The transformation of the UK Empire Test Pilots’ School (EPTS). Part 1 of an in-depth series by MS&T Europe Editor Dim Jones.

Formed as part of the UK’s Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) in 1943, at the height of the Second World War, the Empire Test Pilots’ School (ETPS) at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire was the first of its kind.

It is, alongside the US Air Force school at Edwards AFB, the US Navy school at NAS Patuxent River, and the French Ecole du Personnel Navigant d’Essais de Reception (EPNER) at Istres, one of the ‘Big 4’ test pilot schools. Having remained essentially unchanged in method and objectives since its inception, ETPS has, over the past two years, undergone a major transformation. The course of 2019 is the first to undergo the new syllabi, and this editor will chart their progress in this and subsequent reports.

What prompted this transformation of the ETPS? The need for change was recognised for a variety of reasons: first, there are fewer new aircraft to test and develop these days, but many more new systems and weapons; second, the requirements of the customers (principally the UK Military, but also foreign military and industry) have changed; third, the students and their learning methods have changed; and fourth, the qualifications required of graduates are not what they have historically been. There is no longer a need for every graduate of ETPS to be a Class A (Development and Experimental) test pilot; some could be evaluators or systems developers and, indeed, in pursuit of a career path for Test and Evaluation (T&E) personnel, these could be the first stages in a progressive development training programme, culminating in Class A qualification if required.

Swiss manufacturer Pilatus delivered a pair of PC21 trainer aircraft to the ETPS in late 2018 for test pilot training courses commencing early in 2019. Image credit: QinetiQ.
Swiss manufacturer Pilatus delivered a pair of PC21 trainer aircraft to the ETPS in late 2018 for test pilot training courses commencing early in 2019. Image credit: QinetiQ.

With the core elements of the existing course mirroring the requirements laid down to gain an EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency)-compliant qualification, it was recognised that there was an opportunity to offer an EASA civil test pilot qualification alongside the existing military course.

All of these factors pointed to the need for a bespoke, requirements-driven suite of courses which, while maintaining the high standards for which ETPS has always been renowned, could be adapted to produce graduates to the levels needed more quickly and less expensively.

A major driving force behind the transformation was the financial and operational burden of an ageing legacy aircraft fleet. Such aircraft, by their nature and because of their imperfections, could be great teaching platforms, but these benefits could be achieved by a modern fleet, with enhanced in-flight training capability, supplemented by use of ‘guest’ aircraft where required.

The challenge was to:

  • Modernise T&E courses, making maximum use of innovation;
  • Increase the mission systems focus while maintaining the existing military output standards:
  • Introduce new syllabi, embracing EASA compliance and the new EASA Flight Crew Licensing (FCL) regulations;
  • Reduce costs and delivery time to customers; and
  • Do it all while still running courses using the old syllabi and fleet.

The vision was a military school, commanded by a military officer, employing a mix of military and civilian instructors, using a civil-registered fleet of aircraft, and offering bespoke test aircrew initial and post-graduate training for military and civilian pilots and engineers. The method would be modular training delivery, enabling a wider range of long and short courses, and espousing increased use of synthetic training (ST) up to a 50/50 live/synthetic balance. In this regard, there is an engineering simulator at Boscombe Down which can host either fixed-wing (FW) or rotary-wing (RW) cockpits, and a number of aircraft models, such as Hawk and Lynx; it can also be used to replicate variable stability. This simulator has not yet been upgraded, since it has been in heavy use by the school and the test squadrons, but such modernisation is part of the longer-term plan, and time can also be bought as required on other ST devices worldwide. Finally, the strategy was a military/civil partnership, with core training delivered as an EASA Approved Training Organisation (ATO), with additional military modules.

QinetiQ was selected to be UK MoD’s partner in this venture, and the Long-Term Partnership Agreement (LTPA) was signed in 2016, although preparatory work to select and procure new aircraft had started before that. QinetiQ have earmarked £85m of investment over the 10-year term of the LTPA contract. A good proportion of this has already been invested in buying in the new fleet of aircraft, upgrading hangars, developing software and IT to deliver the course, plus a new and fresh overhaul of the existing accommodation and teaching areas. In the future there will also be upgrades to the teaching simulator, a new medium/heavy helicopter solution, additional staff and new accommodation to absorb the planned growth in student numbers.

Not What, How

ETPS is not changing what it teaches, as much as how it teaches it. The courseware has been designed to employ the most up-to-date teaching and learning methods, and the modules designed to enable a progressive T&E career path from evaluator through systems and developmental work to experimental flying. Core training can be achieved using a civil-registered fleet, with additional military requirements satisfied by bought-in use of appropriate airframes.

The customers will continue to be military and civil worldwide; foreign students (other than those on an exchange programme) will pay for the courses, the proceeds to be shared by arrangement between the partners. Some customers were already entirely happy with the old course, and others, not being EU members, do not require the EASA qualification, but the new syllabi should be able to accommodate everyone. In this regard, whereas now the UK CAA acts as a regulating agent for EASA, it is expected that, post-Brexit, EASA will carry out this function themselves. The syllabus is requirements-driven using a systems-engineering approach; course modules – and there are 120, including nearly 50 on the RW course – all have specific entry and exit criteria, and have to fight for their places on merit.

The elements which combine to create the various long courses are: Preparatory and Foundation; Intermediate and Advanced Systems; Aircraft Conversion; Intermediate and Advanced Flight Test; and Advanced Military Systems. From these are derived:

  • the Systems Test Course, which comprises the first three;
  • the EASA Cat 2 course and Military Class B, which have FW, RW, TP and Flight Test Engineer (FTE) variants, which include Advanced Systems, Aircraft Conversion and Intermediate Flight Test;
  • the EASA Cat 1, which includes the Advanced Flight Test; and
  • Military Class A, which takes in the Advanced Flight Test & Military Systems.

However, whereas EASA Cat 2 and Military Class B are essentially the same, with the addition of a weapons phase in the Class B, EASA Cat 1 and Military Class A are not.

The primary customers for UK long-course graduates are: the two FW Operational T&E (OT&E) squadrons, No 17, operating the F35 from Edwards AFB, and No 41, operating the F35 from Edwards AFB; No 41, operating the Typhoon from RAF Coningsby; No 206, the ME Test Squadron at RAF Brize Norton; and the RW Test Squadron at Boscombe Down.

Training for FTEs sits very much in parallel with the Test Pilots with students very much encouraged to work as a team. While the syllabus covers all of the same aspects, the FTEs are also trained in the deeper aspects of data analysis and how to guide and direct sorties from a telemetry ground station using radio and live data download from the aircraft.

The short courses, many of which have been driven by customer requirements, are the Evaluator Aircrew (EA) course, the EASA Flight Test Instructor Rating, T&E Refresher Training, and Helo/Ship Integration. The EA course, lasting three weeks, arose from customer demand in that many people working on T&E squadrons are not (and do not need to be) T&E-trained; however, they do need to be familiar with the principles and ‘speak the language’. This course has been immensely successful; seven courses, comprising 60 students, have been delivered, and four more are planned for 2019.

The Civil Aircraft Operating Model, besides stipulating that ETPS will be operated as an EASA ATO, requires a QinetiQ Accountable Manager and nominated post holders. Military and civilian TP instructors will all be EASA-licenced and FTI-rated, but military students will not require licences. The new aircraft were selected to meet EASA and UK MoD requirements for exploring characteristics such as spinning, stalling, engine failures, asymmetric, variable stability and, for RW, Engine-Off Landing (EOL) and the ‘Avoid Curve’.

A mix of configurations was required, such as single- and multi-engine (SE & ME), turbojet and propeller, tandem and side-by-side seating, glass and analogue cockpit, super- and sub-sonic. Candidate aircraft were evaluated within various classes – FW Basic and Advanced Trainer, Jet ME and fighter, SE and ME helicopter – leading to down-selection and choice of preferred aircraft, contract placement and aircraft procurement. All aircraft are now on the UK civil register as G-ETPx and, in this transition, ETPS has received excellent support from the CAA.

Flight Test Instrumentation aboard the RJ70. Image credit: Dim Jones.
Flight Test Instrumentation aboard the RJ70. Image credit: Dim Jones.

Hawk Out, Pilatus In

And so to the fleet. There are now no fast-jet front-line aircraft, although FW students will fly the Saab Gripen, which is operated from Saab’s facility in Linköping. Out go the Tucano, Hawk, Alpha-Jet and Gazelle, and in come the Grob 120TP, Pilatus PC21 and Airbus H125. The Avro RJ70 and RJ100 remain, as does the Agusta 109, the Diamond DA42 and the Bell 412. I have previously covered the PC21 and Grob 120TP in depth (MS&T issues 3/2018 and 4/2018 respectively), so will not elaborate here, save to say that between them they offer a mix of seating configuration and a spectrum of performance. The Grob, in particular, lends itself to FTE training through its side-by-side seating and lack of ejection seats. This and other fleet aircraft have Flight Test Instrumentation (FTI) software built in, which can be viewed on the existing MFDs or additional displays, and have had the necessary potentiometers and strain gauges fitted in build, plus additional sensors where required. The Airbus H125 B3e SE helicopters have excellent performance, Arriel 2D FADEC-controlled engine, glass cockpit, stick trim and stability augmentation system. In addition to the Gripen, ETPS will continue to use the Calspan Variable-Stability LearJet, the NRC Variable-Stability Bell 205 and 412, and other aircraft to support Qualitative Evaluations (QualEvals) and the Class A end-of-course exercise, which is now called Capstone.

The Course of 2019 started, in fact, in the summer of 2018 with a distance-learning preparatory course, designed to bring the long-course students up to a basic entry level in mathematics and aeronautics-related subjects. This broadly equates to degree standard and, indeed, ETPS is academically affiliated with Cranfield University; graduate students can go on to complete an MSc and PGCert at the end of the course.

On 3 January 2019, the members of four component courses assembled at Boscombe Down: No 78 Fixed-Wing Course; No 57 Rotary Wing Course; No 43 Flight Test Engineer Course; and No 1 Systems Course. No 78 FW course is composed of five students: two RAF pilots, whose previous experience is ME; a USAF Exchange pilot, also ME-experienced; a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilot, ex-F/A18 Hornet; and an RAAF Wing Commander, who will complete the first two modules of the course before returning to Australia. No 57 RW Course comprises US Navy, French Air Force, UK Army Air Corps, Swiss Armed Forces, Royal Australian Navy and Republic of Singapore Air Force pilots, and a civilian pilot from the Rettungsflugwacht - Garde Aérienne (REGA - Swiss Air-Rescue), who will complete the Class B qualification. Military FTE students are typically junior air engineers who have a wide variety of experience and aircraft fleets; the eight members of 43 FTE Course – six FW and two RW - are from the RAF, the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF), the RAAF, the Royal Australian Navy and QinetiQ. No 1 Systems Course is composed of three RAF and two QinetiQ students.

Flt Lt Ed Eldred (RAF C130J pilot) became the first ETPS student to make a solo sortie under the new Test Aircrew Training modernisation programme. Image credit: QinetiQ.
Flt Lt Ed Eldred (RAF C130J pilot) became the first ETPS student to make a solo sortie under the new Test Aircrew Training modernisation programme. Image credit: QinetiQ.

Instructor Becomes Student

Notwithstanding their primary role experience, the FW and RW students will have the opportunity to fly aircraft from the other discipline, and ME and FJ pilots will fly both FW genres. My visit coincided with a fairly early stage of the course flying syllabus, and I flew in an Avro RJ70 (a four-engined regional airliner) on a Pressure Error Measurement exercise, the aim of which was to ‘gather data to determine static source pressure errors, using a GPS method’. The exercise scenario was that the aircraft was to be modified to carry electronic surveillance sensors, which might change the airflow around the pitot and static ports, and the sortie was to be a combined training vehicle for an FW and an FTE student. The test method was to use the GPS Multi-Track method for airspeed calibration, carrying out multiple runs at constant height, varying the speed and heading datums, and then use the airspeed calibration data to calibrate the altitude. Sortie and airspace management would be critical to success, and responsibility for this would rest with the student pilot and FTE working as a team. The exercise itself was relatively simple, but the accuracy required for good results extremely demanding: 30-second runs ‘on condition’ at ± 1 kt of airspeed, ± 1o of heading, and ± 100 ft in altitude. To achieve this, the exercise briefing notes provided useful advice on airspace management, aircraft attitude and power handling.

The crew for this sortie was: a TP Instructor as the aircraft captain in the right-hand seat (RHS); a student TP in the LHS as the handling pilot; a staff pilot on the flight deck ‘jump-seat’; and a Student FTE and FTE Instructor in the cabin. The TP instructor, Rob, turned out to be a gentleman I had instructed on the Hawk some 25 years previously – clearly reasonably successful, judging by his subsequent career. The student TP, Aaron, was the former RAAF F/A18 driver. The student FTE, and flight test conductor, was Ben, and his instructor FTE, Graham; the staff pilot, Andy, completed the crew.

After a thorough pre-flight briefing, led by the student team, and an outbrief from the Duty Instructor, we got airborne on time, hoping to conduct the exercise in the Boscombe Down local area; however, the cloud structure rendered this impossible, so we had to transit through an airway to find some clear air to the west. Airspace did indeed prove to be a critical factor, and Aaron and Ben worked well together to manage it effectively, mindful of the briefing note advice to plan two legs in advance; a five-aircraft formation of Hawks operating in the same piece of sky provided an additional challenge. As an FJ pilot with no ME experience, Aaron had been given two familiarisation sorties in the RJ, totalling about three hours, but – in line with the new ETPS policy, would not be formally checked out on type. Nevertheless, I was impressed by his handling of the aircraft, and the accuracy of his flying. After each run, there was a mini-debrief between Rob and Aaron, the run parameters were reviewed and useful tips passed on. Meanwhile, in the cabin, the same interaction was taking place between Graham and Ben. The FTI in the RJ is impressive, with almost every data display I could imagine available to them, and there was no shortage of data to be recorded. Additional limited FTI was also available to the pilots through several small instruments on the flight deck coaming. The test profile complete, we headed home through the airway for an uneventful recovery at Boscombe Down, after a flight of just over two hours.

A comprehensive sortie debrief followed, and this completed Aaron’s reporting requirements. The same was not true of Ben, who then had 48 hours to produce detailed graphs and other data, together with a bullet list of thoughts on the conclusions to be drawn from the testing, the specification requirements, and the utility of the testing method.

As the course evolves, the exercises will become progressively more complex and demanding; I look forward to my next visit.  

Why Test Pilot School?

The nature of test and evaluation (T&E) flying has changed markedly from the early days of aviation, where safe return from a test flight was by no means assured. It is equally far removed from the heady days of the early post-war years, when there were 20 or so major British military aircraft manufacturers, when the sound barrier was something to be either avoided or confronted, and when every Farnborough Air Show introduced a host of new aircraft types. However, the need for specialist training for this role has not decreased. T&E flying requires a unique breed of aviator, one whose pure flying ability is backed up by an inquisitive mind and the ability to analyse a problem, develop a solution if required, devise a means to test it and, certainly not least, report the results and be prepared to substantiate the findings. Some of these attributes may be innate, but the skills needed to exploit them must still be taught, in the correct academic and aviation environment, by those who have already proved themselves in the field.

There are only a dozen recognized test pilot schools in the world, eight of which are run by governments in the UK, US, France, Russia, India and Brazil. This is the first of multiple reports by MS&T’s Dim Jones on the original, the Empire Test Pilots’ School at Boscombe Down.

Originally published in Issue 4/5, 2019 of MS&T Magazine.