U.S. Naval Test Pilot School Training Test Pilots of the Jet and Space Ages

In 1957, the flight test school formally changed its name to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. That same year, Marine Corps Maj. John Glenn Jr. (Class 12) set a new coast-to-coast speed record at an average of 725.55 miles per hour flying an F8U-1P Crusader fighter, and the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.

The Jet Age reached a peak, and the Space Age had begun—and USNTPS was there to make sure that the nation’s flight test pilots, flight officers and engineers were ready for both.

In the 1950s, the depth and breadth of the curriculum expanded to include jet performance, irreversible flight controls and armament and electronic testing. In 1958, the school extended the course of instruction to eight months. And when NASA announced its seven Mercury astronauts in 1959, USNTPS was very well represented with four alums on the roster: Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra.

The early 1960s saw the first major additions to USNTPS’ curriculum with the creation of a separate syllabus for rotary-wing instruction, an introduction to vertical takeoff and landing techniques and a soaring program.

USNTPS also saw its first Army graduate, Capt. John Foster (Class 28). During this time, the school also published its first manuals for helicopter performance testing and rotary flying qualities.

Today, the school’s rotary syllabus for military pilots is the only one of its kind in the U.S., and for this reason serves as the Army’s test pilot school.

The end of the decade saw an entire Apollo mission crewed by USNTPS graduates when Apollo 12 took Pete Conrad (Class 20), Richard Gordon (Class 18) and Alan Bean (Class 26) to the moon in November 1969.

Advances in computer technology had an impact on training at USNTPS beginning in the 1970s with the introduction of aircraft capable of variable stability including the Calspan Learjet, which remains a cornerstone of flight training at the school today. Advancements in technology during that decade required the school to expand its curriculum again to incorporate airborne systems and to lengthen the syllabus from eight months to the current 11 months, which the school deemed sufficient to allow more flight opportunities and time to absorb class instruction and apply it in the air.

In 1983, the USNTPS family proudly received the Navy Unit Commendation for “extraordinary standards of excellence in safety, maintenance, curriculum advancement, and overall multi-nation test pilot training”—a citation that would have undoubtedly pleased Sherby. That same year, Lt. Colleen Nevius (Class 83) became the first female aviator to complete training at USNTPS.

The fall of the Soviet Union provided a unique opportunity for USNTPS technical collaboration when the Gromov Flight Research Institute near Moscow—Russia’s equivalent of Edwards Air Force Base—hosted nine instructors and staff in the summer of 1994. USNTPS returned the favor a year later when it hosted a Russian delegation.

That same year, the doors of USNTPS’ new schoolhouse first opened to welcome its first classes of students after its official dedication the previous year. The decade also saw the inauguration of the Short Course Department, which offers two-week introductory courses to the developmental flight test community.

In 2003, the Short Course Department added an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle course and considered the unique test requirements associated with fielding such systems. As the Navy significantly increased its investment in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) over the decade, USNTPS maintained its leading edge by incorporating unmanned test concepts into its syllabus for test pilots and engineers of the future.

In the 2010s, small UAS platforms such as the ScanEagle and MQ-8 Fire Scout gave way to larger UAS platforms like MQ-4C Triton and MQ-25 Stingray, and the establishment of the Navy’s first dedicated squadron to unmanned platforms—Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (UX) 24. UAS systems are increasingly being incorporated into the syllabus, culture and organization of USNTPS, today helping ensure students are up to speed on the growing field of unmanned aviation.

1) The Douglas F4D/F-6A Skyray jet fighter was in the school’s inventory from 1958 to 1969 (U.S. Navy photo). 2) USNTPS pilots flew the iconic Bell UH-1 Iroquois as part of the rotary-wing curriculum from 1963 to 1975 (U.S. Navy photo). 3) The school’s two X-26A Frigate gliders fly an average of 40 hours per year teaching students about high lift-and-drag evaluations, unpowered flying qualities and even aerobatics (U.S. Navy photo). 4) The variable-stability Learjet Model 24, developed by Calspan, appeared at USNTPS for the first time in mid-1981 (U.S. Navy photo). 5) USNTPS students flew the North American T-2 Buckeye trainer from 1972 to 2007. Today, one of these aircraft is preserved on the school grounds (U.S. Navy photo). 6) The T-38C Talon is USNTPS’ primary fixed-wing trainer; the school’s 10 aircraft fly a combined average total of 1,100 hours per year (U.S. Navy photo). 7) The USNTPS 11-month curriculum includes 530 hours of academic instruction in fixed-wing, rotary-wing and airborne/unmanned systems (U.S. Navy photo). 8) The school operates two U-6A Beavers as part of the Qualitative Evaluation program, which exposes students to the handling characteristics of a wide variety of unique aircraft (U.S. Navy photo by Erik Hildebrandt). 9) An early-model F/A-18 Hornet taxies at NAS Patuxent River. U.S. (Navy photo).

As another decade dawns, USNTPS continues to evolve its curriculum to ensure graduates are capable of confronting the technical and programmatic challenges of the Naval Aviation Enterprise of today and tomorrow.

Today, USNTPS proudly provides instruction to Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force aviators, in addition to aviators and engineers from 17 partner nations, and civil service engineers across Naval Air Systems Command. The school accepts around 36 students at a time and runs two courses of 11 months each year. Its fleet of 44 fixed-wing, rotary-wing and unmanned aircraft is the most diverse in the Navy, encompassing 14 different type/model/series.

As it has since Sherby’s time, USNTPS continues to innovate in order to maintain its status as one of the world’s pre-eminent flight test educational institutions, dedicated to providing cutting-edge educational and flying opportunities.

Sources: United States Naval Test Pilot School Narrative History and Class Information, 1945 to 1982 and 1992 supplement; United States Naval Test Pilot School: 75 Years and Counting, 1945 to 2020