Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Test Pilots work on developing, evaluating and proving experimental aircraft.
Testing an aircraft requires subjecting it to very specific maneuvers and noting the results. The purpose of doing so is to determine if the plane reacts the way that it has been designed to. This is a vital step towards finding whether a new plane, or a modification to an existing plane, is a good design or not.
Test pilots are aviators who work both for military organizations and (mostly aerospace) companies. Being a test pilot of military aircraft, in particular, is regarded as the most challenging and risky flying conducted in peacetime, and is therefore the pinnacle of military aviation. Risk levels for test pilots have decreased substantially since the 1960s. In the 1950s, test pilots were being killed at the rate of about one a week. The maturation of aircraft technology, the much increased ability to test aspects of aircraft performance in ground-testing (often using computer simulation), and lately the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to test experimental aircraft features, have all contributed to this. Despite this, piloting experimental aircraft remains significantly more dangerous than most other types of flying.
Required qualifications for a test pilot include:
- Understanding a test plan;
- Sticking to a test plan, flying a plane in a very highly specific way;
- Carefully documenting the results of each test;
- Having an excellent feel for the aircraft, and thus the ability to sense exactly how it is behaving oddly if it is doing so;
- Having excellent problem-solving skills if anything goes wrong with the aircraft during a test;
- Being able to cope with many different things going wrong at once, because they sometimes do.
Test pilots must have an excellent knowledge of aeronautical engineering, in order to understand how they are testing and why. Natural piloting ability is not as important as analytical skill, and the ability to follow a flight plan. Thrill-seeking sky-jocks need not apply, though this did not stop many of the American pilots during the 1950s, who later became astronauts. Despite their image as fun-loving dare-devils, their flying had to be ruthlessly precise and professional.
Test flying as a systematic activity started during the First World War, at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in the United Kingdom. During the 1920s, test flying was further developed by the RAE in the UK, and by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in the United States. In the 1950s, NACA was transformed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. During these years, as work was done into aircraft stability and handling qualities, test flying evolved towards a more qualitative scientific profession.
The world's oldest test pilot school is what is now called the Empire Test Pilots School , at RAF Boscombe Down in the UK. In America, the United States Air Force Test Pilot School is located at Edwards Air Force Base, and the United States Naval Test Pilot School is located at Naval Air Station Patuxent River , Maryland.
Notable Test Pilots
Some notable test pilots include:
- Brigadier General Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager, who is most thought of when people think of a "test pilot"
- Scott Crossfield, Yeager's direct rival
- George Welch, a test pilot for North American Aviation, who some contest broke the sound barrier before Yeager.
- Gerry Sayer Flt Lt PEG 'Gerry' Sayer test-piloted Britain's first jet aircraft for in 1941 Sir Frank Whittle.
- Neil Armstrong, X-15 pilot and first man on the moon
- "Tex" Johnston, who piloted the Boeing 707 prototype
- Mike Melvill, first privately-funded pilot in space
- Eric "Winkle" Brown
- Hanna Reitsch
- Joe Walker, X-15 pilot, first to reach the internationally-recognized boundary to space in a spaceplane
- Test Pilots: Frontiersmen of Flight, Richard P. Hallion, Smithsonian Press.
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