Scientia est Virtus
412th Test Wing
Edwards Air Force Base
Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin
9 September 1944 through the present
United States Air Force
220 Wolfe Ave, Edwards, CA 93524, USA
Air Force Flight Test Museum, Desert Junior/Se High Sch, National Test Pilot School, High Desert Inn, Armed Forces Bank
The U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School (USAF TPS) is the Air Force's advanced flight training school that trains experimental test pilots, flight test engineers, and flight test navigators to carry out tests and evaluations of new aerospace weapon systems and also other aircraft of the U.S. Air Force. This school was established on 9 September 1944 as the Flight Test Training Unit at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB) in Dayton, Ohio. To take advantage of the uncongested skies, usually superb flying weather, and the lack of developed zones in the event of crashing, the test pilot school was officially moved to its present location at Edwards Air Force Base in the northwestern Mojave Desert of Southern California on 4 February 1951.
- Selection process
- Admission requirements
- Exchange program
- Course of study
- Early years
- At Wright Patterson AFB
- Heading west
- Edwards Air Force Base
- Notable alumni
The Test Pilot School was created to formalize and standardize test pilot training in order to reduce the high accident rate during the 1940s and increase the number of productive test flights. In response to the increasing complexity of aircraft and their electronic systems, the school added training programs for flight test engineers and flight test navigators. Between 1962 and 1972, the test pilot school included astronaut training for armed forces test pilots, but these classes were dropped when the U.S. Air Force manned spaceflight program was suspended. Class sizes have been uniformly quite small, with recent classes having about twenty students. The school is a component of the 412th Test Wing of the Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC).
The mission of the USAF Test Pilot School is to produce highly adaptive, critical-thinking flight test professionals to lead and conduct full-spectrum test and evaluation of aerospace weapon systems. Performing this mission allows the school to fulfill the vision of being the world’s premiere educational and training center of excellence for theoretical and applied flight test engineering.
All candidates require secret clearance. As of May 2015, the minimum admission requirements for application to the USAF TPS are:
From time to time, students are selected to attend different test pilot schools in an exchange program between test cultures. Toward this end, students can be sent to the Naval Test Pilot School at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Maryland, and vice versa. Also, the USAF Test Pilot School has an exchange program with the Empire Test Pilots' School at Boscombe Down, England, and the EPNER (École du Personnel Navigant d'Essais et de Réception), the French Test Pilot's School.
Course of study
Although the United States Armed Forces had been evaluating aircraft since Lt. Benny Foulois flew with Orville Wright in 1909, the designation of "test pilot" was not formally applied until a group of McCook Field pilots was assigned to a flight Testing Squadron at Wright Field during World War I. Test pilot selection was a seemingly indiscriminate process yielding a mix of experienced pilots who had volunteered for the task, flight instructors who were simply assigned to the job, and the occasional officer fresh from flying school. One of the latter, Lt. Donald Putt, who would later rise to the rank of Lieutenant General, recalled:
Test pilot training was nearly as informal as the selection process with most material directed toward the aeronautical engineers who supervised the tests. Reports and texts of this time provided little guidance regarding how tests should be flown. The best training for test pilots came from practical experience gained while flying as observers and hangar-talk tutorials from other pilots. A test pilot was not expected to have a formal engineering background. He was simply to follow the instructions on the test card and fly the airplane appropriately. Setting the standard to overcome this condition were test pilots such as Jimmy Doolittle. While at McCook Field, Doolittle served as a test pilot but was given leave to earn both master of science and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Today, most test pilots have advanced degrees in engineering.
At Wright-Patterson AFB
Inspired by the RAF's Empire Test Pilots' School (ETPS), Colonel Ernest K. Warburton, chief of the Flight Test Section at Wright Field, set about changing the role and status of flight testing in the Army Air Forces. His goals for the flight test community were standardization and independence, which were later realized with the establishment of the Air Technical Command Flight Test Training unit on 9 September 1944 and the independent Flight Test Division in 1945. The AAF now had a formal program of study to train young pilots to become flight test professionals. Under the command of Major Ralph C. Hoewing, the Flight Test Training Unit's curriculum included classroom sessions covering performance flight test theory and piloting techniques. The students then put theory into practice with performance evaluations on the AT-6 Texan trainer. Shortly after the first class graduated, the school was redesignated the Flight Section School Branch with an increased focus on academic theory. In 1945, the school moved to Vandalia Municipal Airport (now the Dayton International Airport), after which it was redesignated the Flight Performance School and placed under the command of Lt. Colonel John R. Muehlberg who became the first to carry the title "Commandant". Under Muehlberg, who in 1944/45 had attended the second course at the newly established ETPS in England, the school increased its fleet with North American P-51 Mustangs, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresss and North American B-25 Mitchells and expanded the curriculum to include a separate four-month stability and control course in addition to the existing performance course. In 1946, the test pilot school was moved again to nearby Patterson Field and Colonel Albert Boyd was assigned as Chief of the Flight Test Division. Col. Boyd profoundly influenced both the school and the character of its future AAF test pilots with his insistence on precision flying skills and discipline. A graduate of the school in 1946, Major Bob Cardenas, later summarized Col. Boyd's influence:
Frequent bad weather and increased air traffic congestion at Wright-Patterson often prevented students from completing their course work on time. In addition, most Air Force (incl. the USAAF) airplanes were by then being manufactured and tested by contractors on the West Coast of the United States. For these and other reasons, Col. Boyd began the transfer of all flight test operations, including the test pilot school, to Muroc Army Air Field in the desert of southern California. The school continued operations at Patterson Field, and 1947 saw the first United States Air Force class and the first class to fly jets. The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star would provide jet performance training at the school until 1954.
In 1949, this school was renamed the Air Material Command Experimental Test Pilot School, and the soon-to-be Brigadier General Boyd assumed command of Muroc Air Force Base. Boyd chose Major John Amman, an instructor at the school, to go to Muroc AFB, and implement the details of the school's move westward. On 8 December 1949, Muroc AFB was renamed the Edwards Air Force Base in honor of Glen Edwards, TPS class 45, who was killed in the crash of the Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing bomber. Captain Edwards, who had recently earned a Master of Science degree in aeronautical engineering from Princeton, typified the new breed of test pilot of which Cardenas had written — one who combined the talents of a highly skilled pilot with the technical expertise of an engineer. Amman completed his work and on 4 February 1951 the school was officially transferred to Edwards Air Force Base. The enormous dry lake bed, extremely long runways, and clear weather would serve the USAF and the school well as aircraft performance continued to increase.
Edwards Air Force Base
The Test Pilot School was housed in an old weather-beaten wooden hangar along the flight line of what became known as South Base. Although the quarters were spartan, the weather was superb with only two flying days lost due to weather in the first seven months of operation. Taking advantage of the calm morning air, students started the day flying missions to collect test data. Afternoons were spent in the lecture hall and evenings devoted to reducing data from the day's flights. Data reduction was dull and labor-intensive, requiring the student to transcribe information recorded on film or oscillograph paper and perform calculations by hand or slide rule. Once reduced, the data was woven into a report that summarized the test and the student's conclusions. Some students were not prepared for the rigorous academics and had to be dropped from enrollment. This situation improved in 1953 when the school was moved out of Air Research and Development Command which allowed the selection boards to draw from a much larger, USAF-wide, pool of applicants rather than just the local test squadrons.
Although changes to the curriculum could be made quickly, acquisition of aircraft for the school remained a perennial challenge for the school's staff. The Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star arrived in 1953 and became a staple for the students over the next 23 years. Additional aircraft were added during the 1950s, including the Republic F-84 Thunderjet, North American F-86 Sabre, North American F-100 Super Sabre, Martin B-57 Canberra, and Convair F-102 Delta Dagger — the school's first delta-winged airplane. In 1955, the school was renamed the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Pilot School, and a year later, moved into its present location on the Main Base facility. This new building, built at a cost of $156,000, was the first and only structure designed specifically for the purposes of the school.
In 1956, the school chose an official emblem, featuring a slide rule in front of the silhouette of a climbing jet, and a motto, Scientia est Virtus — Latin for "Knowledge is Power". The new logo emphasized the school's role in preparing students with both the technical theory and flying skills indispensable for evaluating modern aircraft. The new logo also replaced the unofficial badge of Dr. Howland Owl, a character from the popular Pogo comic strip, that appeared on the noses of many of school's airplanes.
Between 1962 and 1975, the test pilot school expanded its role to include astronaut training for armed forces test pilots. Thirty-seven TPS graduates were selected for the U.S. space program, and twenty-six earned astronaut's wings by flying in the X-15, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs.
On 21 May 2009 a T-38 Talon from the test pilot school on a training flight crashed 12 miles north of Edwards AFB, killing the student pilot Major Mark Paul Graziano and severely injuring the student navigator Major Lee Vincent Jones. An accident investigation determined that the crash was caused when the aircraft's rudder operating mechanism disconnected the flight controls from the rudder actuators and caused the rudder to deflect 30 degrees to the left. This induced an uncontrollable yaw and a resulting roll, causing the aircraft to depart controlled flight, a condition that is unrecoverable in the T-38. The report stated that contributing factors to the crash were a structural fatigue failure or structural break in a critical component or bolt, and a maintenance error in which a nut or cotter pin did not properly secure a bolt connecting two critical components. Citing two historical cases of rudder failure, the report concluded that maintenance error was the more likely cause. The investigation concluded that "insufficient supervisory oversight and a lack of discipline of the training process" in the Maintenance unit existed in relation to the mishap aircraft.
The commanding officer of the USAF test pilot school is better known by the title of Commandant. Although not an official prerequisite for the position, most commandants are themselves graduates of the test pilot school. As of July 2014, Colonel Charles Webb is the commandant of the school.
TPS has produced many notable alumni including astronauts, record-setting aviators, and senior Air Force leaders.