Testing is fun

Succinct commentary on the pleasures of test piloting.

A Brief History of the USAF Test Pilot School

Republic manufactured a number of different aircraft, not the least of which was the P-47 Thunderbolt. The aircraft which eventually became the F-84 began life as an attempt to convert a P-47 to jet power. Further, what became the F-105 began life as a proposal to update the F-84F. Therefore, it is safe to say the F-84 is incomplete without the context of Republic in general and, in particular, the P-47 and F-105 as brackets. And so it is with many government programs and the agencies that conducted those programs. Among the agencies that used the F-84 was the Airforce Test Pilot School, and, because use of the F-84 at that agency must be viewed in context, herewith is a brief history of the Air Force Test Pilot School.

The opening paragraph of the USAFTPS 45th Anniversary Book states, "Ever since the Wright brothers and the first airplane, the importance of the test pilot has been obvious. Successful employment of aircraft has always hinged on possessing aircraft and equipment technically superior to those of our adversaries. As the world's leading industrial power, our nation's aeronautical engineers and designers have produced the ultimate in aircraft designs. The burden of accurate and scientific research, development, and evaluation has been carried by the test pilots, flight test engineers, and test navigators who perform the flight tests of new aircraft and systems. This has been a tremendous responsibility, the importance of which cannot be over emphasized. The origin of training today's test pilot to fulfill this continuing critical role can be traced back to World War 1."

The United States War Department established an engineering laboratory and flying field at Dayton, Ohio, known as McCook field, in the fall of 1917. The Flight Test Section at this facility was given responsibility for flight testing new aircraft and evaluating new systems. McCook was a facility that was size limited -- one of the hangers displayed in large letters the warning, "This Field is Small - Use it All" -- and in 1927 the Army Air Corps developed Wright Field as the new facility for the "Material Division." Flight testing continued to be carried out by the Flight Section, later renamed the Flight Test Division, which is the unit from which the test pilot school evolved during the 1940s.

Up through the early 1940s, there was no formal procedure used to determine who could become a test pilot. However, the burden of testing aircraft for WW2 needs brought an influx of new test pilots, and the formalization process for classroom and test flight procedures began. The formalization was augmented by a visit from RAF Group Captain Sammy Wroath, first commandant of the Empire Test Pilots' School, when his visit led to Col. Ernest K. Warburton, Chief of the Flight Section, visiting the UK, whereupon Warburton began the process to establish a similar institution in the US. On September 9, 1944, the USAAF Air Technical Service Command Flight Test Training Unit was established with Major Ralph C. Hoewing as Officer in Charge, and the T-6 as the school's first "workhorse" aircraft.

In January, 1945, the unit was redesignated as the Flight Performance School and was relocated to Vandalia Municipal Airport (now Dayton International Airport), then was relocated again in December, 1945, to Patterson Field, aka Wright-Patterson Field. During this time, P-51, B-17, and B-25 aircraft had joined the T-6 in the school's fleet. Col. Robert Boyd was assigned as Chief of the Flight Test Section, soon renamed to Flight Test Division, at Wright Field in 1945. Boyd, often referenced as the "father of modern test flight," had a profound influence on the test pilot training program, not the least of which was changing the test pilot from, as Robert Cardenas stated, a "hazy aura of glamorous adventure ... [where] no more do they judge a test pilot's flying skill by his ability to tear the wings off the aircraft in a screaming terminal velocity dive ... " to being " ... an exact science requiring precision flying of the highest caliber." Many well known test pilots were graduates of these first classes, including but not limited to, Richard Bong, Glen Edwards, Francis Gabreski, Tony LeVier, Robert Cardenas, James Doolittle, Jr., Frank Everest, Robert Hoover, Jackie Ridley, and Charles Yeager. Also, during this time period, personnel from the US school attended or visited the UK flight school; this was an important beginning to the exchange and visitation programs which have subsequently expanded to include test pilot students and schools from and in a number of other countries.

Not only was the test pilot training program feeling the pressure of developing new curriculum during the late 1940s, it had the additional burden of adapting to the introduction and rapid developments in jet and rocket powered aircraft which brought need for new procedures in testing high speed flight regimes. In August, 1947, the F-80 Shooting Star became the school's first jet aircraft, and, subsequently, on October 14, 1947, a team of graduates from the school in various capacities, including Bob Hoover, Robert Cardenas, Jackie Ridley, and with Charles Yeager at the controls, took the Bell X-1 through the sound barrier in level flight. In these early years of the school and of the jet age, name changes were the norm, the establishment of the "new" United States Air Force from the remnants of the United States Army Air Corps being one of the more significant, and the school, once a USAAF unit, became a USAF unit. And, once again, in early 1949, the then USAF AMC (Air Material Command) Flight Performance School was renamed to AMC Experimental Test Pilot School.

Also, in 1949, Col. Boyd began efforts to move the school to Muroc AFB at Rogers Dry Lake, for the reasons that the poor weather and congested skies at Wright-Patterson interferred with completing the courses within the required time, whereas Muroc offered good weather and uncongested skies, not to mention improved safety margins because of its expanse. In February, 1951, the school was transferred to Edwards AFB, Muroc having been renamed to Edwards on December 5, 1949. The base was renamed in honor of school graduate, Capt. Glen Edwards, who was killed in the crash of the Northrop YB-49 he was testing. To add to the confusion of nomenclature, the school was transferred from the Air Material Command to the Research and Development Command which was established on January 23, 1950, and this agency was redesignated as the Air Research and Development Command on September 16, 1950. So, once again, the school was renamed on April 2, 1951 from AMC Experimental Test Pilot School to Air Research and Development Command Experimental Test Pilot School.

One drawback to the school recruitment policy was that most recruits were garnered from the small pool of pilots in the test support squadron at Edwards. In order to allow recruiting from a larger pilot pool, on January 1, 1953, the school was transferred from the ARDC to the USAF. And so, once again, the school was renamed from ARDC Experimental Flight Test School to USAF Experimental Flight Test School. Another significant problem the school encountered was outdated aircraft. The fleet of B-25, B-26, F-80, and T-28 aircraft were "not exactly representative of the modern Air Force, let alone the advanced types that the students would soon be expected to evaluate. In the remarkably dynamic context of the early 50s, most of the curriculum aircraft were monuments to a rapidly fading past." Nevertheless, new aircraft were not forthcoming, and the school was forced to make do with largly unsuitable aircraft or with types, such as the T-33s that arrived in 1953, that were not state of the art types.

Later in 1953, the first F-84s arrived, the F-80s were phased out in 1954, F-86s arrived in 1956, and an F-100 was used briefly during 1956. Also in 1956, the first NB-57E was delivered as a stablity and control trainer, and in 1957 a TF-102 arrived. On March 14, 1956, the school moved from its first and current home at South Base to two miles away at a modern new facility at Edwards Main Base, where it has remained since. And, to complete the coming of age of the test pilot school, it acquired an official logo and motto, as the unofficial Howland Owl logo was replaced by the new logo, featuring a slide rule crossing a futuristic supersonic aircraft, and the motto, Scientia Est Virtus, "Knowledge is Power."

In 1957, the student field trips to other countries commenced, a program which has continued with interuptions only for budgetary purposes. And, as the world entered the space age that same year, policy has dictated that the curriculum and aircraft be updated to bring the school to the forefront of facilites dedicated to state of the art atmospheric and space flight training. Aircraft have included the F-104, NF-104, F-106, NF-101A, variable stability B-26, H-13, T-37, T-38, B-57, NF-106B, X-15, Blanik L-13 and Schweizer 2-33 gliders, A-7, 737, RF-4C, NKC-135, NT-33, YA-7D, F-4E, U-6, UV-18, LJ-24, F-16, NC-131H, and others. In addition, the facility has basic and advanced flight test simulators of aircraft and space craft.

On October 12, 1961, the USAF Flight Test Pilot School was renamed as USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School, and again, on July 1, 1972, the name was changed to USAF Test Pilot School. On February 26, 1973, a new course of instruction, the Flight Test Engineer Course, was added. The first female student in the Flight Test Engineer Course, Jane Holley, enrolled with the class of 74B. And, Jacquelyn Parker became the first female to enroll in the Test Pilot course with the class of 88B.

Although the USAF Test Pilot School may not have received the attention of historians as much as other agencies and countries that have used F-84 series aircraft, and, though the F-84 may not have received the attention of historians as much as other "more glamerous" aircraft, nevertheless, the F-84 was one of the workhorses used by the USAF Test Pilot School to train America's test pilots. And, in the 45th Anniversary book, the class of 54C is shown posed with one of the School's F-84Es and the classes of 56A and B are shown posed with an F-84F during a field trip to the Republic plant.

Cover of USAF Test Pilot School 45th Anniversary Book

Cover of USAF Test Pilot School 45th Anniversary Book
USAF Test Pilot School 45th Anniversary Book courtesy of Ted Theoe.

F-84s in the USAF Test Pilot School 45th Anniversary Book
Test Pilot School airfields photos in the USAF Test Pilot School 45th Anniversary Book
Test Pilot School insignias in the USAF Test Pilot School 45th Anniversary Book
Test Pilot School Class logos in the USAF Test Pilot School 45th Anniversary Book

Next Page in Sequence

Contents Copyright 1997-2000 Bruce Craig -- All Rights Reserved