image of plane at night on runway

Why Test Pilots Make Good Aviation Expert Witnesses

The common view of test pilots is like that depicted in the book, The Right Stuff. The image is that of pilots willing to fly and tame any new aircraft regardless of unknown dangers. Nothing could be further from reality. Today test pilots are made in the United States in two locations, the United States Navy Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Station, Patuxent River, Maryland and the United States Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Pilots are selected to attend the schools when they are early in their military or civilian careers. Two overriding criteria are used in the selection of these pilots: their efficiency report ratings and their ability to fly airplanes.

Schools last for a year, during which over $1 million is invested in each pilot. They are taught to give quick general evaluations of airplanes over a three-flight exposure, and during detailed, highly scientific development evaluations lasting several years and several hundreds of flights. They are taught specific test techniques to determine performance, handling qualities, and specification compliance of any new airplane.

Central to evaluating aircraft is the need to perform tests safely and with a level of well managed risk. The flight test community has a tremendous history of successes achieved through learning how to manage risk and avoid disasters. These "lessons learned" are folded into each new program and contribute to present day highly successful test program execution. The gradual building up of knowledge on a new aircraft is axiomatic for safe aircraft testing. Additionally, in the training process, new test pilots are exposed to a wide variety of different aircraft. Thus they form a mental library of good and bad aircraft characteristics.

Their knowledge is not limited, however, to just the test aircraft itself but also include all aircraft systems such as avionics, environmental control, fuel management, weapons load management, radar performance, and other specific performance characteristics for which the aircraft was designed to meet. Infused in this training is the obligation of each test pilot to certify the behavior of the aircraft they evaluate for future generations of pilots. Thus the finding of "goods" and "bads" of the overall design, its enhancing characteristics or deficiencies, and that of any modification to an existing system are all the test pilot’s responsibility. Ultimately, he must evaluate all corrections to deficiencies each airplane may be found to have. He must understand how everything works and determine the effects of component failures in the design. In the end the test pilot will coordinate with the manufacturer and compile the aircraft’s operating handbook.

Being experienced in finding aircraft-problems translates well into finding the root cause of any aircraft accident. Pilot error is often at fault with inexperienced pilots, but understanding the effects of systems failures in flight as well as corrective actions taken may change that view when all factors are evaluated. Being detailed in the evaluation of forensic evidence will greatly assist in arriving at a list of potential causes, which can be thoroughly evaluated in establishing the accident's cause. It is essential that the expert witness not only provides his clients with accurate detailed information, but also be able to train and explain all aspects of aviation related information to the jury in easily understood terms.