A Career in Flight Testing

Naval Test Wing Atlantic Ensures Fleet Success

Col. Rich “Chachi” Marigliano, Commodore, Naval Test Wing Atlantic (NTWL).
(U.S. Navy photo by Peter Fitzpatrick)

The following is an expanded version of a recent Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) podcast with Col. Rich “Chachi” Marigliano, Commodore, Naval Test Wing Atlantic (NTWL). In this question-and-answer feature, Marigliano explains the importance of the Wing and advantages the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) gives the fleet.

What is the mission and squadron make-up of NTWL?
Why is it so diverse?

In Navy/Marine Corps developmental test and evaluation, there are two test wings. One on the West Coast, which focuses on weapons testing and one on the East Coast that focuses on aircraft testing and supporting the training of new test pilots at USNTPS. Our primary mission is to conduct research, development, test and evaluation of manned and unmanned fixed and rotary wing aircraft to strengthen the fleet’s lethal warfighting capability. The five commands (Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23, VX-20, HX-21, UX-24 and USNTPS) accomplish this with a diverse assignment of approximately 260 manned and unmanned aircraft that represent Naval Aviation.

Why is NTWL such a valuable asset?

All of the squadron commands here are testing the most modern technologies which will provide additional lethality to the fleet. Today, as we look at the environment we are living in, there is a lot of importance in increasing the lethality of our fleet. The threats are real, and our squadrons are responsible and accountable to test those new capabilities to ensure we provide reliable, proven effective technologies as quickly as possible to the warfighters.

What aspects of your career led to your current command?

During my first tour as a Marine First Lieutenant, then Captain, I didn’t know anything about acquisition, testing or test pilots. In my first fleet aircraft, I saw a system that was antiquated. I couldn’t figure out why my car had this great GPS that could get me places, but my aircraft that cost millions of dollars didn’t have it. When I learned about USNTPS, I realized there was an entire world out there that buys and develops this technology for our warfighters. Once I became aware of the role of acquisition in Naval Aviation, it became a passion of mine.

How does the career path of a Marine Corps test pilot compare to that of a Navy test pilot?

It’s very similar. The career path hinges on a successful first tour. My advice to anyone who wants to attend test pilot school is to do the best you can during your first tour. Show that you can be a good pilot. You don’t have to be the ace-of-the-base pilot to be a test pilot. You have to be competent and prove you are able to fly your aircraft and do it well. Also, seek leadership qualifications, become an expert in the tactical deployment of your aircraft and its weapons. You must establish that you are a high performer with credibility in your community.

What does the career path for a test pilot/naval flight officer (NFO) look like?

Those selected as pilots, NFOs or flight test engineers that complete USNTPS training will be responsible for shaping the future of Naval Aviation. Once they finish with USNTPS, they will go to one of the developmental test squadrons. They go to USNTPS with the most recent fleet experience and learn the disciplines of engineering and testing so they can communicate the needs of the fleet with the engineers. When they arrive at the test squadrons, they get into the aircraft to test capabilities that were paper designs and are now actual hardware. They are looking at it from an operator’s perspective by applying their fleet knowledge and asking, “Does this system work the way it’s intended to? How else can I use this system to be more lethal? What is the mission relation?” all while they are executing developmental engineering flight test.

Can attending USNTPS have a detrimental effect on the traditional career path of an aviator?

No, attending USNTPS is a unique path that provides tremendous insight into Naval Aviation that has served many senior leaders well in both the Navy and Marine Corps. We have many testers that return to the fleet and lead commands in deployed operations progressing to senior levels of leadership.

What separates a test pilot from other aviators?

We’re all aviators first. Test pilots receive special training and gain unique experiences during a test tour that provides skills beneficial to any organization, fleet or acquisition. At USNTPS, one critical skill they learn is how to translate fleet experience to engineering speak and vice versa. Many testers head back to the fleet where they can explain to the young lieutenants or captains who might see an antiquated system the reason why it’s there and what new technology is coming.

What would you say is the greatest thing about being a test pilot?

The greatest thing about being a test pilot is the reward you get after you have successfully completed a test and then see that capability fielded. You know you contributed to getting that capability to the fleet.

I’ve done a lot of great stuff including work on the first presidential replacement helicopter, the VH-71. I was one of the first fliers of that aircraft. But the test effort that I value the most was when a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) needed to expand a limited launch/recovery envelop for the CH-53D on a landing helicopter dock amphibious assault ship. The MEU could not execute 53D flight operations due to high wind conditions outside the approved limits. A small team of us developed a test plan, executed it within a planned 10-day test window, successfully expanded the envelope and released the new envelop message. Within 24 hours of the message being released, the MEU was using it. That was the most rewarding test effort of my career.

Why is it valuable to have the test pilot school located at the center of test and evaluation?

USNTPS is the gateway for testers in so many facets. The schoolhouse is more than just formulas, science and engineering. It is establishing the culture, the mindset, the critical thinking required to look at and analyze a problem. We have to think critically to identify the risks and ways to mitigate those risks.

That’s an important point because we’re always talking about the need to take more risk to speed the delivery of these products to the fleet. How do test pilots play into that equation? What do they bring to it? The test pilots and flight test engineers work hand-in-hand to get the most out of the limited program resources. Testers help the program manager figure out what capabilities they can deliver to the fleet.

Another huge advantage for our test squadrons is the collaboration with the operational testers and weapons schools. There is nothing more powerful then when these stakeholders gain alignment and jointly provide the decision makers with the information needed to make the right decision on taking calculated risks to get critical capability to the fleet.

What platforms or communities have the greatest need for pilots?

The community that needs the most attention is our NFOs. We are just not seeing as many applicants as we would like. For the pilot side, it’s fairly populated and it ebbs and flows. That said we value all applications to USNTPS from aviators that had a successful first tour and demonstrated they are able to fly the aircraft, have leadership capabilities and understand their mission and platform.

What is the importance of the relationship between the test pilot and the flight test engineer? What do they offer each other?

The exchange of information is so valuable between the test pilot and the flight test engineer. Our pilots have the recent fleet experience and our engineers have the flight test experience; together they learn from each other about the capability we are testing and methods in which we can safely plan and execute flight test.

I have never observed such a strong relationship between military and civilians then in flight test. I personally have worked with numerous engineers who taught me so much about flight test. Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed a synergy develop between the engineering smarts and the fleet knowledge, which I continue to encourage throughout the wing.

In your opinion, do test pilots make great astronauts?

Absolutely. Teaching fleet pilots to speak the language of engineering is a skillset that translates to many opportunities, whether it’s as an astronaut or in civilian industry. It’s the combination of the technical knowledge you learn at USNTPS—the critical thinking, the risk management plus the experience of working with civilians in a complex and challenging environment—that’s what NASA recognizes as the value in the testers that have come through here.

The CH-53K King Stallion lifts a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, January 18, 2018. The purpose of this exercise was to show the Capabilities of the CH-53K.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Shannon Doherty)