U.S. Naval Test Pilot School Celebrates Its Diamond Jubilee

When Navy Cmdr. Sydney S. Sherby received orders in March 1945 to assume command of a brand-new Flight Test Training Program at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, he might not have guessed that 75 years later the program would grow into one of the world’s premier flight test institutions.

Today, the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) graduates more pilots, flight officers and engineers each year than the other three major domestic and international flight test schools combined and has supplied nearly 100 astronauts to the American space program. But he probably would not have been surprised.

Sherby, a naval flight instructor with a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had reported to NAS Patuxent River as chief project engineer the previous year. Almost immediately, the base’s commander handed Sherby a tough assignment: develop an understanding of how the Navy conducted flight test and how it could do it better.

During World War II, the Navy had consolidated its units for flight test, radio systems, armament and experimental aircraft at NAS Patuxent River. Sherby suggested the Navy take advantage of that consolidation by establishing a formal program of education for test pilots and engineers who would then go on to staff those units.

Cmdr. C.E. Giese, the base’s flight test officer, agreed with Sherby’s recommendation and tasked him with drafting a plan for the future flight test school—in just seven days. With the help of two other officers, Sherby developed the school’s first curriculum, which covered aerodynamic fundamentals and procedures for testing aircraft performance and assessing aircraft stability and control, plus a roster of necessary air and ground tests and a standardized reporting form. The proposed 10-week course involved 37 hours of classroom work and nine hours of flying over the course of three days a week.

Less than two weeks later, Sherby and his sole flight instructor, Lt. H.E. McNeely, welcomed the first group of 14 pilots and engineers—retroactively dubbed Class 0a—to the USNTPS’ first semester, during which the test pilots under instruction flew a motley assortment of fighters, bombers and trainers borrowed from the base’s flight test unit. At the end of May, each of the graduates received a diploma and a slide rule.

Another key figure in the school’s early history, Capt. Frederick M. Trapnell, arrived at Pax River to assume command of the Naval Air Test Center in 1946. Trapnell, a former flight test officer who had flown fighters from the Navy’s giant dirigible airships in the 1930s, attended Sherby’s classes and quickly recognized the program’s need for additional funding and resources. He recommended sufficient resources be allocated to establish a full-time course for about 30 students, with classes convening every nine months. Trapnell got his wish, and the school soon went into business full-time. NAS Patuxent River’s airfield is named Trapnell Field in his honor.

Written by Paul Lagasse, U.S. Naval Test Pilot School Communications.  

1) Between 1958 and 1975, the F8U/F-8 Crusader supersonic air superiority fighter provided students with experience testing high-speed flying and maneuvering characteristics (U.S. Navy photo). 2) A Grumman F6F Hellcat, which students flew for test evaluation during World War II, in flight near Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Md., 1944. ( U.S.Navy photo) .3) The Chance Vought F4U Corsair was at USNTPS from 1949 to 1952. (U.S. Navy photo.) 4) An aerial view of NAS Patuxent River with an F9F Panther, circa 1950s. (U.S. Navy  photo) 5) Douglas A-4D Skyhawk single-seat fighters were used for flight training from 1963 to 1994. (U.S. Navy  photo). 6) The backbone of jet flight training at USNTPS, the two-seat T-38 Talon, has been flying in its A, B and C variants since 1969. The school currently has 10 T-38Cs. (U.S. Navy  photo). 7) USNTPS has been flying the F/A-18 Hornet since 1984. Today, four F/A-18F Super Hornets are flown as part of the airborne systems syllabus for radar and weapons delivery evaluation. U.S. (U.S. Navy  photo).  8) Established in 1961, the military rotary syllabus is the only one of its kind in the U.S. and serves as the Army’s test pilot school. Here, a student and instructor conduct a preflight inspection of an OH-58 Kiowa. U.S. (U.S. Navy  photo).