With such demanding selection criteria for military pilots and the in-depth training and knowledge that aerospace engineers gain, it is tempting to think that once you have got that far, there is little more to learn.
However, today's diverse and sophisticated aircraft, rapidly changing technologies and the demand for high performance in increasingly varied situations mean that the very best people are needed to test and evaluate aircraft equipment.
The Empire Test Pilots' School (ETPS), which today is operated by QinetiQ (a defence technology and security company) as part of a long-term partnering agreement with the UK Ministry of Defence, was founded in 1943 at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire. At this time the UK was at war and new military aircraft were being designed at the fastest pace in the history of powered flight. In order to ensure the new designs were capable of combat, professional test pilots and engineers were needed. Students came from all over the world, and the school quickly evolved in setting a world-class standard: former graduates went on to set up similar schools in the USA and France. Many graduates have also gone on to work in civilian flight testing for manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, but today the school maintains its military ethos and it is still commanded by a serving military officer, Commanding Officer Commander Chris Maude, as part of the UK's joint MOD/QinetiQ Aircraft Test and Evaluation Centre.
The focus of the school's training is a highly intensive one-year course that brings together pilots and engineers from civil and military backgrounds. Students follow a fixed-wing or rotary-wing specialisation but the key focus is to train as a team, reproducing real-life flight-testing conditions. The ETPS fleet includes hawks and alpha jets, as well as heavy, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Part of the course is spent in Sweden, where the students fly the Saab Gripen, getting to grips with some of the features of modern fly-by-wire combat aircraft.
Three years' flight testing and evaluation experience are crammed into a year, so students can test aircraft for all kinds of operations as soon as they graduate. Around 20 places are available each year, shared between pilot and engineer. There are usually two to three interviews per place and the interview is a long, rigorous process; candidates spend two to three months preparing for it!
Surprisingly, technical knowledge isn't the only criteria for a potential student. "Some natural academic ability is necessary and a drive to understand and know how things work", says Lieutenant Commander Moffat, a principal tutor. "We need good pilots but also ones who are keen to know more about flight control systems and performance."
Dave Southwood, another principal tutor, says: "Academic knowledge is taught or refreshed on the course, but personal qualities are just as important. Integrity is essential and the ability to work in a team as a member and leader, as well as communication."
"You need to be able to communicate technical data to non-technical people," adds tutor Simon Toolan, "and flight-test involves the customer, the project manager, hangar staff and engineers."
"You also have to be able to say when you think the kit is not ready yet," adds Moffat, "so confidence is important as well as the ability to lay out an argument for scrutiny."
A final confirmatory exercise known as the "preview" is undertaken by all the students working in teams. During this exercise they test and evaluate an aircraft that they have never flown before to assess its suitability for a specific operational role. There is a tense wait until the students find out which aircraft type they will work on and where in the world they will be travelling to, as this is kept under wraps by the tutors until just prior to the exercise start. The students then have two weeks to plan the testing exercise, two weeks to fly with eight to 10 hours team-flying and one week to write "the book". This is their assessment of the aircraft and the basis for a formal presentation to a panel which includes frontline and test squadron staff in which they argue their findings: should the viewer buy the aircraft or not?
Graduates are immediately placed into aircraft evaluation trials, testing equipment for military operations. Eventually, some graduates work in the civil sector - interestingly, there is no similar civil test pilot training course, but most civil test pilots have been through the ETPS course or similar. The school also runs shorter courses and some airlines send their pilots on these when they purchase new aircraft, to gain a more professional understanding of the aircraft's strength and weaknesses. The ETPS also offer a number of short courses to civil aerospace engineers.
Many astronauts are former test pilots - including previous Everything Aerospace case study, Philippe Perrin. So, the technical knowledge, skills and qualities that test and evaluation training develop have helped humans reach outer space!
MEET THE MENTORS
Lieutenant Commander Roger Moffat, Principal Tutor, Rotary-Wing Course
"My background was as a Merlin helicopter pilot in the Royal Navy. During my service I spent three years with the US Navy and was also a flying instructor. In 1997, I did the ETPS course and ultimately returned to the ETPS after several years as Royal Navy tutor. Here, I am responsible for managing the rotary wing aspect of the graduate course, which includes organising the syllabus, external visits and liaising with other tutors."
Simon Toolan, Principal Tutor, Flight-Test Engineering
"I did a degree in aeronautical engineering and joined the former DERA, now QinetiQ, as a graduate in the Centre for Defence Analysis. I also have a PPL and have always had a keen interest in aircraft. Each year, there are some places on the graduate course for QinetiQ engineers, and in 2000 I completed the course. Following that, I worked on the Astor project for the RAF Sentinel radar with Bombardier and Raytheon. In 2005 I joined the ETPS as principal tutor."
Dave Southwood, Principal Tutor, Fixed-Wing Course
"I completed a degree in aeronautical engineering at university and joined the RAF when I graduated as a pilot. In 1985 I completed the ETPS graduate course and then went into the RAF fast-jet test squadron. After that I joined the civil sector and flew with the airlines for seven years but, after 9/11, returned to the ETPS as a civilian tutor for the fixed-wing course."Reuse content