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Test pilots may work for military organizations or private, (mostly aerospace) companies. Testing military aircraft, in particular, is regarded as the most challenging and risky flying conducted in peacetime.
In the 1950s, test pilots were being killed at the rate of about one a week, but the risks have shrunk to a fraction of that, thanks to the maturation of aircraft technology, better ground-testing and simulation of aircraft performance, fly by wire technology and lately, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to test experimental aircraft features. Still, piloting experimental aircraft remains more dangerous than most other types of flying.
A test pilot must be able to:
- Understand a test plan;
- Stick to a test plan, flying a plane in a highly specific way;
- Carefully document the results of each test;
- Have an excellent feel for the aircraft, and sense exactly how it is behaving oddly if it is doing so;
- Solve problems quickly if anything goes wrong with the aircraft during a test;
- Cope with many different things going wrong at once.
- Effectively communicate flight test observations to engineers and relate engineering results to the pilot community, thus bridging the gap between those who design and build aircraft with those who employ the aircraft to accomplish a mission.
Test pilots must have an excellent knowledge of aeronautical engineering, in order to understand how and why planes are tested. They must be above-average pilots with excellent analytical skills and the ability to fly accurately whilst following a flight plan.
Test pilots can be experimental and engineering test pilots (investigating the characteristics of new types of aircraft during development) or production test pilots (the more mundane role of confirming the characteristics of new aircraft as they come off the production line); many test pilots would perform both roles during their careers. Modern test pilots often receive formal training from highly-selective military test pilot schools, although other test pilots receive training and experience from civilian institutions and/or manufacturers' test pilot development programs.
Test flying as a systematic activity started during the First World War, at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in the United Kingdom. An "Experimental Flight" was formed at the Central Flying School. 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 (motto "Learn to Test - Test to Learn"), at RAF Boscombe Down in the UK. In America, the United States Air Force Test Pilot School is located at Edwards Air Force Base, the United States Naval Test Pilot School is located at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland and EPNER (Ecole du Personnel Navigant d'Essai et de Reception - "School for flight test and acceptance personnel"), the French test pilot school, is located in Istres, France. The only civilian school in the United States is the National Test Pilot School, a not-for-profit educational institute located in Mojave, California.
Notable test pilots
Some notable test pilots include:
- Léon Lemartin - The world's first Test pilot, by contract with Louis Blériot in the year 1910. Engineer of 'Arts and Crafts' (ENSAM, Aix-en-Provence), world recordman on 3 February 1911 when he carried seven passengers in a Blériot XIII Aerobus.
- Charles E. 'Chuck' Yeager, Brigadier General, USAF - WWII fighter ace and test pilot at the USAF Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB, Muroc, CA. On October 14, 1947, Yeager became the first test pilot to successfully break the Sound Barrier flying the Bell X-1 test aircraft.
- Neil Armstrong, X-15 pilot and first man to walk on the moon.
- Joseph John "Tym" Tymczyszyn, test pilot on America’s First Commercial Jet Aircraft, the Boeing 707.
- Eric "Winkle" Brown, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having flown more aircraft types (487) than any other pilot in the world and first pilot to land a jet aircraft on an aircraft carrier, and also holds the world record for the most carrier landings.
- Jeffrey Quill, British Royal Air Force officer and chief Test Pilot in charge of the development of the Supermarine Spitfire, who test-flew every mark of Spitfire from the prototype K5054 until the end of the aircraft's production, and also saw action in the Battle of Britain.
- Scott D. Anderson - Renaissance man and chief Test Pilot for Cirrus Aircraft, first pilot to successfully flight test a whole-plane parachute recovery system that became certified by the FAA. The device has been credited with saving 103 lives to date.
- Roland Beamont - for English Electric and BAC flew the Canberra and Lightning and was the first pilot to make a double Atlantic crossing by jet.
- Bill Bedford - for Hawker Aircraft flew the Hawker P.1127 & Kestrel and later Harrier VTOL jet aircraft.
- Charles F. Bolden, Jr. became the administrator of NASA on July 17, 2009. He is a former a naval test pilot, a former NASA astronaut, and a retired United States Marine Corps major general.
- Scott Crossfield, Yeager's direct rival and the first pilot known to have reached Mach 2.
- John Derry, for de Havilland the first Briton to exceed the speed of sound. He was killed in the 1952 Farnborough Airshow DH.110 crash where his aircraft broke up.
- Heini Dittmar, the first pilot to ever hold any sort of airspeed record, unofficial or otherwise, while flying a rocket-powered fixed-wing aircraft (Messerschmitt Me 163A and B-series prototypes) at 1004 km/h (624 mph) in 1941, and 1130 km/h (702 mph) in 1944.
- Neville Duke - World War two fighter ace, holder of airspeed record, Chief Test Pilot for Hawker.
- Boone Guyton - World War II test pilot at Chance-Vought, best known for participation in development of the F4U Corsair, also tested SB2U Vindicator, OS2U Kingfisher, Vought V-173 flying pancake, F6U Pirate, and F7U Cutlass.
- Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr. - for de Havilland flew the Mosquito and Vampire, killed in the near supersonic de Havilland DH 108. His two brothers were also test pilots. John was killed in a mid-air collision in 1943.
- John Cunningham, test-pilot before and after RAF service during World War II. Test-piloted the world's first jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet. de Havillands chief test pilot after Geoffrey's death.
- Harry Hawker, aviation pioneer pre-World War I and Sopwith Aviation Company chief test pilot.
- Hedley Hazelden, Chief Test Pilot for Handley Page.
- Bill Humble, British test pilot who first flew the first Hawker Tempest V, JN729 on 21 June 1943.
- Howard Hughes - Notable for test piloting aircraft produced by his company, Hughes Aircraft, and bought by his airline, TWA. Broke the World Land Plane Speed Record in 1935 and test flew the world's largest airplane, the Spruce Goose, in 1947. Both aircraft were of his own design.
- "Tex" Johnston, who piloted the Boeing 707 prototype,
- Hans-Werner Lerche, German World War II test pilot, who flew 125 different aircraft including captured Allied aircraft to assess their performance, as well as many German types.
- Anthony W. "Tony" LeVier, air racer and test pilot for the Lockheed Corporation.
- Mike Melvill, first privately funded pilot in space. Winner of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots' Kinchloe award.
- Alfred "Paul" Metz, chief test pilot of the Northrop/McDonnell Douglas Advanced Tactical Fighter YF-23A Black Widow II, receiving the Iven C. Kincheloe Award for his work on the ATF, and later chief test pilot of the first Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics F-22 Raptor (Raptor 4001), piloting the first flight of each. Member and past president of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
- Tom Morgenfeld, chief test pilot for Lockheed Martin's Skunk works and the Joint Strike Fighter.
- John Lankester Parker, British test pilot and Chief Test Pilot for Short Brothers, the world's first aircraft manufacturing company, from 1916 until 1945. During this time he flew every Shorts aircraft type, i.e. including the Short Sunderland and the Short Stirling, on its maiden test flight.
- Marina Popovich, female Russian test pilot who set 107 world records in aviation.
- John Cyril Porte, Irish born pioneer aviator and air racer. Test pilot for British Deperdussin, White and Thompson and notably Chief Test Pilot and designer with Glen Curtiss for Rodman Wanamaker's record breaking America flying boat in the first attempt to fly across the Atlantic Ocean from North America to Europe in 1914, doomed by the outbreak of World War I.
- Hanna Reitsch, the German female test pilot of the V-1 flying bomb program, especially its manned version.
- Ewald Rohlfs of Germany, who made the first flight of a helicopter, the Focke-Wulf Fw 61.
- Flt Lt Gerry Sayer (RAF), test pilot of Britain's first jet aircraft, Sir Frank Whittle's Gloster E.28/39, in 1941.
- Joseph "Mutt" Summers - chief test pilot at Vickers-Armstrong and holds the highest number of "prototype first flights". He also holds the highest number of flying hours of any test pilot (5600).
- Bob Hoover US Air Force test pilot, North American Aviation executive, and air show pilot
- Andre Turcat first test pilot to fly Concorde
- Brian Trubshaw for Vickers-Armstrongs and then British Aircraft Corporation, test pilot on Concorde,
- Joe Walker, X-15 pilot, first to reach the internationally recognized boundary to space in a spaceplane.
- Erich Warsitz, the first man to fly an aircraft under turbojet power, the Heinkel He 178, on August 27, 1939.
- George Welch, a test pilot for North American Aviation, whom some believe broke the sound barrier before Yeager.
- Fritz Wendel, Messerschmitt's chief test pilot, who broke the world piston-engined speed record with the Messerschmitt Me 209 V1 in 1939 and first flew the Messerschmitt 262, the world's first operational jet fighter.
- Janusz Żurakowski- postwar test pilot for Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down, test pilot for Gloster Aircraft company and Avro Aircraft Ltd., flew Gloster Meteor, Gloster Javelin and Avro CF-105 Arrow among others.
- Alexey Perelet, test pilot, first to lift several Tupolev planes including Tu-4 and TU-95 Bear. Killed during Tu-95/1 plane crash May 11, 1953.
- Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., test pilot and first African American astronaut. NASA cited Lawrence for accomplishments and flight maneuver data that "contributed greatly to the development of the Space Shuttle." Lawrence was killed on December 8, 1967, in the crash of an F-104 Starfighter at Edwards Air Force Base, California
- Michael T. Alsbury, test pilot, was killed on October 31, 2014 in the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo at Mojave Air and Space Port. SpaceShipTwo was one of the first vessels to pursue commercial space travel. Michael died at the age of 39. 
- Prospero "Paco" Uybarreta, US Air Force test pilot, Bombardier Aerospace CSeries CRJ Series test pilot awarded 2015 Iven C. Kincheloe Award, Scaled Composites test pilot.
- Léon Lemartin (Ai. 1899)
- Stinton, Darrol. Flying Qualities and Flight Testing of the Airplane. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., 1996, p. 265
- Léon Lemartin (Ai. 1899)
- Mason 1991, p.333.
- Warsitz, Lutz: THE FIRST JET PILOT - The Story of German Test Pilot Erich Warsitz (p. 125), Pen and Sword Books Ltd., England, 2009
- Hallion, Richard P.Test Pilots: Frontiersmen of Flight. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press, 1988. ISBN 978-0874745498
- Warsitz, Lutz: THE FIRST JET PILOT - The Story of German Test Pilot Erich Warsitz, Pen and Sword Books Ltd., England, 2009, ISBN 978-1-84415-818-8
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Test pilots.|
- The Society of Experimental Test Pilots
- Society of Flight Test Engineers
- Empire Test Pilots School, United Kingdom
- National Test Pilot School, Mojave, California
- U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, Edwards AFB, California
- U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, NAS Patuxent River, Maryland
- Memorial website for test pilots who died in flying accidents in the UK
- Flight list of display and test pilots at 1957 Farnborough air show
- Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment, Canadian Flight Test Centre
- Indian Air Force Test Pilots School, Bangalore
- The Scott Crossfield Foundation
- website on Erich Warsitz (world’s first jet pilot)
- Oficial European test for pilots