This post is about a question I received on facebook: Can a civilian airline pilot be a test pilot? The answer is definitely yes, and to adequately answer this question will take several posts. But here is the first part of my answer.
Test pilots need three broad areas of experience and expertise–aviation, engineering, and leadership–the airline industry has opportunities in each of these areas.
The airline industry is obviously a great place to build a strong foundation of aviation experience and flying hours. In fact, civilian airline pilots have a wide breadth of aircraft experience, from small general aviation aircraft to regional jets and perhaps even jumbo jets. Learn as much as you can about the airplane you are flying. Read the aircraft operations manual frequently. When you get the opportunity, talk to maintenance personnel and learn more about the airplane that way as well.
Even as a junior airline pilot, as a first officer, you should and can begin to grow as a leader. Watch what the experienced captains do and say as the pilot in command, how they act, and take every opportunity to ask them about their experience. Everything you learn about leadership will help you grow in your aviation career–you will need many strong leadership skills to excel in flight test.
Every airline has a collection of pilots who have a strong background in technical skills and a deep understanding of the maintenance aspects of the aircraft. Some airlines have test pilots on their staff. Almost every maintenance facility has pilots who fly the aircraft in a functional check flight (or acceptance test flight) after maintenance is done to ensure that the aircraft and its systems still function properly. This is the tip of iceberg for the kind of skills you will need as a pilot-engineer, which is one of the hats that a test pilot wears. These pilots are the bridge between the engineers/technical experts and the pilots who fly the line every day.
I recommend that you find these pilots and offer to buy them coffee or lunch in exchange for an hour of questions and answers. What you learn about their career path may be exactly what you need to launch your flight test career.
Next time, I’ll offer some suggestions on courses you can take anywhere in the world regardless of your engineering background or citizenship to begin to equip you with some fundamental flight test knowledge.
Don’t just imagine your dreams–explore them, because we need you. The aerospace industry needs innovators. The flight test community is looking for the next Neil Armstrong, and that’s what this column is about, helping you take that next small step.
Thanks for reading Launch Your Flight Test Career #2. Send a message to @FlightTestFact on Twitter to ask questions about launching your flight test career.