Before an airplane or helicopter is deemed safe to fly, it must undergo a series of tests while flown by a pilot trained for that purpose. Test pilots may fly new planes or helicopters still in the development phase, or they may fly an aircraft that has recently undergone repairs. Most test pilots work closely with the aircraft engineers to make modifications and improvements to the design or performance. They may fly the plane at maximum operating speeds to determine the plane’s limits, control functions, systems, and structural integrity. Engines may request that the pilot tests the safety features of the aircraft by inducing catastrophic conditions such as an unrecoverable dive or spin. The test pilot must write detailed reports about his or her experiences with the aircraft. Sometimes the pilot is testing aviation equipment installed in the plane and not the plane itself. Test pilots are also needed after an aircraft is built and the manufacturer must determine if it was assembled correctly. Computers and simulators are used extensively by the pilot throughout the testing process. Test pilots may work for the FAA, airplane manufacturers, aviation mechanics, or for private individuals who purchase new or used aircraft.
Test pilots are necessary to ensure a safe and fully functional final product, but the job is extremely dangerous. Controlling a plane that is still in development and may not fly or operate as expected requires exceptional skill and nerves. Fully testing an aircraft also entails many laborious tests, tedious processes, and documentation.
Test pilots must be observant, detail-oriented, and able to construct logical arguments for persuading engineers what modifications to the plane they should make. In addition to proper flying credentials, most employers want to see candidates with at least a four-year college degree in mechanical engineering and a military flying background. Experience with flying multi-engine aircraft, helicopters, and fighter aircraft is also preferred. Though test pilots must have steel nerves, employers don’t want show-offs or cowboys. They’re looking for responsible, stable pilots who don’t have a death wish. This is not a job for low-time pilots, so if you have less than 5,000 hours logged, you’ll likely be passed over for someone with more experience.
Both the US Air Force and US Navy have a special program devoted to training selected military aviators as test pilots. There are also several civilian run training programs located in the United States and Europe.
Some testing may include night flying or night operations, but most testing is done during daylight hours. Depending on the employer, some work may require overnight stays away from home.
Test Pilot Salary and Benefits
Benefits usually include paid vacation, dental and life insurance, sick leave, and a retirement plan. When working for an airlines, free or reduced airfare for employees and immediate family members is usually included as part of the benefits package.