REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Experimental test pilots play a major role in science and technology development at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center's Aviation Development Directorate.

"XPs are advanced, combat aviators with unique flying and engineering skills," said ADD Director Dr. William Lewis.

"Prior to attending Test Pilot School, XPs serve as operational combat aviators. The U.S. Navy Test Pilot School provides the selected combat aviators with knowledge and skills required to conduct and analyze in-flight experiments. XPs must be able to translate complex engineering results into language that is understandable by nontechnical personnel."

An XP is required to have a strong academic background, years of combat experience, and a proven career of success. Most have served several deployments, making them attuned to how helicopters operate on the battlefield, Lewis said.

"We rely heavily on the operational experience of our test pilots to help influence and shape the technology for future systems," said Chief of Flight Test for ADD, Lt. Col. Carl Ott.

Ott continues, "To be able to bring operational experience early into the process is exciting and very meaningful work. There will continue to be a critical and important role for test pilots to play in the future as the Army develops the technologies that will eventually replace the current fleet of aircraft."

He currently executes 15-20 experimental flight test programs annually. A large portion of his duties include ensuring tests are properly and safely managed and resourced.

Ott describes himself as having a typical operational aviation background prior to becoming an experimental test pilot. He has flown Black Hawks in the Army for 24 years with multiple company command tours in Europe and deployments to Kuwait, the Balkans and Afghanistan. He was commissioned through West Point and attended the University of Washington earning a Master's degree in Aerospace Engineering before going through test pilot training in 2006.

"This was something that appealed to me as a career path because it allowed for me to earn an advanced degree in engineering and serve the Army as both an aviation officer and engineer," Ott said.

XPs undergo a selection process and attend USNTPS, as well as normal acquisition education. During their time at school they experience a rigorous curriculum including academics, flight testing, and report writing. After USNTPS, XPs are assigned to the Redstone Test Center and some choose assignments later with AMRDEC's ADD for S&T work.

"You have to have the ability to tackle academic material," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Nathon Woelke. He attended West Point to earn his Bachelor's degree and then Georgia Institute of Technology to earn his Master's. He has served 20 years as a warrant officer with deployments to Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2012.

Now Woelke understands better why field decisions were made. "I get to interject my opinion," Woelke said. "We are working to improve the operator's life. You don't want them continually worrying about aircraft instead of mission. You want their actions to become second nature. Their success in that translates into mission impact and mission relation. XPs become very skilled in project management and risk management."

"XPs have to be that branch between engineers who may not have military experience and those who will end up using the technology," said Maj. Mark Cleary. "You must be able to speak intelligently with engineers and relay to those in the field how to implement. It is also important to learn how to interface with industry."

Cleary earned a degree in Aerospace Engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. During his 14 years in the Army he flew the Kiowa before switching to the Chinook and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He was 10 years into his career when he was selected to be an XP and attended U.S Naval Test Pilot School. Now stationed in ADD at Fort Eustis, Va., he is responsible for managing test teams, writing test plans and test reports, and implementing those plans.

According to Lewis, XPs are experienced combat aviators who are able to relate complex technical analysis to Warfighters, to inform requirements developers, and provide acquisition analysis to decision-makers. It is important that these pilots be able to articulate needs and concerns because technical data from these XP tests often drives programmatic decisions.

"The key to being a good experimental test pilot is good communication skills," said Warrant Officer 3 Thomas Wiggins.

Wiggins went to the Air Force Academy and graduated in 1999. For the next 20 years, he flew HH60G in combat search and rescue missions. In 2009, he joined the Army specifically to be in 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and began flying MH60K and MH60M.

His main responsibilities include synchronization and implementing test methodologies. He works closely with the System Integration Management Office and Special Operations Command.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jonathan Mihalka agreed, "Test pilot schools are all about developing good communication skills. The Instructor Pilot is always asking what is wrong with the pilot. The Experimental Test Pilot is trained to ask 'Why is it so hard to fly?' and 'Why is this hard?' We don't want the pilots to spend their energy constantly compensating."

Mihalka graduated from West Point in 1988. He deployed to Kosovo in 1999 followed by two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. He went to test pilot school in 2017.

These pilots face many challenges as program managers and test directors in a world of continuously constrained resources. Despite these challenges, XPs use their operational and combat experience, advanced training, and communication skills to support critical technology programs.

"XPs see new technologies and mature them to transition to the Warfighter," said Director of ADD's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate, Col. Steven Braddom. "It is new proof of concept type of work. They can translate complex technical issues and their operational impact to acquisition decision makers to get the best outcomes for the Warfighter. Their combination of operational experience, acquisition training, technical education and engineering expertise is what makes them so valuable."


U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Centeris part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities for decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the Joint Warfighter and the Nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.