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Become a Test Pilot: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a test pilot. Research education and training requirements for starting a career in testing aircraft, and find employment statistics for pilots.

Should I Become a Test Pilot?

Test pilots fly and evaluate new or modified aircraft. They determine if a plane is operating correctly and safely, and suggest improvements to the design. Test pilots are often employed by the government, either with the Federal Aviation Administration or with the military, and many have experience as military pilots. A concern for safety is essential for this career.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree
Degree Field Engineering, math, physics or a related field
Training Prospective test pilots must attend test pilot school; military experience recommended
Other Requirements Flight clearance, U.S. citizenship, medical and physical exams
Salary $114,672 (July 2015 median salary)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Payscale.com

Step 1: Meet Basic Requirements

Test pilots are generally employed by the government and must meet certain training requirements. In order to become a pilot, individuals have to be U.S. citizens, meet current test pilot qualifications and possess flight clearance. This clearance can be gained by submitting to a background check through the Office of Personnel Management. Test pilots must also be medically and physical able to meet the demands of flying. To prove their medical aptitude, potential test pilots must pass annual physicals.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A test pilot must graduate with a bachelor's degree in engineering, math or physics. Additional physical science majors may also be considered. Coursework in engineering involves physics and calculus, as well as mechanics and materials. Students studying mathematics can expect algebra, calculus and reasoning courses. A major in physics covers topics in chemistry, calculus and electronics.

Step 3: Serve as a Military Pilot

Although some civilians become test pilots, many applicants serve as military pilots before beginning their careers as test pilots. Many test pilots serve in the U.S. Air Force or Navy as pilots, flight officers and engineers. After finishing their military service, pilots may apply for civilian or government agency test pilot positions.

Step 4: Attend Test Pilot School

Test pilots must attend training programs to learn how to evaluate aircraft performance. Test pilot training programs last about 48-50 weeks and can be taken at a military school, such as the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, or at a private facility. Coursework includes flight preparation, data collection and report writing.

Additional topics may include aero and thermodynamics, statistics and control systems. Students may focus on fixed wing or rotary aircraft and spend time in flight simulators to earn test pilot ratings. Students may also learn how to use weaponry and work on a variety of planes.

Step 5: Find Work

Many test pilots are employed by the U.S. military. Additional career opportunities may be available with different branches of the military reserves. Test pilots can also find work with an aerospace company or play a role in certifying new or repaired civilian planes.

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