best and the brightest need apply.
Incoming students now found themselves confronting accelerated courses in subjects such as flight mechanics, differential calculus and supersonic aerodynamics. The tougher requirements soon paid off: the student dropout rate plummeted and the professionalism of the graduates increased even further. The Test Pilot School took its place in the front rank of the select few such institutions in the world.
Throughout the 1950s, the school continued to evolve in order to meet the requirements of a huge number of new airplanes coming into the service — the Golden Age of Edwards Air Force Base. Efforts to update the TPS fleet with high performance aircraft, however, were often frustrating, and aircraft acquisition came to be a perennial challenge to the ingenuity of school commandants. The venerable T-33 T-Birds graced its flight line for an entire generation, but its other trainers were often a motley collection of jet and piston aircraft. Its facilities improved greatly when the school, which had been renamed the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Pilot School on June 9, 1955, moved into its present facilities on the Main Base. On March 14, 1956, the TPS gladly exchanged its wooden hangar for a new purpose-built classroom and administration building, and its aircraft could now be serviced in one of the two huge World War II steel hangars which had also been moved from South Base as part of Edwards Air Force Base’s giant modernization project.
Once ensconced in its permanent quarters, the Test Pilot School continued to evolve its curriculum in order to satisfy rapidly-changing Air Force requirements. Even as Sputnik turned the world’s eyes toward the heavens late in 1957, the Air Force was preparing for flight beyond the atmosphere: within two years of the first orbital flight, the X-15 was poised to fly at unprecedented heights for a winged airplane and the X-20 Dyna-Soar program began, aimed at manned orbital flight.
The Test Pilot School began to develop additional courses to help new test pilots cope with new responsibilities, and the school’s six-month course was extended to eight. By the end of 1958, its academic curriculum was becoming widely regarded as equivalent to the final two years of college-level aeronautical engineering work. More was to come. As the Air Force gradually developed an aerospace doctrine during this period, a small cadre began to establish the criteria for additional course work aimed at qualifying TPS graduates for the tasks of an astronaut.
This movement came to full term on Oct. 12, 1961, when the Test Pilot School was redesignated the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School. Now the curriculum expanded to a full year. U.S. military pilots who were admitted to the nation’s first formal astronaut training course found that the school’s traditional performance and flying qualities curriculum was now only the prelude to a rigorous array of space-related courses, such as thermodynamics, bioastronautics, and Newtonian mechanics. New and up-to-date aircraft began to appear on the flight line, and advanced computer systems were acquired. The first-of-its-kind T-27 Spaceflight Simulator became the keystone of the new curriculum, replicating nearly all of the sights, sounds and sensations to be encountered in a variety of space missions and vehicles. To train the students in out-of-atmosphere maneuvering and reentry problems, three F-104 Starfighters were converted to NF-104s; a rocket engine in the tail permitted zoom climbs above 100,000 feet, an altitude where reaction control jets must be used instead of conventional control surfaces.
The new curriculum now required a full year: Phase I (Experimental Test Pilot Course) and Phase II (Aerospace Research Pilot Course) and the selection process became correspondingly more stringent. A bachelor’s of science degree in engineering, physical science or mathematics was now a minimum requirement and even the school’s preliminary “reviews” of various subjects came to be regarded as equal to a year’s advanced study.
With upwards of 300 applications per year, there was no lack of qualified candidates; all had extensive flight experience and many had advanced degrees in hand. One student aptly described his hard-driving classmates as “hyperthyroid, superachieving first sons of superachievers.” The hyperthyroidism paid off: 37 ARPS graduates were selected for the U.S. space program, and 26 of them earned their astronaut’s wings in space. Currently, NASA has chosen more than 75 Air Force ARPS and TPS graduates for astronaut duties.
And out again
After the first moon landings, however, the national priorities gradually began to change once more.
Political and public support for manned space programs began to diminish and the military lost its manned spaceflight mission.
The highly advanced X-20 Dyna-Soar and Manned Orbiting Laboratory programs, centerpieces of the school’s very reason for space training, were canceled. At the same time, the rise of the systems technology approach in the aerospace community had dramatically begun to reorient the traditional approach to the development and acquisition of modern aircraft. Clearly, it was necessary for the school to reorient itself. Gradually, the Aerospace Research Pilot School began to de-emphasize its spaceflight training mission. The T-27 simulator was sold to NASA and on July 1, 1972, the ARPS faded into history. The school then received its present designation, the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School.
One door closes, another opens
The end of the space flight training mission was counterbalanced by the dramatically-increasing complexity of the new generation of aircraft.
In earlier decades, it had been reasonable to consider an airplane’s basic structure, its engine, sensors, flight instruments and controls, and weapons as separate entities. During the 1960s and 1970s, however, the airborne computer had rapidly come to be something more than an airborne convenience; the dramatic increase in computer capabilities, coupled with sophisticated avionics, meant that it was now necessary to conceptualize a new aircraft by its functions and capabilities — the systems approach. Aircraft like the B-1 Lancer bomber soon forced yet another paradigm change, meshing all of a new aircraft’s capabilities into a single working entity: systems integration. This required a paradigm change in testing philosophy, as well as additional skills for new test pilots. At the same time, the test pilots’ managerial responsibilities had continued to increase. Therefore, as soon as the school had phased out its no-longer-needed ARPS curriculum, it replaced it with the academic structure which characterizes the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School today.