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PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

How Good Should They Be?

T.H.ursday with Tom Hill

Unlike what its name implies, Test Pilot School graduates more than pilots. In normal years, half the class is non-pilots like Combat System Officers (WSOs and Navs for you old school folks) and Flight Test Engineers (FTEs). While officially we have separate curricula for our non-pilots, academically it’s 95% the same as what we teach our pilots. Only through the flying and the resources we spend for solo flight approval (or crew-solo with their classmates) does the curriculum diverge. But, while we teach the students practically the same content, the performance expectation is different in the airplane whether you’re an FTE or a pilot. 
The difference is related to our pilots having spent their entire professional career learning to be fully responsible for themselves and their aircraft; our FTEs are just learning the ropes of aviation. Pilots learn the operating limits and systems of the aircraft they’re expected to fly solo in. The FTEs - they’re institutionally required to know only how to strap-in and how to egress in the event of an emergency. Formally, there’s a substantial difference in expected knowledge between pilots and FTE’s. The question becomes, how much should FTE’s be expected to know?

Here’s the problem, it comes down to resources, grading, and the time allotted. As I’ve heard some instructors say, “I can teach my grandmother to fly. It’s all a matter of how much time you have.” I think that’s mostly true. If you have enough time and resources, you can teach most people to be competent pilots. But, if you’re limited in resources and don’t have all the time in the world, there’s only so much you can demand from your students.

We spend a lot of time teaching our students how to generically conduct tests. All our students are exercised with increasing levels of complex scenarios and differing environments throughout their school year. This starts with a simple introduction in the C-12 with the Test Conduct Sortie, where the students are exposed to the simple mechanics of flight test conduct. Eventually, the FTE’s take a control room evaluation where they’re assessed on their skills at controlling an airborne F-16.

The entire maturation process of the FTE, from knowing nothing of test conduct to being able to effectively control a real test, hasn't been well documented. The school always had a reasonable undocumented approach to how it conducted this education. It just didn’t list it very well with appropriate milestones and objectives for each training event. Last year, the school’s 69th year, we finally published a “Test Conduct” curriculum complete with desired learning levels for all the various training events throughout the school year. It’s a good document and will definitely help make Test Conduct training more consistent for our students in the future.

How does this relate to FTEs and “how good should they be?” We still haven’t documented what operational in-flight skills our FTEs should have by the time they graduate. I’m not talking about conducting tests. I’m talking about how effective an aircrew member our FTEs should be. Should they be required to know more about their aircraft than simply how to get in and get out safely? Should they be able to recite emergency procedures properly and effectively, and be able to operate as a team with their fellow student pilots?

Of course, the quick answer to this question is, “Sure! We should expect all graduates to operate as effective, contributing members of their teams, and to be able to help and be responsible in all ways possible.” But, the answer is not so simple. Remember, most our FTEs have no aviation background prior to the start of this course. 
Except for their superlative engineering credentials, they could be anyone coming off the street. This means any knowledge we expect them to have has to be taught by the school, from scratch. To ensure they have the skills to suffer through any emergency for any aircraft we assign, and effectively support analysis and successful recovery from those emergencies, we will have to teach them everything. I’m not sure there’s a simple way to speed learning basic airmanship other than setting expectation levels just as if they were new pilots—except they don’t have to have skills to actually fly.

So, that’s the question: “How good should FTE’s be?” Since I probably know the answer to this the follow-up question is obvious: “What’s the quickest, most effective way, to teach airmanship to folks who know practically nothing of aviation.”


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