How to become a test pilot

For a profession fueled by speed, the path to become a test pilot is surprisingly measured.

Based on the job title alone, test pilots have one of the world’s most thrilling jobs. But Top Gun moments aside, the life of a test pilot demands painstaking excellence, exhaustive training and extensive education. In the case of military test pilots, it also calls for a commitment to serve your country.

Have you dreamed of becoming the next Chuck Yeager? Here’s a rundown of the roads that lead to test pilot school.

Test Pilot School

In the U.S., most test pilots are graduates of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California or the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, which also trains Army and Marine Corps pilots, plus foreign military personnel. These schools train positions ranging from combat systems officers to flight officers, and from drone pilots to flight test engineers.

Generally, candidates for the two test pilot schools are qualified military pilots, having successfully completed pilot training and mission aircraft training. They have also made a commitment to serve in the Armed Forces. Applicants hold degrees in engineering/aerospace, physical science or math, and have typically flown more than 1,000 flight hours. It’s worth noting that a small number of Air Force civilians and Navy civilians (civilian employees) are eligible to train as flight test engineers at the test pilot schools.

U.S. Air Force Academy grads conduct critical test operations for the Air Force.

Competition for admission to the program is rigorous and slots are limited. For example, each year 48 students (two classes of 24) are admitted to Air Force Test Pilot School, chosen from a pool of several hundred candidates. But not everyone trains to be a test pilot in the traditional sense. Most classes include 11 pilots, two RPA pilots (Remotely Piloted Aircraft, aka drones), two combat systems officers and nine engineers. Students learn on different types of aircraft such as fighters, trainers, transport/cargo, bombers, widebody (heavies) and RPAs.

Pilot Training

To qualify for Air Force and Navy pilot training, a candidate must be a commissioned officer, having already made a commitment to serve in the military. Applications are also accepted from the National Guard and Reserves. However, opportunities in pilot training school are never guaranteed.

Commission as an Officer

Earning a commission as an officer requires a college degree. It also involves a four-year, six-year (or longer) active-duty service commitment. There are several routes to earn a commission:

  • Attending — and graduating from — the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado or the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland. Both service academies funnel graduates to their respective pilot training schools.
  • Joining the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in college. ROTC students receive military training while in college and make a service commitment after graduation.
  • Completing a college degree and joining Officer Training School (OTS) for the U.S. Air Force or Officer Candidate School (OCS) for the U.S. Navy after graduation.

Don’t forget that pilots must meet physical, medical and vision requirements. However, perfect eyesight (20/20) is not always required; don’t let your glasses discourage you from exploring the opportunity.

Opportunities to Explore

The U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Marine Corps also offer opportunities for test pilots. Outside of the military, qualified individuals can train as test pilots at private institutions such as the National Test Pilot School in the Mojave Desert. Internationally, test pilots train at schools such as the Empire Test Pilots’ School in England and l’École du personnel navigant d’essais et de réception (EPNER) in France.

Dedication to Service and Aerospace

The road to becoming a test pilot may seem long, but the painstaking investment and years of training is essential because human lives hang in the balance. Test pilots push the boundaries of technology, ensuring an aircraft’s safety while simultaneously contributing to the advancement of aviation and aerospace. These are the guiding principles for Boom test pilots Bill “Doc” Shoemaker and Chris “Duff” Guarente, as well as hundreds of test pilots around the world.

Shoemaker and Guarente each took different career pathways toward earning their test pilot wings in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, respectively. Check in next month for a special FlyBy feature with Shoemaker, a former U.S. naval aviator who has flown more than 5,000 flight hours in 50 aircraft types and has 900 carrier arrested landings (landing on an aircraft carrier deck).


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