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Air Force Space Command Tapped America’s ‘Other’ Test Pilot School To Start Up A Space Force Flight Test Team
Eric Tegler, Forbes Contributor

Aerospace & Defense

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An NTPS Northrop T-38 Talon flies through the well known "Star Wars" Canyon in Death Valley National Park.  Photo: NATIONAL TEST PILOT SCHOOL

Last February, Air Force Reservists from the 14th Test Squadron, which does operational testing and evaluation of space and cyber systems, embarked on a three-week Space Test course with a view to creating a cadre of flight test personnel that can help lead the way for the recently formed Space Force.

You’d expect a developmental/operational flight test course including classroom instruction, formation flights, workload tests, and formation testing to take place at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California or at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. Instead, the Air Force chose to send students to a civilian program at the National Test Pilot School (NTPS).

Allen Peterson, president and CEO of NTPS (and a fixed wing/rotary wing test pilot), explained that the Air Force asked NTPS to hold one of its three-week short-course introduction to space flight testing classes for a class of 12 students from Space Command and other organizations because it didn’t have the additional capacity to offer instruction. A second class is slated to start next week.

In an Air Force press release, Major, Jason Riberdy, Space Test Flight A flight commander from the 14th TS said that, “With the possibility of Space Command going into Space Force, we’re trying to look at new ways of approaching testing, we want to incorporate other avenues in the way that testing has been done. Part of our goal was also to create a cadre of personnel that can help lead the way for Space Force.”

Located about 20 miles northwest of Edwards, NTPS is based at the Mojave Air and Space Port, a place it has called home since 1981. Civilian test pilot schools are rare and only a few are considered on par with military test pilot schools. NTPS is one of them and while most U.S. test pilots and flight test engineers attend the Air Force or Navy schools, there are notable exceptions.

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NTPS' T-38 is one of a fleet of approximately 20 aircraft owned by the civilian test pilot school at Mojave, CA. Photo: NATIONAL TEST PILOT SCHOOL

John Rucci, a former Marine CH-53E helicopter pilot and current senior experimental test pilot with Sikorsky’s CH-53K program, is an NTPS graduate. NTPS also has former military test pilots on its instructor staff including Andy Edgell, a Naval Test Pilot School graduate and former F-35 Developmental Test Pilot, Instructor Pilot and Flight Examiner at the F-35 Integrated Test Force, NAS Patuxuent River.


A Testing Business

While Britain’s Empire Test Pilot School (established during WWII) was the first of its kind in the world, NTPS was the first civilian test pilot school. Today, it finds itself in competition with national military schools and others which straddle the public/private sectors.

Peterson says that Empire Test Pilot School is his biggest non-governmental competitor. It’s a surprising claim for those unaware that the U.K.’s military test pilot school has for years been managed by British defense contractor, QinetiQ. The company controls major portions of the British training, test and evaluation establishment and according to Peterson, receives $100 million from the U.K. government to manage Empire and other organizations.

Empire’s quasi-private status could put it on a level playing field with NTPS but Peterson points out that it enjoys decades-old grandfathered agreements with the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School among others. Despite NTPS’ standing and domestic origins the agreements “give our competitor advantages that we don’t have,” Peterson says.

A similar situation exists with Canada’s International Test Pilot School in London, Ontario. Originally launched in Britain in 1986, the privately run school receives significant Canadian public funding according to Peterson. NTPS also competes with the French test pilot school which takes in foreign students as well as the U.S. Air Force and Navy schools which take three to five and 10 foreign students a year respectively. New test pilot schools opening in South Africa, Turkey and China will offer further competition.

The space test flight classes for Space Command are obviously welcome business. The students in these join others from the international test community, both military and private. NTPS offers 12-month “long courses” and “short courses” lasting anywhere from a few days to six weeks for fixed and rotary wing pilots and flight test engineers.

[NTPS 1-Minute Intro Video embedded here.]

Long course students are typically experienced pilots/engineers who want or need to become top-tier Category One experimental test pilots/flight test engineers. About 10 to 30 students a year come to NTPS for long courses. The bulk come from Europe but NTPS sees steady demand from Pacific-Rim countries and Israel. Demand from China is complicated by geopolitics and the Middle East is still a nascent environment for flight test activity outside Israel.

Nevertheless, Peterson confirms, “We’ve seen a steady increase in demand for those courses over the last two to three years from international students.”

Some 200 to 400 students attend NTPS for short courses. Demand for these has been relatively steady though NTPS’ CEO says U.S. defense budget Sequestration hurt the numbers a couple of years ago. Obviously, Covid-19 has not made 2020 a bumper year. Still, he adds that, “Many international countries and companies can’t afford the full course so they’ll send folks to us to do the short courses.”

That brings up an interesting point. Pricing for test pilot curricula is almost non-existent. Governments and militaries, including ours, don’t advertise costs and the public/private schools are similarly opaque.

But NTPS is a fully accredited school, the only flight test school, it says, to have achieved institutional accreditation like a college or university. Accredited as a graduate school by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (a US Department of Education recognized regional accreditation agency) NTPS is not only educationally vetted – it is required by law to publish pricing for its courses.

“One of the disadvantages of being accredited is that we have to publish our prices like any other university,” Peterson says. “None of our competitors publish any prices.” That potentially gives other schools a pricing, bidding advantage.

For the record, NTPS’ long course for test pilots/flight test engineers costs just under $1 million. Short courses go from $10,000 to in the “high $600,000 range” according to Peterson. Costly though they are, the courses attract a third group of students desiring fully recognized Master of Science degrees in flight testing. These may become more sought after following new requirements by the European Union Safety Agency (EASA) for certification of Category One and Category Two test pilots/engineers.

A large group of older pilots/engineers without EASA recognized certification were grandfathered-in when the agency’s rule came into force in 2014. They are now starting to retire, potentially creating a demand crunch which NTPS will be well positioned to address.


The “Tiger Rush”

NTPS aircraft can use the same 128,000 square nautical mile R-2508 test range/airspace that airplanes/UAVs from nearby Edwards Air Force Base and the Navy’s China Lake weapons testing facility use. When flying through the ranges, they use the same sort of five-letter callsign that military aircraft use.

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A Eurocopter EC-145 is one a variety of twin and single engine helicopters flown by rotary wing test pilot and flight engineer students.  NATIONAL TEST PILOT SCHOOL

In NTPS’ case that callsign is “Tiger” a moniker in use since the school began. A typical day’s flights takeoff at 8:30-9:00 am and again at 10:30 to 11:00 am. Local air traffic controllers call the stream of departures the “Tiger Rush.”

The rush consists of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft from a T-38 Talon trainer and MiG-21 fighter to Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior and Eurocopter EC-145 helicopters, turboprop King Air and Merlin transports, and Cessna 182 and Diamond DA-42 general aviation airplanes. As with the premier military flight schools, NTPS students typically have the opportunity to fly 20 or more different single and multi-engine aircraft types.

That diversity is augmented with in-house designed and commercially acquired simulators as well as visits to other nearby simulation facilities. NTPS’ location at Mojave also puts it beside private sector test and innovation from neighbors Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, Stratolaunch and others. The pilot and systems test training streams go along with a limited unmanned aircraft curriculum for which there is surprisingly less demand.

While the USAF Test Pilot School does have a complete unmanned pilot/flight engineer course, NTPS only offers portion of its long course or short courses based on the philosophy that the broader test methodology it teaches can apply to manned or unmanned systems.

“You would think there would be more interest but in the unmanned systems arena I think flight test is viewed differently than in the manned systems arena,” Peterson says.

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NTPS uses the Australian-built Gippsland GA-8 “Airvan”, a rugged cargo/passenger plane for systems test and engineering courses. A Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) system resides in the cargo pod. NTPS operates the Airvan in Night Vision Imaging Systems (NVIS) and Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) systems courses. Photo: NATIONAL TEST PILOT SCHOOL

An emphasis on systems-test curricula, which Peterson says NTPS was one of the first to embrace, likely helped it land the Air Force space test students. “Systems test is the preponderance of flight test activity for most of our customers,” Peterson observes.

The 14th TS matures space/cyber system designs and manages risk, tasking an eventual Space Force test and evaluation unit will be asked to focus heavily on. While NTPS doesn’t own or operate the systems that Space Force will use, its test culture and systems mentality are the elements that could underpin the efficacy of the tools the Space Force personnel will rely on.

Dr. Al Peterson, NTPS President/CEO and Jim Brown “JB”, VP/COO gave presentations at the Society of Experimental Test Pilots West Coast Symposium held in San Diego from March 12-13, 2020. JB’s paper titled: OBOGS Flight Test: How NOT to Conduct a Campaign” garnered the Jack Northrop Award for best technical presentation. Great job JB!   

Great article on the new NTPS Space Test Course recently held for the new US Space Force!

Story and Photo by Natalie Stanley
926th Wing/Public Affairs

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. -- Reservists from the 14th Test Squadron took part in an inaugural three-week Space Test course at the National Test Pilot School in Mojave, California, Feb. 2020.

The 14th TS, the only space test squadron in the Air Force Reserve, delivers and sustains Air Force Space Command and Air Combat Command warfighting capabilities through operational testing and evaluation of space and cyber systems.

Maj. Jason Riberdy, Space Test Flight A flight commander and Tech. Sgt. Shannon Robertson, Test Flight B noncommissioned officer in charge, were selected from a list of more than 100 volunteers to be part of the course that included 12 students from multiple organizations, including civilian agencies.

This one-off training provided a rare opportunity to interact with other agencies and to gain insight into the unique ways each conducts testing.

“To get all those test organizations together and to do training is impressive because we each have our own training processes,” said Riberdy. “We got to sit down and talk about our experience in different test and explain how we each do things and that was worth every second of being out there.”

Robertson, who is an embedded software tester for her civilian career, said the career diversity, in not only the students but also the instructors, was an invaluable opportunity to see a variety of test perspectives and ideas.

“There were people there from all different areas of test, they have different priorities and we could really mesh them together,” she said. “The experience there was unmatched.”

The course taught a combined developmental and operational test approach and included classroom instruction, formation flights, workload tests, and flight formation testing.

“With the possibility of Space Command going into Space Force, we’re trying to look at new ways of approaching testing, we want to incorporate other avenues in the way that testing has been done,” said Riberdy. “Part of our goal was also to create a cadre of personnel that can help lead the way for Space Force.”

Operational test information and recommendations provided by the 14th TS help AFSPC and ACC mature space system designs, manage and reduce risk, identify and support problem resolution as early as possible, and ensure space and cyber systems are mission capable for the warfighter.

The uniqueness of the course for the reserve participants rested in the fact that it was highly representative of the operator and not just the systems.

“A system could be super cool and high tech, but it’s nothing if the operator can’t use it,” Robertson said, emphasizing the importance of operator usability.

Robertson said space-system testing usually focuses more on the mission, but this course was a chance to look at how to make the system better for the user and to bring space into a more agile development process.

“Sure it does the mission, but what’s the use if the Airmen can’t collect on anything,” said Robertson.

Overall, the course was an invaluable opportunity for the 14th TS to not only gain insight into how others test, but to share their unique knowledge as reservists.

“I really wanted to see how the civilian air testing approached their test and try and figure out what the best practices between them were, so we can try and be a more rapid test organization, better prepared for future needs,” Riberdy said. “It also helped show the value the reserves brings, now they understand what the 14th brings to the fight.”

Both Riberdy and Robertson emphasized the quality of training they received from the National Test Pilot School. They said without the professionalism of the instructors and their enthusiasm and willingness to share, the class would not have been as successful as it was.

Original article: https://www.dvidshub.net/news/365624/course-offers-new-perspective-space-test

On February 26th, 2020, NTPS made Flight Test Education History becoming the first and only test pilot school in the world to achieve Institutional Accreditation!  In addition to ABET Accreditation for our Master of Science in Flight Test Engineering Degree, NTPS is now accredited as a Graduate School by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC); a US Department of Education recognized accreditation agency.

As part our efforts to continually improve for our students and customers, NTPS undertook a  5+ year effort to become the first test pilot school in the world to achieve accreditation.  In addition to Institutional Accreditation covering all of our degrees and courses, it also provides our customers with additional confidence that NTPS has demonstrated to an external governmental organization that its curriculum, faculty, facilities, teaching and evaluation methods, standards, and financial stability meet or exceed all required standards. No other school has demonstrated these credentials.

When you couple our institutional accreditation with our FULL EASA Certification as an Approved Flight Test ATO for Fixed Wing and Rotary Wing, our ISO 9001-2015 Organizational Certification, our SETP Recognition, and our extensive array of flight test courses there can be no doubt that NTPS is the World’s Premiere Total Flight Test Education and Training Organization!


An innovative leader in total flight test training and research, the National Test Pilot School has been serving the world-wide flight test community since 1981 and has trained thousands of Test Pilots and Flight Test Engineers through its diverse course offerings.  For more information about the ‘World’s Test Pilot School’ visit NTPS at www.ntps.com


The National Test Pilot School is accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
985 Atlantic Avenue, Suite 100, Alameda, CA 94501 510.748.9001

NTPS Instructor Andy Edgell has been selected to be appointed to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Established on 4 June 1917 by King George V, The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is a British order of chivalry, rewarding those making distinguished or notable national contributions in civil and military fields. The British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is Sovereign of the Order, and appoints all other members of the Order. The Order’s motto is For God and the Empire.

On 27 December 2019, the Queen's New Year honors list was published in the official newspaper of the Crown, The Gazette. Therein contained the announcement that Andy had been awarded the honor of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his contribution and dedication to the F-35 flight test program while serving as a Test Pilot on the F-35 Integrated Test Force at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

Andy and his family will attend an Investiture ceremony at a Royal residence in the coming months to collect awards from The Queen or another Member of the Royal Family.

Congratulations Andy and Family!!

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Contact Info

National Test Pilot School
P.O. Box 658
Mojave, CA 93502-0658 USA
Phone: +1 (661) 824-2977
Fax: +1 (661) 824-2943