I found myself in a T-6 Texan flying three-disk separation from a C-17 as we approached Fort Liberty's (formerly Ft. Bragg) Sicily drop zone at 1,000 feet AGL. The mission for the day was to video an experimental light armored vehicle being low-level paradropped for the first time. The Flight Test Engineer (FTE) in my backseat must video everything from the moment the vehicle exits the C-17 until it hits the ground, and this is where things get complicated for me. As soon as the drogue chutes deploy, I must start a dive and a 2.5g turn to keep the load viewable in the FTE’s camera. With the armored vehicle now under canopy, there is an aerial debris field in its wake as a piece of plywood, various chunks of blocking and bracing, and the three drogue chutes float down. As I complete the first 270 degrees of my spiraling turn, I choose a path through the floating garbage field and go for it. Success! After that, it is simply a matter of keeping the orbit down to 100 feet before blasting back to the start point to video the next run.
How did I, a warrant officer who began my career as a rotary wing aviator, end up there? The simple answer is I applied for the Army Experimental Test Pilot (XP) program despite feeling underqualified. Every December, the Army Human Resources Command publishes a MILPER inviting Army aviators to apply to become an XP. I would read the MILPER message each year; but I did not have an engineering degree, nor much of the other “highly desirable” academic experience. I would later learn this kind of self-elimination is very common. In reality, a successful XP is an operational aviator who can understand the technical material and mission impacts, then clearly communicate the issues. Fortunately, I met an XP who told me “The board looks at the whole candidate, not just academics, so if you are interested in applying, just go for it.”
I took his advice and after graduating United States Naval Test Pilot School, I joined the Aviation Flight Test Directorate (AFTD) in Huntsville, Alabama. AFTD performs test and evaluation for aviation platforms and systems fielded by the Army. AFTD is part of the U.S. Army Redstone Test Center (RTC) which falls under the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, or ATEC). ATEC's motto is “Truth in Testing.” Tests can range from flight tests of one-off experimental aircraft such as the upcoming Future Vertical Lift Platforms, to testing electronic countermeasures, weapons systems, aviator gear, and much more. There is always a new test on the horizon and the variety of test missions makes each day interesting. AFTD tests all variants of aircraft in the Army’s inventory and utilizes a small fleet of T-6D Texan IIs, C-12s, and MD-530Fs for safety chase, captive-carrying sensors, and other special applications. Furthermore, with Future Vertical Lift testing on the horizon, all XPs are encouraged to maintain currency on at least one fixed wing and one rotary wing platform. In fact, it’s common for an XP to maintain currency in more than one variant of each.
Though the XPs are the most visible portion of flight test, AFTD is predominately manned by civilian employees. The FTEs are the backbone of the organization and are integral to the planning, execution, and reporting of all AFTD tests. These engineers are often riding aboard test aircraft or in telemetry rooms closely monitoring real-time data. The FTEs are critical to the safe and successful execution of flight tests and a close-knit working relationship with the XPs is essential. FTEs are often called upon for creative solutions to complex issues spanning multiple engineering disciplines. They are technical experts who can rapidly digest complicated and voluminous data sets and provide timely, relevant, and critical feedback to the flight crew.
AFTD is unlike any other organization in the Army. XPs and FTEs working in small teams testing the latest aviation hardware is a special capability for the Army, and it’s an awesome experience for those of us who have the privilege to work there. Whenever I’m asked about the job, I echo the advice of the XP I spoke to long ago: “if you are interested in applying- just go for it.”
Are you interested in learning more about becoming an Experimental Test Pilot or Flight Test Engineer? Scan the QR code above. Active-duty pilots can email the AFTD team at email@example.com.
CW4 Todd Wolfe is an Experimental Test Pilot assigned to the Aviation Flight Test Directorate at Redstone Arsenal, AL. CW4 Wolfe was named the 2021 National Defense Industrial Association Army Military Tester of the Year.