What's it Actually Like to Be a Test Pilot?

By Chris Mills on at

It's one of those jobs that should get the girls swooning and the guys hopelessly over-compensating; but is being a test pilot the glamourous danger-fest it's cracked up to be? We sat down with BAE System's Chief Military Test Pilot, Mark Bowman, to find out.

 

Misconception #1: Test Pilots Have Giant Egos

Although Mark might've answered "what skills does a test pilot need" with "Well, we're picked for our incredible good looks and great flying skills", it was a JOKE. I think. In any case, if the BAE Chief Test Pilot is anything to go, test pilots are more of a humble, non-bragging breed (when they're not making jokes, that is). Iceman and Maverick they are not.

 

Misconception #2: Test Pilots Hop In, Take Her For a Spin, and Back Home in Time for Tea and Medals

Maybe it's something to do with the imagined Top Gun-lifestyle, but there's certainly a perception that test pilots jump in a new plane, fly around at the edge of physics, and if they don't die, bring it back home at the end of the day.

However, real life doesn't quite live up to the legend. Test pilots, Bowman says, are involved from the 'earliest stages' of product development. In the same way that a smartphone manufacturer might pull in focus groups of target consumers to help guide product development (though some clearly don't), engineers work with test pilots from the outset, in order to get a pilot's input on the design. And obviously, once a flight-worthy prototype is ready, the test pilots become a pivotal component in the whole process.

 

Misconception #3: All You Need to be a Test Pilot is Shit-Hot Reflexes and Great Hair

Although yes, you probably need fairly snappy reflexes to be a test pilot, it's not all about your oh-so-insane flying skills. Test pilots fly an average of two sorties a day; each flight can be a few hours of flying time, plus the hour or two of briefing and debrief. Then, there's the requisite gym sessions, since the test flights can involve positive and negative G forces in excess of 9G, not to mention roll rates in excess of 360 degrees per second, meaning physical fitness is necessary just to stay concious in the cockpit.

More than the physical skills, though, test pilots need a good knowledge of aerodynamics and a seriously cool head. Throughout a sortie, a test pilot is constantly relaying information and observations to a team of 40 or so engineers on the ground. This holds true even during mid-flight crises, when the pilot has to deal with the emergency AND keep blathering away to the ground team:

"Most people, under stress, stop talking. For a test pilot, in order to interpret what their hands and feet are doing, they've got to keep talking. For a TP [test pilot], it's vital that they have the ability to keep talking."

So where do they learn all these skills? At test pilot school, of course. There are only four in the world that can produce fully-qualified test pilots: two in the USA, at Edwards Air Force Base and Patuxent River; one at Istres, in France; and one in the UK, at Boscombe Down. The courses last around a year, during which candidates learn to fly (and assess) a wide range of aircraft, "from microlites to military fast jets". In total, test pilots are taught on around 50 aircraft, which is radically different to regular pilots, who can qualify for military service only having ever flown in two or three aircraft.

In addition, there's a fairly heavy emphasis on physics and aeronautical engineering -- since the pilots are often flying brand-new aircraft still in the initial phases of development, an understanding of the underlying principles is vitally important for the 'assessing' bit of their job. Although Bowman has a degree in aeronautical engineering (and therefore didn't break much of a sweat over that bit of the course), "a lot of the guys were struggling on getting up to the necessary standards, and in some cases found it the hardest part of the course".

 

Real Urban Myth #1: Test Pilot Flying is Different to Regular Flying

Most pilots are 'current' -- qualified to fly -- on, at most, a few aircraft. Test pilots have to be able to fly a wide variety of aircraft; more importantly, they have to be able to handle aircraft they're not used to.

 

Real Urban Myth #2: Test Pilot Flying is Dangerous

Well, duh. Flying high-performance aircraft, experimental or not, at the edge of the 'envelope' is always going to be dangerous -- Bowman says "Yes, of course, we've all come close to hitting other aircraft, or the ground; I haven't personally ejected, but we all know someone who has, so the danger is always present".

 

Real Urban Myth #3: Test Pilot Flying is a Helluva Lot of Fun

Scary, yes, and demanding, definitely. But also fun:

"There's nothing quite like the feeling of sitting at the end of the runway, with your hands on the thrusters and an immense amount of power literally at a touch. I imagine it's like driving an F1 car, but so much faster."

All images kindly provided by BAE Systems