Does Landmark Unmanned Flight Spell Doom for Test Pilots?

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For decades flight testing often came down to strapping a person inside experimental aircraft and telling the pilot to spin and roll their planes out of control at an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,150 meters) while traveling hundreds of miles an hour.

Test pilots have to be physically tough enough to withstand forces up to eight g's, a pull eight times the force of gravity, which can distort vision, impair breathing, and sometimes cause regurgitation. It's not only danger that threatens human test pilots. Economics is also involved.

Sometimes it's cheaper to buy a computer-controlled autopilot system than it is to spend the millions of dollars necessary to build a cockpit that can keep the human body safe and comfortable while flying at hypersonic speeds and altitudes higher than the summit of Mount Everest. Additionally, computers make fewer mistakes than even the best human pilots during aviation experiments that require precision flying. It's just another factor escalating the test pilots' battle against machines.

Airborne Scientists

Nearly 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Los Angeles in the Mohave Desert, the next generation of test pilots is adapting to new challenges at the Edwards Air Force Base. The base is home to the United States Air Force Flight Test Center, a training ground for top pilots. Today's class is a varied mix of test engineers and pilots (some of whom call themselves airborne scientists.)

"If you want to be a test pilot these days, you need to be more than just good at flying," Purifoy, the NASA test pilot, said. "Many of the upcoming test pilots have several degrees in engineering and computer science."

One way test pilots keep themselves in the loop is by working on new planes, from design to testing to production. They no longer just listen to flight engineers, get in a plane, and perform tricks in the air as instructed.

"When not flying, today's test pilots are in front of computers, working on simulation systems, creating design plans, and making sure the experimental aircraft will accomplish what it sets out to do when airborne," Reuter, the Navy test pilot, said. "I just can't imagine a future in aviation without human test pilots. They're indispensable to the whole process of getting experimental aircrafts flying."

According to John Haire, director of strategic communications for the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, three test pilots have died at the base and three others have had to eject from their aircrafts in the past ten years.

The former Muroc Army Air Field was renamed in honor of Capt. Glenn Edwards, who died in June 1948 while test piloting the YB-49 jet fighter.

For more on test pilots, watch this week's Dangerous Jobs. The series airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT in the United States and is available only on the National Geographic Channel.

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