Test pilots may work for military organizations or private, (mostly aerospace) companies. Testing military aircraft, in particular, is regarded as the most challenging and risky flying conducted in peacetime.
In the 1950s, test pilots were being killed at the rate of about one a week, but the risks have shrunk to a fraction of that, thanks to the maturation of aircraft technology, better ground-testing and simulation of aircraft performance, and, lately, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to test experimental aircraft features. Still, piloting experimental aircraft remains more dangerous than most other types of flying.
A test pilot must be able to: Understand a test plan;
Stick to a test plan, flying a plane in a highly specific way;
Carefully document the results of each test;
Have an excellent feel for the aircraft, and sense exactly how it is behaving oddly if it is doing so;
Solve problems quickly if anything goes wrong with the aircraft during a test;
Cope with many different things going wrong at once.
Test pilots must have an excellent knowledge of aeronautical engineering, in order to understand how they are tested and why. Test pilots must be above average pilots with excellent analytical skills and the ability to fly accurately whilst following a flight plan.
Test flying as a systematic activity started during the First World War, at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in the United Kingdom. During the 1920s, test flying was further developed by the RAE in the UK, and by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in the United States. In the 1950s, NACA was transformed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. During these years, as work was done into aircraft stability and handling qualities, test flying evolved towards a more qualitative scientific profession.
The world's oldest test pilot school is what is now called the Empire Test Pilots' School, at RAF Boscombe Down in the UK. In America, the United States Air Force Test Pilot School is located at Edwards Air Force Base, the United States Naval Test Pilot School is located at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland and EPNER (Ecole du Personnel Navigant d'Essai et de Reception/School for flight test and acceptance personnel), the French test pilot school, located in Istres, France. Another School is the private National Test Pilot School, located in Mojave, California.
Notable test pilots
Some notable test pilots include: Neil Armstrong, X-15 pilot and first man to walk on the moon.
Erich Warsitz, the first man to fly an aircraft under turbojet power, the Heinkel He 178, on August 27, 1939.
Eric "Winkle" Brown, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having flown more aircraft types (487) than any other pilot in the world and first pilot to land a jet aircraft on an aircraft carrier, and also holds the world record for the most carrier landings.
Roland Beamont - for English Electric and BAC flew the Canberra and Lightning and was the first pilot to make a double Atlantic crossing by jet.
Bill Bedford - for Hawker Aircraft flew the Hawker P.1127 & Kestrel and later Harrier VTOL jet aircraft.
Scott Crossfield, Yeager's direct rival and the first pilot known to have reached Mach 2.
John Cunningham, test-pilot before and after RAF service during WWII. Test-piloted the world's first jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet. de Havillands chief test pilot after Geoffrey's death.
John Derry, the first Briton to exceed the speed of sound. He was killed in the 1952 Farnborough Airshow DH.110 crash where his aircraft broke up.
Boone Guyton - WWII test pilot at Chance-Vought, best known for participation in development of the F4U Corsair, also tested SB2U Vindicator, OS2U Kingfisher, Vought V-173 flying pancake, F6U Pirate, and F7U Cutlass.
Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr. - for de Havilland flew the Mosquito and Vampire, killed in the near supersonic de Havilland DH 108.
Bill Humble, British test pilot who first flew the first Hawker Tempest V, JN729 on 21 June 1943.
Howard Hughes - Notable for test piloting aircraft produced by his company, Hughes Aircraft, and bought by his airline, TWA. Broke the World Land Plane Speed Record in 1935 and test flew the world's largest airplane, the Spruce Goose, in 1947. Both aircraft were of his own design.
"Tex" Johnston, who piloted the Boeing 707 prototype,
Hans-Werner Lerche, German WWII test pilot, who flew captured Allied aircraft to assess their performance, as well as many German types. The 125 different aircraft types flown by Lerche included Boeing B-17, B-24 Liberator, Avro Lancaster, Short Stirling, Messerschmitt 109, Messerschmitt 262, Focke-Wulf Fw 190, Dornier Do-335 Heinkel He 177.
Anthony W. "Tony" LeVier, air racer and test pilot for the Lockheed Corporation.
Mike Melvill, first privately funded pilot in space.
Alfred "Paul" Metz, chief test pilot of the Northrop/McDonnell Douglas Advanced Tactical Fighter YF-23A Black Widow II, receiving the Iven C. Kincheloe Award for his work on the ATF, and later chief test pilot of the first Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics F-22 Raptor (Raptor 4001), piloting the first flight of each. Member and past president of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
Tom Morgenfeld, chief test pilot for Lockheed Martin's Skunk works and the Joint Strike Fighter.
John Lankester Parker, British test pilot and Chief Test Pilot for Short Brothers, the world's first aircraft manufacturing company, from 1916 until 1945. During this time he flew every Shorts aircraft type, i.e. including the Short Sunderland and the Short Stirling, on its maiden test flight.
Marina Popovich, Russian test pilot who set 107 world records in aviation.
Hanna Reitsch, the German female test pilot of the V-1 flying bomb program.
Ewald Rohlfs of Germany, who made the first flight of a helicopter, the Focke-Wulf Fw 61.
RAF Flt Lt PEG Gerry Sayer, test pilot of Britain's first jet aircraft, Sir Frank Whittle's Gloster E.28/39, in 1941.
Andre Turcat first test pilot to fly Concorde
Brian Trubshaw for Vickers-Armstrong and then BAC - test pilot on Concorde,
Joe Walker, X-15 pilot, first to reach the internationally-recognized boundary to space in a spaceplane.
George Welch, a test pilot for North American Aviation, whom some believe broke the sound barrier before Yeager.
Fritz Wendel, Messerschmitt's chief test pilot, who broke the world speed record with the Messerschmitt 209 and first flew the Messerschmitt 262, the world's first operational jet fighter.
Brigadier General Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager (USAF - Retired), the first pilot known to have broken the sound barrier and perhaps the most commonly cited example.
Janusz Żurakowski- postwar test pilot for Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down, test pilot for Gloster Aircraft company and Avro Aircraft Ltd., flew Gloster Meteor, Gloster Javelin and Avro CF-105 Arrow among others.
Alexey Perelet, test pilot, first to lift several Tupolev planes including Tu-4 and TU-95 Bear. Killed during Tu-95/1 plane crash May 11 1953.
Awards made to notable test pilots include the international Iven C. Kincheloe Award made by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. (Wikipedia)