Looking for a Few Good Test Pilots

The U.S. Naval Test Pilot School’s lineup outside the hangar in Patuxent River, Md. The school is home to both the Navy’s newest and oldest fixed-wing aircraft flying five different type/model/series, four rotary-wing and four airborne and unmanned systems. (U.S. Navy photo ty Liz Wolter)

Editor’s note: The following is an expanded version of a recent Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) podcast with Cmdr. Glenn Rioux, Commanding Officer, U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS). In the question and answer feature below, Rioux explains what it takes to be a test pilot and how to apply to USNTPS.

USNTPS in Patuxent River, Maryland, has always played an integral role in Naval Aviation. Why is it so important?

We are here to educate the world’s finest test pilots, flight officers and flight test engineers. We do that by bridging the tactical to the technical and bringing the mission relation side of the tactical operator into the acquisition process. The test pilot school is important because we ensure that the folks who are designing and producing the equipment we need understand the mission impact and design the equipment accordingly. We have a rich heritage at test pilot school and a culture that fosters our large team of smart, professional, motivated people who are all heading in the same direction—it’s a great place to be.

What makes a good test pilot?

A good test pilot knows their platform and mission and is able to draw from a highly technical foundation to design, execute and communicate aviation test events, while implementing appropriate risk mitigation and buildup to take a potentially dangerous event in uncharted territory and make it appear to be routine. In short, test pilots have a special combination of gut feeling and technical knowhow that enables them to bring the tactical impact to the acquisition process.

What separates a test pilot from other naval aviators?

Grit. Perseverance. Self-sacrifice. Vision. There is definitely an element of attitude, counterbalanced by a heaping of humility.

Who can apply, and what qualifications are required?

First, we look for sustained superior performance. Selectees have consistently been officers who are ranked No. 1 or sometimes No. 2 on their high water competitive fit rep.

Second, the board selects the pack-plus-players, meaning, we look for those aviators who achieved the extra qualifications. While community specific, they include advanced mission or instructor qualifications or key junior officer ground jobs that the officer community values.

The third thing is timing. Without a competitive high water fit rep from the first sea tour, an aviator’s career will not progress. That needs to happen before the officer checks out of their command, and it defines the left side of that timing window. On the right side, unrestricted line officers need to be in their department head tour by year group plus 11. That means that an officer in year group 10, as in the year 2010, needs to be in their department head tour no later than October 2021. In between, there are about 18 months of test pilot training, and then a minimum of a two-year test squadron tour—but we prefer three. Academic performance is also a consideration in the selection process, but if a candidate doesn’t meet the first three criteria, then grades don’t matter.

How competitive is the admissions process?

The admissions process is extremely competitive. Usually the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked officers are the ones who are selected, and it is based off a demand signal from our test squadrons that know two years in advance who is going to be leaving. For example, say we will be testing the Advanced Arresting Gear with the Super Hornet. To do that, I need to have a Super Hornet pilot who has a landing signal officer qualification. The selection board then looks for an officer with that particular experience.

How are these officers recruited?

Over the past two years, we’ve participated in at least a dozen recruiting events. Many of these events involve pilots in their test tour returning to their fleet squadron or to a fleet concentration area to talk with folks and give them information on the application process and what the job entails. Other events involve an officer who has had a tour in the acquisition field and then returns to the squadron for their department head or command tour, where they promote awareness of the USNTPS.

My main goal when I talk to fleet squadrons is to promote awareness of the test pilot opportunities. It’s not for everyone; it’s very competitive. Not everyone gets in, and it is a challenging career field.

What is the USNTPS’ curriculum like?

There is a short course and a long course. The short course was designed mainly for NAVAIR engineers because there is simply not enough capacity at USNTPS to send all of the engineers through the long course. We have several offerings each year and graduate 200+ short course students a year. The Short Course Fleet Seat Scholarship Program is designed to allow junior officers an opportunity to see what flight test is like without making a career shift that applying for the long course entails. Having fleet operators attend also benefits the engineers in the class by allowing interaction that they wouldn’t normally have otherwise. Additionally, fleet squadrons don’t have to pay tuition for fleet seats; USNTPS is paying that tuition for them. I really believe it’s a win-win situation for all involved.

A typical long course USNTPS class is made up of 20 to 22 Navy and Marine Corps aviators. We have four or five Army pilots since we train all the Army test pilots. We have an exchange with the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School based at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), California. We take one Air Force officer every class, and we send one Navy or Marine Corps officer to the Air Force’s school. We also have an exchange program with the United Kingdom’s Empire Test Pilots’ School, which is the British training school in England, and EPNER, the French test pilot school in France. In addition, we usually have two or three NAVAIR engineers. It’s a very diverse class makeup, and that’s one of the strengths of the school—the variety of backgrounds.

We have 12 academic instructors, all of whom are government civilians who are recognized experts in their fields. We have several staff with doctorate degrees. The academic portion is designed as an engineering refresher, delivered at an accelerated pace.

We have 24 flight instructors who are active duty military, government civilians or contractors, all of whom graduated from test pilot school. They are knowledgeable professionals who usually hold three different aircraft qualifications, and they often fly two sorties a day.

We have three curricula: fixed wing, rotary wing and airborne and unmanned. Everyone who goes through test pilot school will gain experience in manned aircraft and will have a certain element of how we test unmanned craft as well. We have 44 airplanes—14 different model series—and each student can fly in all of them. For the final project, we look through their logbooks and select an aircraft they have never flown before, give them the manual and have them design a suite of flight tests.

The workload for a student is very high. Our mantra is that a typical day at test pilot school consists of a half a day of academics, a half a day of flying and a half a day of report writing. There is some truth to that because we have 15 months of skillsets that we are cramming into 11 months. That system, while challenging, has been working well for 74 years, and we know our graduates are well prepared for their jobs in flight test.

What is the career track of a test pilot?

The next job for a test pilot school graduate is as a test pilot at a test squadron, usually a developmental test squadron based at NAS Patuxent River or China Lake or Point Mugu in California, for a two- to three-year test tour. Here, they get to look at the new systems the Navy is purchasing, and they have the opportunity to provide feedback to the program manager, who holds the purse strings. A crucial element of our acquisition process is to have these educated, tactical, technical professionals, who can communicate effectively to the decision makers.

From there, they have several options: continue with an unrestricted line career, return to the fleet potentially for a disassociated sea tour or a department head tour, then move on to compete for operational command; or shift career fields and go into the aviation engineering duty field, which is acquisition, program management, space and production.

How many astronauts were USNTPS graduates?

We have a rich history and heritage at the test pilot school. Founded in 1945, this marks our 74th year of operation. In that time, we have graduated more than 4,400 students in 155 classes. Almost 100 of our nation’s astronauts graduated from USNTPS, including Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Adm. James Stockdale. We also have other graduates at NASA, such as Maj. Gen. Charlie Bolden, the recent director of NASA, and Lt. Col. Anne McClain, who is in the International Space Station right now.

I want to be a test pilot; how do I apply?

First thing is to look at the naval message to figure out the timing for the selection boards. While you are in a fleet squadron, let the selection criteria drive your qualifications and your performance toward meeting those requirements. The board timing has changed. As of this fiscal year, each of the selection boards has been moved up by two months. We found that in order for our test pilot students to safely execute, we need to provide them pre-arrival training in specific aircraft at Randolph AFB in San Antonio or the Western Army Area Training Site in Phoenix, and therefore, they have to leave their squadrons earlier than the in-residence class start date.

Keep an eye on your timing window, and pay attention to the naval message, which includes two deadlines. The first deadline is for the letter of application signed by the applicant and endorsed by their commanding officer. The second deadline is for additional letters of recommendation or additional information.

Do not wait for all the letters to come in before submitting an application. Submit applications early. Get it in, so that we have a good understanding of those interested in that selection board. Then, follow up later with the letters of recommendation, which, by the way, are not part of the selection criteria. The recommendation letters are an element of the application package, and while taken into consideration, you must meet the selection criteria first.

To find out more, visit http://www.navair.navy.mil/nawcad/usntps.

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Cmdr. Glenn P. Rioux served as an electronics technician with 10 years of Navy service, attaining the rank of petty officer first class. He served at Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Florida, and Precommissioning Detachment USS Cardinal (MHC 60) before his selection to the Enlisted Commissioning Program in 1997. He simultaneously earned his master’s and bachelor’s degrees at Virginia Tech. Rioux earned his commission in August 2000, underwent primary flight training in Pensacola, Florida, and selected the E-2C fleet platform. After E-2C flight training, he reported to Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 115 with Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5.

Rioux graduated USNTPS class 131 in June 2007 and reported for duty to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 20 as a project officer on the Joint Mission Planning System, Automated Information System and the NC-130H Radar risk-reduction platform for E-2D. He was selected as the 2008 Naval Test Wing Atlantic Test Naval Flight Officer of the Year.

While serving as CVW-5 staff in 2009, he was the E-2C representative as well as the air wing coordinator for communications, cryptographic keys and data links. In September 2011, he served as operational department head to VAW-113.

Rioux returned to VX-20 as the mission systems lead and government flight test director for the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System in December 2013. He next reported to the Naval Air Systems Command’s engineering department in support of the Mission Systems Integrated Product Team in the Fire Scout Program Office.

In January 2017, he served as the USNTPS executive officer and assumed command July 12, 2018.

Rioux has more than 2,400 flight hours in more than 30 models of jet, propeller and rotary wing aircraft, with 95 hours of combat flight time. His awards include the Air Medal, several Navy and Marine Corps Commendation and Achievement Medals and other personal, unit and service awards.