Test Pilot School Opens Doors for Naval Flight Officers

By Paul Lagasse

When naval flight officers (NFOs) hear the name “United States Naval Test Pilot School,” many conclude it is open to aviators only. They’re surprised to learn the school also welcomes applications from NFOs and engineers who want to pursue a career in developmental flight test.

USNTPS offers a fast-track into the exclusive ranks of the Navy and Marine Corps acquisition community, which is responsible for readying the aircraft, systems and weapons of tomorrow.

One might be surprised to learn that Rear Adm. Scott Dillon, commander, Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD), Rear Adm. Shane Gahagan,Program Executive Officer, Tactical Aircraft Programs, and Capt. Elizabeth Somerville, chief test pilot and future Commanding Officer of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23, are all NFOs. All three are also USNTPS graduates and they credit the school with honing the skills they needed to advance to their current positions and prepare them for what comes next.

Rear Adm. Shane Gahagan, Program Executive Officer, Tactical Aircraft Programs, listens to a brief at a Boots on the Ground event at Fleet Readiness Center Mid-Atlantic in 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by PR1 Brandon Cole)

Successful USNTPS applicants are technically competent and tactically capable first-tour Navy lieutenants and Marine captains with top fitness reports.

“I was intrigued by the fact that the school’s technical curriculum is complemented by once-in-a-lifetime flying opportunities in different types of aircraft that I would not otherwise have had an opportunity to fly as a Navy P-3 NFO,” said Dillon, whose first tour was with Patrol Squadron (VP) 1 in Hawaii. “I was also really impressed by the fact that when you graduate, you immediately have an opportunity to apply what you’ve learned at a test squadron, which is right at the center of the development and acquisition of new aircraft and new systems for the fleet.”

Gahagan’s experience was similar. He first heard about USNTPS when friends applied to the school when he was a junior officer assigned to Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 115 in Atsugi, Japan, and again when he became an instructor at VAW-110 following his first tour.

“I touched base with them and they all viewed the program very favorably,” Gahagan said. “They said they were testing new capabilities and the latest technology that was going to be delivered to the fleet. That really got me interested, and I applied and was accepted.”

A career in flight test appealed to Somerville from her earliest days in the Navy flying in EA-6B Prowlers with Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 141 out of Whidbey Island, Washington.

“I had a fantastic tour, and then like most people as they near the second half of their tour I started thinking, ‘Well, what do I want to do next? Where do I think my skillset is best in line with the various missions in the Navy?’” said Somerville, who at that time already had a degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I have always had a strong interest in solving problems and in building and fixing things, and that really seemed to line up well with the flight test mission. That’s what drove me to apply to USNTPS.”

All three NFOs are also Aerospace Engineering Duty Officers, or AEDOs, which means they provide management oversight of aerospace weapons systems throughout their life cycle. The AEDO path leads officers to command positions with test and evaluation squadrons, naval air test and warfare centers and program management positions within the Naval Air Systems Command. And the AEDO community prefers to cultivate new candidates from the NFOs who graduate USNTPS as well as from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

36Rear Adm. Scott Dillon, commander, Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, participates in a change of command ceremony at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif. Note: Photo taken before COVID-19. (U.S. Navy photo by Ron Rodriguez)Rear Adm. Scott Dillon arrives at the NAWCWD change of command ceremony at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California, on April 19. (U.S. Navy photo by Ron Rodriguez)

“My follow-on tour in VX-20, and my subsequent tours in program offices and other acquisition-related organizations including NAWCWD here in China Lake have all been available to me as a consequence of graduating from USNTPS,” Dillon said. “USNTPS opens doors not only for AEDOs like myself, but also for unrestricted line officers. It creates additional opportunities that are central to the entire process of fielding new systems that would not be available to people who don’t have that background.”

Gahagan said the critical thinking skills he honed at USNTPS played a valuable role in helping him find career opportunities in positions where such skills were considered essential.

“When I transitioned to the AEDO community, I carried those tools with me and I think they really do improve your decision-making quality,” Gahagan said. “You bring the ability to analyze factual data, your experience, your intuition and your judgment, and I think over time it makes for more informed, better decisions. And if you can do that in your career, it’s bound to help you in the long run.”

“USNTPS is 100 percent the key enabler to my entire career,” Somerville said. “I have enjoyed every tour I’ve done because of the people I’ve had the privilege to work with, but without USNTPS I wouldn’t have had the chance to do those tours and meet those people.”

Somerville said she was fortunate that her arrival at VX-31 in China Lake, California, coincided with the squadron’s initial testing of the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft.

“I went from not even knowing where China Lake was to doing a tour as a department head in the Growler and being part of the first squadron to deploy with the Growler onboard an aircraft carrier,” namely USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77).

“None of those tours would have been possible without the education and the experience and the backgrounds that USNTPS gave me,” she said.

Dillon said that acquisition is about finding all the ways that a new system can fail to operate if some crucial detail is overlooked during the development cycle. “USNTPS trains people to pay attention to those details and to know what sort of technical concerns to be on the lookout for,” said Dillon, who oversaw the completion of the P-8A Poseidon’s initial operational testing and evaluation as program manager of the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft Program. “That way, problems can be discovered early and corrected while they’re still relatively easy to change, so that they never become an issue or a concern for the fleet operator.”

Capt. Elizabeth Somerville, chief test pilot, Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 and former Commanding Officer of VX-31, earned her Wings of Gold as a naval flight officer in October 2000. (U.S. Navy photo by Paul Lagasse)

“If you’re the sort of person who is both technically oriented and determined to dig into the details to determine whether or not we have truly gotten the design right, then you probably have the right sort of personality not only for test pilot school, but also for your follow-on assignment to a test squadron,” Dillon said.

Gahagan encourages NFOs to consider applying to USNTPS if it aligns with their career goals, their career timing and the needs of the Navy. “If all of those things align, it is a rewarding and challenging experience,” said Gahagan, who has also served as commander, Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. “And I’ll tell you, it allows a lot of options in your Navy career. It gives you a different approach in the warfighting arena because you understand a system’s capabilities and how it was developed, and those skills are in demand.”

“As the Navy shifts from autonomous operations to a more integrated approach that relies on aircraft like the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, the P-8 Poseidon and the Growler, I think the NFO will play a bigger role in air combat,” Gahagan said. “The NFO’s responsibilities will become much more challenging and demanding. USNTPS will help prepare you for those responsibilities.”

Somerville encourages NFOs who are considering applying to USNTPS to pursue a career in flight test and acquisition not to worry about how they will measure up against other applicants.

“The important thing is to walk in the door with the confidence of an individual who is an expert in your aircraft and who has all the qualifications that are expected of you at this stage in your career,” Somerville said. “As long as you have the willingness to work hard and have some technical or science background, then USNTPS will teach you the test and evaluation mission.”

“First as a project officer and later as a department head, you will get to make the calls to determine how these capabilities and platforms are going to be developed and to keep them on track when they run into roadblocks,” said Somerville, who also served as VX-31’s chief test pilot and Commanding Officer. “And then, when you go back out in the fleet, you’ll be able to point to that aircraft or that weapons system with pride and say, ‘You know, I played a big part in bringing that to the fleet.’”

Paul Lagasse is a public affairs specialist with U.S. Naval Test Pilot School Communications.

Apply to USNTPS

To learn more about USNTPS and how to apply, visit https://www.navair.navy.mil/nawcad/usntps.

The school’s academic rigor and excellence requires a highly competitive admissions process. Though not required, applicants typically hold degrees in engineering, physical science or math. Those without the requisite courses can make themselves competitive by completing correspondence courses at USNTPS.

Prospective test pilots have typically flown more than 1,000 flight hours. USNTPS evaluates military aviators by a selection board for flight qualification, professional performance, academic background and requirements of the service. The school evaluates engineers similarly with emphasis on experience, performance and flight suitability.

All interested candidates are encouraged to apply.