I climbed a few thousand feet and completed my tests. When it was time to land, I reduced the throttle to idle.
“That’s when we experienced a huge explosion. I was jolted in my seat. I saw both of the bomb-bay doors blow away. We were completely engulfed in flames. I could see the flames were already licking my legs and feet. I told my mechanic to jump. He hesitated.”
Bob Hoover, one of the greatest test pilots to have ever soared around this planet, described one of his most unnerving flying experiences in the early 1940s in his autobiography, Forever Flying. He was test-flying the Vultee Vengeance A-31, a single-engine, two-seat light attack bomber that was experiencing torching — a condition causing a fire when the throttle is reduced to idle with an excessively rich fuel mixture.
During those early years of aircraft development, flight-testing was a very risky profession. Aircraft designs were aerodynamically unstable and engines unreliable, and airframes disassembled in the air. Unfortunately, many talented pilots perished as a result.
Fortunately, with the development of computer-aided aircraft design technologies and decades of know-how, this exciting profession has become a lot safer. But, deservedly, it hasn’t made the profession any less admired and it’s still far from risk-free.
There is no such thing as a test pilot license. Any pilot crazy enough to jump into an airplane that has never been flown before can legally do so, as long as the applicable category and class requirements are met. But Darwinian logic states that training is a good thing. And no sane aircraft manufacturer and certainly no military establishment would let just any pilot jump in and fly its newly developed airplane.
So what does it take to become a qualified test pilot? I decided to find out for myself by visiting the only civilian test pilot school in the world — the National Test Pilot School (NTPS) in Mojave, California, right next door to Edwards Air Force Base, where Hoover and Chuck Yeager conducted their legendary dogfights, and successfully completed the first supersonic flight nearly 64 years ago.
In addition to its test pilot history, the location was chosen to take advantage of the R-2508 complex — an area containing restricted airspace, MOAs and ATCAAs (air traffic control assigned airspace) needed for flight testing. Additionally, Mojave Air and Space Port’s 12,500-foot-long, 200-foot-wide runway is capable of supporting any aircraft, including the space shuttle.
Airspace and airport necessities aside, consistent weather patterns are another requirement for continual test flights, and the pilot term CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited) aptly describes the weather pattern in the Mojave Desert. NTPS claims there are fewer than five non-VMC days per year. There may not be any place on Earth better suited for the location of a flight-test school.
While the military has conducted test flights at the nearby Edwards Air Force Base since the early 1940s and trained test pilots there since the early ’50s, it doesn’t do civilian certification test flights or training. There are only three other world-recognized test pilot schools: the Naval Air Station in Patuxent River (aka Pax River), Maryland; EPNER (École du Personnel Navigant d’Essais et de Réception), a French test pilot school in Istres, France; and, the oldest one, Empire Test Pilots’ School, at the Ministry of Defence’s Boscombe Down in Idmiston, United Kingdom. Established in 1943, Empire does some civilian training, but none of the other schools offer training toward civil certification.