Aircraft Test Pilot: Career and Salary Facts

Research what it takes to become an airline test pilot. Learn about education requirements, job duties, and salary to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Aviation Management degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Test Pilot?

A test pilot is a pilot who flies new or modified aircraft that may be still under development. The purpose of the tests is to determine if the aircraft is safe, operates as expected and meets aircraft regulations. Since these aircraft may not yet be approved for regular use and may still need modifications, or may have undergone significant alterations since being in use, test pilots need to understand how to assess the performance of the craft, how to identify mechanical issues, and they take risks by flying these aircraft.

Like all pilots, they perform checks on the engine and instruments before take-off and they use the instruments and navigation equipment to guide the plane while in flight. They must also ensure they have sufficient fuel for the planned flight and communicate with air traffic control regarding any issues while in flight. Test pilots make recommendations about further improvements that may be necessary before the aircraft can be approved for or return to regular use.

Check out the table below for further information about becoming a test pilot:

Degree Required Bachelor's degree
Education Field of Study Aeronautical engineering, Mathematics, Engineering
Key Skills Flight engineering, in-flight technique, aircraft functionality
Job Growth (2014-2024) 5% (for all airline and commercial pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers)*
Median Salary (2017) $75,501 (for all intermediate test pilots)**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Salary.com

What Training Do I Need To Become a Test Pilot?

To become a test pilot, you can receive training at a civilian school, such as the National Test Pilot School in California, or through test pilot schools within the U.S. Air Force or U.S. Navy. Most test pilot schools strongly encourage a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering or a related field with a strong mathematical and engineering emphasis. Though you won't usually be involved with the design of an aircraft, as a test pilot you must have a strong understanding of the specifications, capabilities and overall engineering of each aircraft you fly.

Accumulating extensive flight hours and training with various in-flight techniques will prepare you for employment consideration. Before becoming a test pilot, you'll likely first gain experience in flight engineering, checking gauges and monitoring the functionality of aircraft while onboard. You'll also need to complete appropriate physical fitness tests and drug screenings before being considered.

What Are The Typical Working Conditions?

Your workplace will consist of the cockpits of various aircraft and an office environment in which to plan and analyze flight test procedures. A variety of test piloting opportunities exist; you could develop experimental aircraft, ensure the safety and efficiency of commercial jets or improve military capability and use. Your hours and travel will vary based on the requirements of test flights and preparation.

Attempting to determine the performance capabilities of aircraft can be extremely dangerous. Technological advancements such as flight simulators and unmanned preliminary equipment have greatly reduced some of the risks since the onset of flight testing; nonetheless, as a test pilot you will regularly be in a more vulnerable environment than virtually any other type of pilot. You must remain continually aware of all emergency flight protocol and be ready to act without delay if a crisis arises. While not necessarily physically demanding, working as a test pilot often produces a great deal of mental stress and fatigue.

What Salary Can I Expect?

According to Salary.com, intermediate test pilots earn a median annual income of $75,501 while senior test pilots earn a median annual income of $108,861 and specialist test pilots earn a median annual income of $165,048. The employment outlook should be relatively strong as the armed forces, airlines and other organizations all continually seek to advance their technology and improve efficiency. Competition will be extremely high as employers seek the most qualified candidates to pilot their expensive aircraft. You'll have the greatest chances for employment and advancement by acquiring relevant knowledge through degree programs and through extensive in-flight time and training.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Commercial pilots and helicopter pilots share many aspects of their work with test pilots. They are all required to have their pilot's license, and must have an associate's degree and complete the required number of flight training hours for their craft and their specific type of pilot's license. Commercial and helicopter pilots, like test pilots, will perform maintenance and fuel checks prior to take off, communicate with air traffic control during take-off, in-flight, and landing.

The key difference between commercial and helicopter pilots and test pilots are that test pilots fly aircraft that have been pulled from service and modified, or new aircraft that has not been approved for regular use yet. Commercial and helicopter pilots fly planes and helicopters that have been approved for regular use. The purpose of their work is also different. Test pilots determine if a craft is ready to meet aircraft regulations, while commercial pilots and helicopter pilots may transport goods, people or perform other duties, such as assisting with firefighting efforts or participating in search and rescue missions.

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