Test Pilots for Tomorrow

Jan. 1, 2013

The US Air Force Test Pilot School is overhauling its curriculum, cramming new essentials into its already jam-packed and intensive 48-week program of studying and flying. The new coursework—adding cyber studies and remotely piloted aircraft, among other topics—is being wedged in alongside time-honored fundamentals aimed at producing the elite aircrews needed to evaluate and assess ever more sophisticated USAF equipment.

Senior test pilot instructor Evan Thomas and Test Pilot School instructor Maj. Brian Deas stand on the tarmac after a certification flight. (Staff photo by Aaron M. U. Church)

Accepting a mere 10 percent of the rated officers who apply each year, the TPS produces just 50 graduates annually—and very soon, that will drop to 40. Contrary to the school’s name, graduates include engineers and combat systems officers as well as pilots from across the service, turning them into test and evaluation experts.

The TPS, located at Edwards AFB, Calif., boasts an eclectic mix of aircraft, meant to expose students to the widest possible variety of flying experience. On top of an aggressive flying program, though, comes an extremely demanding academic program through which graduates earn a master’s degree in flight test engineering. Along with the sheepskin comes the coveted TPS patch—a mark of distinction graduates wear for the rest of their careers.

The Primary Mission

The TPS program gives students—already experienced aircrews—with specialized academic knowledge, flying skills, and scientific discipline. With these tools, they go on to hone the effectiveness of every item of future Air Force flying equipment—from prototype and X-planes to software upgrades, retrofit antennas, and sensor pods.

Despite the handful of graduates each year, the tiny TPS is the bedrock of the Air Force developmental test community. Testers can catch design flaws in big-ticket programs such as the F-35 fighter or KC-46 tanker early enough to save significant amounts of money and even lives. Ensuring testers are prepared for the enormous responsibility of making aircraft safe and effective is the school’s primary mission.

Some graduates have grown into positions where “they are now decision-makers” on the most important procurement programs in the Air Force, said the TPS commandant, Col. Lawrence M. Hoffman. “That’s what we’re trying to build here from the ground up.” One of those is Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan, now head of the F-35 strike fighter program.

Though flight testers live at the cutting edge of constantly evolving technology, many of the foundational elements that make good test pilots remain constant. TPS focuses on the fundamentals of practical airmanship, flight physics, and test management. On the other hand, the increasing use of computer networking to interweave aircraft systems and link aircraft to other platforms has added a new domain to testing.

“We’ve been testing air vehicles here for years—we test performance, flying qualities, and systems. We look at them comprehensively,” explained Hoffman. To achieve that holistic approach now demands that “we need to be looking at the cyber component.”

Infusing cyber as a foundational curriculum concept and incorporating awareness of aircraft’s linkage to space-based systems for crucial functions is a top priority.

With the recent addition of a remotely piloted aircraft test “track,” the school welcomes cyber and space-enabled platform curriculum as a TPS staple for the first time.

There are only three test pilot schools in the US. Aside from TPS, the only other in the Department of Defense is the Navy’s version at Patuxent River, Md. (The third is a civilian school.)

With a class size of just 20 students, competition for admission to TPS is intense. Just to be considered, a candidate must be a highly experienced aviator, personally recommended by a unit commander.

A 412th Test Wing F-16 returns to Edwards AFB, Calif. The TPS shares aircraft with the test wing for efficiency and maintenance. (Lockheed Martin photo by Chad Bellay)

“They’re some of the best that you can find at any base around the Air Force, and we’ve got to whittle it down,” said Hoffman.

After an initial screening, pilot-tracked candidates come to Edwards for a personal interview and a flight evaluation in three very different aircraft: a turboprop C-12, supersonic T-38, and a sailplane. For every candidate, at least one is a completely new challenge.

“We put them in the airplane and evaluate their ability to adapt … to do new things, things they aren’t accustomed to,” explained the school’s chief test pilot, William Gray III. The school instituted this highly personalized selection process four years ago; since then, Gray reported, the airmanship and technical skills of the average student have “significantly increased.”

In addition to pilots, the school trains test engineers who manage evaluations from a ground control station, as well as backseaters who test systems such as radar and electronics in flight. In fact, TPS is a test team school with tracks for pilots, CSOs, test engineers, and, most recently, RPA operators.

Though the grading criteria for each of these vary, the curriculum and flight syllabus are largely unified, giving each member a firm understanding of the demands and pressures placed on each member of the test team.

For example, engineers on the ground who coach pilots aloft through a flight evaluation must understand what the pilots are experiencing. They get experience hitting exacting test points under extreme G forces in the back seat of an F-16.

“When you’re up there in the air, things happen much faster and you don’t necessarily have the brain bytes available that you would on the ground, so that’s been a huge epiphany for me,” said Capt. Mitch Pohlman, a flight test engineer in Class 12-2 which began last July. “We all sit through the same briefs and learn the same flight test techniques, because we’re guiding those techniques a lot of times in the air from the control room,” he observed.

TPS is broken into four phases, each focusing on a key aspect of the profession: flight performance, aircraft handling, basic systems, and test management. With the amount of content condensed into a year-long course, TPS is fast-paced and unrelenting but also methodical.

TPS Reports

In each phase, “we teach the basic theory in the classrooms [and] then we give them hands-on examples in the simulators or labs,” said David Vanhoy, the school’s civilian technical director. “Then it’s ‘demo-do’: … demonstration flights with instructors, … then it’s the ‘do’ portion, where we turn them loose in student groups to go out and accomplish the same thing they’ve just seen.”

The course is intensive. When they graduate, students will have flown 85 “airborne laboratories” in as many as 20 different aircraft. They will also have planned and executed a real-world mini-test project, all while balancing flying with academics.

“A lot of guys come here and work to their physical limits to get the thing done—and they need to,” said Gray. “We’re teaching a fairly comprehensive master’s degree course in about half the time you’d want to, … and that’s on top of all the flying,” he said.

Cmdr. Michael Williams (left), a TPS instructor, and TPS candidate Capt. Clifton Bell walk away from a C-12 after completing the last of three screening flights. (Staff photos by Aaron M. U. Church)

Every day is split between flying and academics, and the pace of study is such that “every week we’re essentially getting the bulk of an undergraduate level class,” Pohlman noted. Students often learn and test on a new topic the same week. By the time they’re flying the practical portion, they’re already onto the next subject in class, he said.

This fire-hose approach may seem less than ideal, but the goal of TPS is not to create technical experts. Instead, it aims to instill the skills to test any aircraft or system.

“We need to teach the fundamentals” so that “whatever gets thrown their way, … they can quickly learn how that system operates,” said Gray. “If they fly 20 different airplanes here, by the time they’re done” any airplane is ” just another airplane,” he said. “It’s that ability to adapt that’s such an important part of the skill set.”

The course is hectic and challenging, but with funding as tight as it is in the Air Force, there’s no option to lengthen the course. “The Air Force really isn’t going to give us more time,” said Gray.

Given the number of new things the school is looking to inject into the curriculum—cyber, RPAs, and space—the time crunch is a real hurdle.

“We stay focused on the basics, but the basics have gotten a lot more complex,” Gray said.

Private contractors, Air Force civilians, and uniformed personnel comprise the teaching cadre, many teaching both in the cockpit and classroom. In addition, they develop the curriculum along the way, and it falls to them to weave the new material into the already full syllabus without damaging the school’s foundational focus.

Teachers at the school said integrating cyber into TPS is probably the most difficult, while the “space” element is much easier.

“We’re not space testers, but we certainly need to understand the interface and the interaction of our air vehicles with space,” said Hoffman. “We rely on space” to navigate, communicate, and control unmanned aircraft, so “we need to understand the fragility of our space network.”

Cyber, though, is interrelated with every aspect of an aircraft’s function and beyond. As such, it is impractical to teach independently and impossible to cover exhaustively in a reasonable time frame.

“If you go back to World War II, … everything was stand-alone. … You tested the individual system you had,” said Randolph H. Kelly, a master instructor who heads the course’s systems phase. Today, “it isn’t so much that way.” In modern aircraft such as the F-35, software interface links everything from the oxygen system to the flight controls. “The problem was, TPS was still stuck in those days of individual systems,” he said.

A pair of T-38s on the flight line have fully instrumented nose probes that allow TPS students to collect data during test training hops. (Staff photos by Aaron M. U. Church)

To address the situation, TPS went back and completely reengineered the systems-phase curriculum. Previously, students learned about radios, navigation equipment, radars, sensors, and a host of systems as separate entities. Now, the goal in changing the materials is to “take those worldwide expansive systems and try to break them down into pieces” to teach students to evaluate weapon systems from a “cyber perspective,” said Kelly.

Integrating RPA

To do this, his team picked out overarching principles that are broadly applicable and put them at the beginning of the course. The idea is to free up classroom time to teach cyber and space. Instead of a stand-alone module, cyber will be “a concurrent thread” throughout the course, said Kelly.

The school teaches two overlapping courses each year and plans to roll out the reengineered curriculum for the TPS class starting in July 2013. Until then, the school will continue teaching its four-hour introductory cyber course—”not enough,” admitted Gray, but it will help bridge the gap.

Integrating RPAs is much further along. In fact, the first RPA pilot graduated TPS in December 2011. Since then, three others have either graduated, or were currently going through the course in October, according to the school’s chief RPA test pilot, Lt. Col. Fred Bivetto.

“The RPA pilots are a bit of a different flavor, because some of them have manned experience—a lot of it in some cases,” said Hoffman. As a result, RPA pilots are evaluated on an individual basis and tracked either as test pilots or CSOs, based on their background and cockpit experience.

From the school’s standpoint, RPA operators fit well into the CSO track, since both types of aircrew control electronic systems in flight. As an efficiency measure, the RPA pilot track is mainly a tailored CSO track, with a variety of pilot tasks lumped in.

RPA testers “see everything from an operator’s standpoint. They get the chance to do handling-qualities evaluations; they get to see how airplanes feel” from the backseat, in the case of students who haven’t flown aircraft before, explained Gray.

“The curriculum is essentially the same” as for a pilot, except for front-seat check rides in F-16s and T-38s. Instead, the RPA operators fly evaluated test flights in simulators which replicate an unmanned aircraft quite well—especially when TPS student and faculty creativity is involved.

As a capstone test management project, a recent class created an interface linking a Learjet-24 to the school’s in-house “handling qualities simulator.” Though the project was an experiment, it allowed students to fly the “surrogate RPA” from inside the school building. Like the simulator, the contractor-owned Learjet was already part of the school curriculum, put to a new use.

The tandem F-16B provides a high-performance platform for students. They fly it in two-student test teams or with an instructor. (Staff photos by Aaron M. U. Church)

“We’ve had these two test management projects that have been completed already, and the data looks really great,” said Bivetto. TPS plans to have one more class test the concept before deciding whether to fund the surrogate RPA as “an actual cornerstone” of the TPS curriculum, he added.

The unique “variable stability” Learjet can be reprogrammed with programmable flight rules to handle like anything from a B-52 to a Global Hawk. Since it flies with a safety pilot to take over if needed, the surrogate RPA could potentially teach students to fly test and evaluation sorties and maneuvers that would be too dangerous for an RPA to fly in shared airspace. On top of this, TPS is looking to actually acquire its own simple, affordable RPA—possibly similar to NASA’s remotely operated integrated drone aircraft developed by the Dryden Flight Research Center across the ramp at Edwards.

“I would say that by 2013, we will have all the possibilities looked at, and then …hopefully they can get some funding to support that,” Bivetto summed up.

“In my opinion, RPA is here today, and here to stay,” said Hoffman. “RPA, cyber, and space, those are the things that we’re integrating into the school today to be ready into the future.” This will ensure USAF continues to hand airmen combat-ready weapons that have been tried, tested, and proved as second to none, he said.