One of the most recently added courses is a two-week unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) course. It uses flight and simulator exercises designed to introduce students to the challenges associated with flight-testing UAVs.
The school modified a Cessna 150 that is remotely operated from the ground. It calls it a “surrogate UAV” because a pilot is required to occupy the airplane. From the outside, the airplane looks just like any other Cessna 150, with the exception of the obvious Experimental lettering on the fuselage. On the bottom of the instrument panel, there is a small box with switches for the UAV system. And underneath the seats and below the luggage area there is a plethora of electronic boxes and wires connected to the flight controls.
The 150 is truly a mixture of the past and the future, and it gave me the feeling that I was poking my head into the Terminator version of the aviation world — part airplane and part robot — and I felt as if the 150 were staring at me with its evil red eye saying “Hasta la vista, baby.” I prefer airplanes that want to be flown rather than to fly themselves, but I have to admit it was an interesting project. And since UAVs are being used increasingly in the military and civilian world, future test pilots and flight-test engineers will need to know how to handle them.
The Cessna 150 is just one of NTPS’ remarkable offerings of about 30 aircraft types. The unique stable incorporates old and new technology. Many of the airplanes — such as the de Havilland Dove still in operation at the school — are equipped with instrumentation capable of measuring flight data that can later be analyzed by the students.
Several of NTPS’ airplanes were previously used as prototypes, such as its three Cirrus SR22s, which are used for human-factors and advanced avionics training including synthetic and enhanced vision. There is also a Gippsland GA8 Airvan equipped with a FLIR system in the cargo pod and weather radar on the right wing. Both systems can be operated and evaluated on a large display in the passenger area of the aircraft.
The most unusual aircraft in NTPS’ fleet are the two NDN Firecrackers. They were both single-engine prototype military trainers — one piston (NDN-1), the other turboprop (NDN-1T) — but the prototypes never made it to production. The Firecrackers are used for spin training at NTPS.
One of the jets also used for spin training is the Aermacchi MB-326 Impala — a single-engine jet trainer and light attack aircraft. This two-seat aircraft is powered by a Rolls-Royce Viper MK22-1 jet engine rated at 2,500 pounds of thrust. With a limiting speed of 450 knots (calibrated), load factor limits of +7.5 and -2.5 G and a service ceiling of more than 40,000 feet, this is a very capable trainer that’s also used for loads, vibration and flutter test training.
The professional test pilot curriculum includes transonic and supersonic flights. NTPS obtained its five Saab SK 35 Draken aircraft as a trade for flight training with the Danish military in the early 1990s, and each professional test pilot student completes four or five Draken sorties. Only two of the Drakens are operational — the others are used for parts. I noticed that one of them had only a single seat, and when I questioned my guide, Yannis Tsolekas — NTPS director of operations and a U.S. Air Force test pilot school graduate — on how it was used for training, he said it was for project flying and currency training for the instructors. My feeling is that it’s a perk allowing the instructors to go out and have some fun. After all, the school’s highly qualified instructors are huge assets, and to say that entertainment options in Mojave are limited would be an understatement. I would bet that one of the biggest things that keeps them there is the opportunity to fly cool airplanes.
Helicopter pilots train mostly in the school’s two Bell OH-58C Kiowas and two MBB (Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm) Bo 105s, all instrumented to record performance and flight qualities data, and a Bell UH-1N, which is fully equipped for flight-testing.
Most of the school’s aircraft fly under experimental airworthiness certificates, for which there is a limitation on flight training. NTPS has obtained a letter of deviation authority from the FAA that allows the school to provide flight training in its experimental aircraft.
With such a unique fleet, maintenance and availability of parts can be a challenge, and the technicians have learned to be creative. All maintenance is done through NTPS’ sister company — Flight Research Inc. (FRI), which is run by Nadia Roberts. In addition to maintenance, FRI conducts actual flight-test projects — anything from STC work to aircraft type certification. This offshoot was necessary since the school is organized as a nonprofit educational facility.
In addition to the impressive aircraft fleet, instructional tools include several simulators, a night-vision-goggle lab and a telemetry room. The school also uses simulators and aircraft from other facilities to provide even more diversity to its students.
The goal at NTPS is to produce flight-test pilots and engineers who are able to analyze practically any type of aircraft. With its ideal location, remarkable instructors and impressive variety of hardware, NTPS’ students (and its employees) can be guaranteed the best possible training environment for a very complicated profession.
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