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2017 USAF Test Pilot School

Updated: Feb 3, 2018

USAF Test Pilot School

For over 70 years pilots, engineers and navigators have joined the USAF Test Pilot School to become a graduate. Frank Visser recently visited the school at Edwards AFB California and spoke with its current commanding officer Col. Charles Webb.


A legacy

As soon as you enter the USAF Test Pilot School (TPS) you come face to face with its rich history. The walls are decorated with historic photos, paintings and the names of all the students and commanding officers. One of the most famous commanding officers was Charles E. Yeager: The first man to break the sound barrier on the 14th October 1947 in the Bell X-1. He was the only one of the 42 commanding officers who finished the school twice in 1946 (class 46C) as well as in 1951 (class 51A). In July 1962 he returned as commanding officer to lead TPS for four years. There are also other famous men whose names are connected with TPS, such as Joe H. Engle who was the only pilot to fly into space in two different winged aircraft, namely the X-15 and the Space Shuttle. He graduated at Edwards AFB as a member of class 61C. Another astronaut who served as commanding officer from July 1971 until February 1972 was Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin. Founded in September 1944 as the Flight Test Training Unit at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio the school produces experimental test pilots, flight test engineers and flight test navigators. The development of military aviation moved more and more to the west coast during the war years.

TPS Classes 1944 - 1947

Because of the superb weather conditions Muroc AFB in California provided the ideal environment for testing aircraft. In February 1951 the school was transferred to this base, which had just been renamed Edwards AFB.

As part of the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) the school's name was changed into ARDC Experimental Test Pilot School. This only lasted a year as the name was changed again to USAF Experimental Flight Test Pilot School. Between 1962 and 1972 the role of TPS was expanded by training military test pilots for astronaut training a due to this role thirty-seven TPS graduates were selected for the US Space Program. Twenty-six men of this group later became astronauts flying the

X-15, Gemini, Apollo or the Space Shuttle. After 1972, the year the Flight Test Training Unit was renamed to Test Pilot School, astronauts training stopped, but in the years to come many graduates were selected by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). One of them is the current chief test pilot Nils Larson of NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB. He graduated from TPS with class 95A. Nowadays the school is also open to civilians, personnel from other U.S. military services such as the U.S. Navy, and individuals from foreign countries. There are also close relations with other test pilot school, including the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, the United Kingdom’s Empire Test Pilots School (ETPS) at Boscombe Down and École du Personnel Navigant déssais et de Reception (EPNAR) at Istres Airbase in France.

T-38C 412TW

F-16D 412TW

F-16DM 412TW

F-16C 412TW

TPS course

As the second oldest test pilot school in the world after the ETPS in the United Kingdom, the USAF TPS has no shortage of candidates. There are annually some three hundred candidates for forty available places. After a first selection procedure about sixty candidates remain for two classes. A following screening finally limits the number to forty candidates per year. They have to meet high entry requirements: excellent grades, for fighter pilots a minimum of 500 flying hours and 750 hours for pilots on cargo planes. Although half of the fighter pilots have a master's degree, it is not an absolute necessity. However, this only accounts for non-pilots, so for engineers and navigators it still is a strict requirement. In addition each pilot, engineer or navigator needs at least one recommendation of a commander. Every year the first of the two classes starts in January and finishes the same year in December. The second class begins in July so they will be graduated in June of the following year. The whole course will take 48 weeks and can be divided into two blocks of six months. The course starts with the ancillary training and check flights. After completion the sub disciplines of performance and flying qualities are passed in the first six months. After a short break the second block of the course starts and includes the other two sub disciplines of systems and qualitative evaluation program. This block also contains a field trip and finishes with the graduation of the candidate. In total a graduate has to complete 15 courses of which 13 are academic by studying 2.500 hours (+ 300 ancillary training hours). These 15 courses contain 21 scored academic exams of which 19 are individual exams and 38 graded reports of which 31 are written and 7 are oral. During the 13 academic courses the candidate collects 50 semester credit hours. The flying part contains 85 flights also known as airborne laboratories. An average class comprises nine pilots and one UAV pilot, eight or nine engineers and one or two Combat System officers (CSO). The CSOs are respectively navigator, Weapons System Operator (WSO) or Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO).

F-16D 412TW

Besides each class has also a US Navy or Marines officer and a foreign candidate. Since this concerns the elite of several air forces, it seldom happens that the recommended candidates are not passed. Admitting international candidates to TPS classes is very important for this test school. The current commanding officer of TPS Col. Charles Webb added: ”Here is where test flying begins so we create future test pilots. Exactly the international character will only improve the high quality of TPS.” By the way ETPS at Boscombe Down and EPNAR at Istres also admit foreign candidates. TPS has got close links with both test pilot schools. “We exchange our pilots with the French and British school and at any given moment there is always one of our students at both of these European locations,” said Col. Charles Webb. As a commanding officer, also known as Commandant, Col. Charles Webb is responsible for managing the school. He is responsible for all the flying operations, the academic instruction, budgeting and other issues that are necessary to run this school. It is remarkable that one part of the staff is military and the other civilian. The group instructors ratio is even fifty-fifty. However, the TPS still is a military unit and part the Air Force Flight Test Center, which in its turn is part of the Air Force Material Command.

F-16C 412TW Gray 5 color sheme


In the past the TPS disposed of their own aircraft, such as the P-80, T-33, F-15, F-16, T-38 and C-12. To maintain this fleet themselves became too expensive mainly through technical development of the aircraft. Hence the decision was made to have them on loan. Thus 416th FLTS of 412th TW based at Edwards AFB puts for example the F-16s at their disposal. As test pilots should be able to fly different types of aircraft TPS leases various aircraft during the courses. The somewhat older types are indispensable as they are better suited to develop pilot skills and they also show fundamental aircraft characteristics. Students get the opportunity to fly the MiG-15UTI and the Grumman HU-16 Albatross.


HU-16C Albatross

During the sub discipline flying qualities students are flying the NF-16D VISTA (Variable-Stability In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft), including two flights to demonstrate and practice test techniques in a variable stability aircraft to examine the effects of differing flight control systems. Later on during the test management project the NF-16D VISTA provides a cutting-edge research capability platform. This aircraft used to be a testbed aircraft for thrust vectoring testing. It’s the only F-16 in the world with two control sticks in the front cockpit. Besides the normal side-stick this aircraft also has a center stick to give TPS pilots, engineers and navigators the maximum feeling flying the aircraft from the front seat. Therefor the NF-16D rear cockpit was modified so the instructor can land this aircraft seated in the back.

Front cockpit NF-16D VISTA

Rear cockpit NF-16D VISTA

TPS students use the NF-16D VISTA during many test programs. Besides the NF-16D VISTA a Learjet 25D is also used by TPS and here they work closely together with the Calspan Corp.

Remote-controlled aircraft

The last few years the development of RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) has taken huge steps forward. The UAVs and UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles) such as the MQ-9 Reaper have become part and parcel of today's conflicts. This situation provided the first UAV pilot to start at TPS in 2011. Nowadays each class has one UAV pilot. “We are unique in this, for European test schools do not provide this. We teach RPA to all of our students.” according to Col. Charles Webb. For this the Calspan Corp. Learjet 25D was modified to be used as a surrogate RPA for future test utility. Col. Charles Webb: ”We could integrate the development of this program into three classes. The first class developed the ground system and the following class modified the Learjet. The last class was responsible for the first flight testing.” This concept is to determine datalink performances, autopilot response to ground control station inputs and to observe and evaluate pilot-vehicle interface. This could have significant risk and cost reductions in developing future RPA capability. There are also plans to modify the NF-16D VISTA into a second surrogate RPA later this year.


Calspan Learjet 25D


Although there is a high demand for test pilots there are certainly challenges ahead for the USAF TPS. Although the USAF should preferably like to shorten the course, the training still lasts a complete year for some time now. However, as far as the TPS is concerned, they would like to extend the course to 18 months, but this seems to be unfeasible as funding’s are under pressure. Another challenge remains the acquisition and keeping of skilled personnel in order to comply with the high quality demands. One thing is certain: graduates of TPS have a bright future career ahead of them. Col. Charles Webb: “They are standing on the shoulders of giants like Doolittle, Charles E. Yeager and Joe H. Engle who like them graduated from TPS.” With a master´s degree and a lot of experience the graduates are full spectrum flight test professionals who can continue their careers military as well as civil.

Colonel Charles W. Webb

Colonel Charles W. Webb (back) and TPS student (front)

Biography: COLONEL CHARLES W. WEBB Colonel Webb received his commission in 1991 from the US Air Force Academy. His flying experience includes an operational assignment as a Flight Lead and Flight Commander at 23rd FS at Spangdahlem in Germany flying the F-16. At Laughlin AFB Texas he was and an Instructor and Evaluator pilot on the T-37. He has performed duties as an experimental test pilot in all blocks of the F-16, served as the Chief of Wing Safety, and commanded 416th Flight Test Squadron and Test Group at Edwards AFB California. Colonel Webb also served as a Brigade Air Liaison Officer at the US Army’s Joint readiness Training Center. His staff assignments include Chief of Special Programs in the Directorate for Force Structure, Resources and Assessment on the Joint Staff.

As Commandant of the United States Air Force Test Pilot School, Edwards Air Force Base he is responsible for leading the world’s premier flight test school as it educates and trains the next generation of flight test professionals. Colonel Webb is a Command Pilot and a Senior Parachutist with more than 2,700 hours in over 40 aircraft.

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