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The Life of a Test Pilot

Posted 14 years 175 days ago ago by Admin

The Life of a Test Pilot by Shawn Coyle

Test Pilot Background

The first thing that has to be made clear is that Test Pilot refers to Research and Development, Certification or Engineering flight testing. The US Army has a course they call the Test Pilot course, but it should be more properly called the 'Post Maintenance Check Pilot (PMCF) course. The two are completely different.

The minimum experience necessary to get into flight testing is typically 1,500 hours or 5 years of flying. A variety of types would be a great asset. Instrument flying, night flying, are all useful. Operational type flying, as opposed to flying training or daylight, good weather only flying is necessary in order to understand all the possible places that helicopters can and will be used.

Engineering or science degree is helpful, but not strictly necessary. The ability to understand and work with basic physics and math is essential, as is the ability to write reasonably clearly. The ability to work in a team is essential. Attention to detail in flying is necessary, as is a natural flying ability - flying must be second nature so you can concentrate on the tests to be conducted. Often called upon to fly aircraft that have never been flown before.

Test pilot training is clearly an asset, although there are those who have been successful without this background. Typically they have worked their way up in a company over at least 10 years however.


Difficult to say, as most test pilots employed by companies are reluctant to state salaries. FAA flight test personnel typically start at a GS-14 level, about $110,000 per year. Most company test pilots get bonuses for risky flights, details obviously kept close to the chest as they have to bid for this internally.

Work Schedules

Normally a lot of early morning flights to take advantage of smooth air. Otherwise a lot of short flights to look at specific aspects of a helicopters operation. Lots of long days, and during development, often little time off. Some travel to remote locations for cold weather tests, high altitude tests, hot weather tests, customer demonstrations etc. Lots of variety in what you are doing, and hardly ever a dull moment.

Aircraft Flown

Obviously prototypes and modified aircraft. Often heavily instrumented and with strange and often complex limitations. Understanding of instrumentation systems and their operation is necessary. No checklists for most of these aircraft, so you have to make up your own. Often large changes made to aircraft configurations between flights, so you have be aware of what is being changed and the expected effect. Expect to wear parachutes and oxygen masks, something most helicopter pilots never to.

Also expect to take these aircraft to the limits of their abilities, and to expose yourself to a great deal of risk in a very careful manner.

Benefits to be Expected

Most companies that are going into the development of a new helicopter are not small or poorly funded, so most will have comprehensive medical and dental benefits. For test pilots, they also typically have life insurance and disability insurance.

Typical Job Functions

Expect to interact with design engineers and certification personnel from a civil authority like the FAA. Know and understand the civil (and possibly military) certification requirements, the flight test techniques and how to analyze the data. Also expect that engineers are not going to know everything that is going on, and that some of the things they might ask you to do or test might be hazardous to your continued health! Be prepared to spend a lot of time digging into systems to know how they work, and how they can fail and what the failures can mean to you when you are flying.

Expect to spend a lot of time in meetings.

Expect not to be listened to by engineers, and be prepared to argue your side of the equation. In some cases, be prepared to refuse to fly a particular configuration or maneuver.

Other pertinent Information

Be prepared to learn at every turn. Ask lots of questions. Develop a pathological interest in failures. Be prepared to say NO. Be prepared to have an fascinating career.

This segment was written by Shawn Coyle, Chief Instructor Pilot at the National Test Pilot School.