Read as Mark Jones talks about his career as an Experimental Test Pilot. Find him at www.multilplyleadership.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
Experimental Test Pilot and Consultant
How would you describe what you do?
An experimental test pilot flies planes that have never been flown or does things with them that have been done — we fly airplanes to the “edges of the envelope.” That’s the glorious description of what an experimental test pilot does.
In reality, three phases describe the work of a test pilot well: Plan, Fly, and Report. We spend many hours planning for the test flight and planning for contingencies that we may never see. Then we execute the test flight — if we have done our job correctly, it is quick and totally uneventful. Then we spend many more hours reporting about what happened, analyzing the data, and figuring out what to do next. As a test pilot, I fly, on average, 150 hours per year. And about 10-25% of that are just training sorties, getting ready for the test flights.
As a consultant, I spend a little extra time helping other companies with their flight test projects–companies like Equator Aircraft and Synergy Aircraft. There is a saying that an airplane doesn’t fly until the weight of the paperwork is greater than the weight of the airplane, so there’s a lot of work that can be done as a consultant.
What does your work entail?
There are three more “formal” phases to the work of an experimental test pilot: Predict — Test — Validate.
The predict stage is all about planning–months and months of engineering analysis and reviews and plans before an airplane even begins to get built. Then as it starts to get built there are more reviews and analyses and meetings as lab tests reveal how an airplane might fly once it is built. During these later stages, detailed planning about the flight test takes place. There is almost a script for the test flight–special phrases are used to communicate. Special maneuvers are planned. And special emergency procedures are developed for all contingencies–at least the ones that can be imagined.
The test phase is what we love to do most–it’s the phase everyone imagines, the one most like Chuck Yeager. In the test phase, we might fly an airplane for the first time ever. But that’s fairly rare. There are many test flights where only a single system or component on the aircraft has been modified, and we are testing it to make sure it works properly. In some ways, these are more dangerous, because the test team thinks these are more mundane.
In the validate phase, that’s when we analyze the data and write reports and make recommendations. And sometimes it’s back to the drawing board.
What’s a typical work week like?
A typical work week would would involve a day of planning and meeting. The day before a test, we get together as a team–engineers and experts and managers and safety observers and test pilots–we all get together and go over the objectives of the test and the details of each maneuver and the safety guidelines. The next day, we will show up early in the morning, when the weather is usually best–calm winds, no turbulence, etc. Then we will fly for several hours, executing the mission. At the end of the day there is a long debrief. On the following day (day 3 of the week), we do initial data review and analysis. We have to figure out whether we can continue with the next test mission, or we may decide that we have to adjust our plan and get ready to fly a backup mission. Day four and five is a lot like day two and three, if everything goes according to plan. But that just describes a busy week. Most weeks have more meetings and training flights and simulators than what I just described.
How did you get started?
I decided in eighth grade that I wanted to be a test pilot–you don’t have to decide the early, but it helps. As an undergraduate student in college, I studied engineering and mathematics–there are many engineering disciplines, but aerospace engineering is a good place to start. I also started training to be a pilot in college.
After college, I went to pilot training as an Air Force officer–again, you don’t have to join the military but it seems to help. I learned to fly the C-17, a combat transport aircraft, and I did that for 4 years while I gained enough experience before I was even eligible to apply for test pilot school. I was accepted into US Air Force Test Pilot School as a C-17 instructor pilot. The school takes a full year at Edwards Air Force Base. After that, I started performing C-17 flight tests there at Edwards for three more years.
Now I am a consultant and experimental test pilot–I’m planning for the first flight of the Equator EQP2 aircraft in 2014 and working on some other consulting projects as well.
What do you like about what you do?
I love flying. I love the technical and engineering aspects of the job. I love working with so many dedicated passionate experts–it truly takes a team to accomplish what we do. (Here is an article about all the people you work with as a test pilot: http://www.multiplyleadership.com/what-kind-of-people-will-i-work-with-in-a-flight-test-career-4-kinds-of-flight-test-engineering-team-members/.)
I love flying different kinds of airplanes–I’ve flown over thirty kinds, and sometimes we only get to fly it once. You have to learn a lot during that one flight, and sometimes it is an “exotic airplane”–I’ve flown the A-10 and the MiG-15 for example.
What do you dislike?
We don’t get to fly enough. That’s just the nature of the job, because the planning takes a long time.
It’s a dangerous job, and I have lost many colleagues. I’ve never been afraid, but losing friends and coworkers…nobody likes that, but that’s another inherent risk in the job.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
Most test pilots are on salary as permanent employees of a company. The more experience you have, the more you make.
As a military test pilot, I was paid the same as every other miltary officer of the same rank, however, regardless of the fact that I was a test pilot.
As a consultant test pilot, I usually agree to work on a project on a contractual basis for a flat fee. In some cases, if I believe I can save the project money based on my experience and knowledge and analytical tools, I might agree to work on commission and accept a percentage of the savings or dollar value achieved.
How much money do Experimental Test Pilots make?
Most test pilots make $100,000 or more per year, as a base estimate. If you are highly experienced and are selected for the rare “first flight” of an experimental aircraft, you are likely to make a significant bonus and could, possibly, double your income for the year.
How much money did/do you make starting out as a Test Pilot?
As a young pilot starting out, pay scales are extremely low. There is a significant increase in income after one begins to build major flying experience as a pilot, in the airlines, for example.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
An engineering degree is almost a firm requirement. Extensive flying experience is definitely a prerequisite. If you can get exposed to maintenance test flights, that is great experience for the future test pilot.
It is possible to become a test pilot without either of these in your background, but it will be a long and difficult road, and it is very rare.
Attending one of the major test pilot schools is also highly desired but not strictly required. (For a link to various schools and test pilot career paths, see here: http://www.multiplyleadership.com/9-ways-to-launch-your-flight-test-career.)
What is most challenging about what you do?
Facing the unknown is the most challenging part of being a test pilot. An airplane might not work the way we planned, the way we expected. For example, imagine if you were in a car and when you turned the steering wheel left, the car went right–now imagine that happening at Mach 1.0!
Using the technical expertise as an engineer and the extensive flying background to quickly figure out what is going on and how to fly an airplane safely is quite a challenge.
What is most rewarding?
If we do our job right as experimental test pilots, then we will deliver an airplane that is incredibly safe to fly. Knowing that future pilots and passengers have that kind of airplane–overcoming obstacles and challenges and design hurdles along the way to that goal–is incredibly rewarding.
Flying awesome airplanes is also super cool and rewarding.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Start early. Get as much flying and engineering experience and training as possible.
Get help. Tell your boss or your supervisor what you want to do with your career. They can make decisions and guide you. Stay inspired because it’s a long journey, and surrounding yourself with helpful people accomplishes that too.
Don’t quit. I know a dozen stories about pilots who made it, who became test pilots against all odds, even when it seemed impossible. They may not have taken the “normal path” to being a test pilot, but they are now doing what they love, what they dreamed of.
How much time off do you get/take?
The busyness of a test pilot goes in waves–sometimes we can take off as much time as we want (up to three weeks of paid vacation a year). However, when flight test starts–it can be very, very busy–working six to seven days a week for almost an entire year.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
We never “kick the tires and light fires.” We don’t do dangerous things without a very detailed plan for mitigating the risk. We never just hop in and “wing it.”
Don’t take unnecessary risks–as I have emphasized, a ton of planning helps us do what we do very professionally!
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I plan to continue in flight test.
Someday I would like to be the very first test pilot to take off from a normal runway in a hypersonic experimental airplane, and then fly it to the edge of space, and then return to another “normal” runway.
I’d also like to be an astronaut. Astronauts are kind of like “space test pilots.”
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
There are many, many ways to be a test pilot–I’ve just described one of them. It’s possible to use your engineering and flying expertise to do many other kinds of flight tests and flight research. Find the one you want to do and go for it!