It’s associated with the glamour of air show displays and daring record-breaking feats like those carried out by Chuck Yeager in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The early US astronauts all came from test flying backgrounds.
But what’s the reality behind the job title? In the 21st century what are the skills that are required and is it all about pushing the envelope?
Steve Formoso is the Chief Test Pilot at BAE Systems. Appointed in 2015, his CV is impressive combining expert flying abilities, engineering knowledge, communication skills, a good contacts book and a dash of diplomacy.
“There are probably some myths about the job,” says Steve with a smile. “For example, the sort of stick-and-rudder flying that Yeager and his ilk had to do where they were fighting with the controls is not really where it is these days.
“Today the job is all about offering the right amount of knowledge at the right time into the programme. You use your experience of how the aircraft is used and make sure it influences the product at the right time.”
We are the Babel fish between the designers and engineers on one side and the operator on the other
Fast jets like the Eurofighter Typhoon are a constant work in progress, with incremental changes bringing improvements to capability throughout an aircraft’s life — a lifespan that often stretches across decades. Air Forces request specific capability requirements and then the engineers bring them to reality. Working somewhere in the middle of that exchange is where a test pilot like Steve adds real value.
“We are the Babel fish between the designers and engineers on one side and the operator on the other. You’re translating between the two,” he explains. Having had more than 20 years working as a pilot in the Royal Air Force and several more working with the industry teams he’s well placed to act as a go-between.
While it’s not always about flying the aircraft to its limits, it is a crucial part of the job to try to look for any potential weaknesses.
“That’s the only way we can improve the product but we have to do it in the right way. Communication is key to most jobs and this is no exception. As a test pilot you have to be able to say there’s something not right about the design. When you operate with the aircraft you find things that need changing and understand why they need changing. It’s a bit of an art form and that’s what you are trained to do as a test pilot."
“In an ideal world, you would be able to simulate everything in the test rigs and not actually go flying but it’s never going to happen. There is so much that goes on during a flight, so many variables, you just can’t simulate them all adequately. Time and time again we will find things during a flight test that you’ll never see anywhere else. That’s one of the chief reasons we do what we do. As a test pilot, you are often the only person in the company who will see an issue because there are only five of us actually flying the product. It’s a privileged and important position and that’s why communication is crucial.”
Formoso is leading the BAE Systems team at one of the busiest times in the Eurofighter’s life, with the capability journey reaching a critical juncture.
“On Typhoon there are lots of challenging timescales ramping up for testing and developing,” he adds.
From his view in the cockpit, Steve has a unique perspective on the aircraft and while he is a firm advocate of Typhoon, he says his role demands honesty.
“We trade on our honest opinion. It’s key. Our reputation can be destroyed in an instant if we overegg something, but in the same breath we can also paint the aircraft’s capabilities in the right light.
“Test pilots are designed to look for flaws in products but you have to communicate it as part of the wider team. If we just sit on the sidelines poking at problems and not helping, you’re not actually adding any value. We need to push for the capability to deliver, push for those export sales; it’s what keeps the programme alive.
“The ability to carry multiple weapons at the same time is key, because the world demands a much more flexible way of operating. When you combine greater capability with what Typhoon can do as a basic platform —the power, the flight control system and so on— you have a really potent weapons system.”
So how did he get there? Steve’s introduction to flying came when he was an eight-year-old, when his mum and dad took him out for a day trip and, quite by chance, they decided to go for a glider trip at an airfield near Oxford
He ended up going to Swansea University because it ticked all his boxes and, not surprisingly, joined the RAF immediately after graduation in August 1990. Then during his RAF training he volunteered for the Euro NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Scheme and went to the United States to carry out his primary flying. His formative military flying career took place at Shepherd Air Force Base in Texas on T37s and T38s, amid young pilots from the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Turkey. It was in this melting pot that he got his wings. After graduating in 1992 he went on to fly Jaguars on operational duty with 54 Squadron.
That introduction to life as a frontline pilot was perfect preparation for a busy few years, which included operations in northern Iraq working out of Turkey. Then one day in 2001 he got a call out of the blue asking if he wanted to go to the United States to fly Strike Eagles with the US Air Force as part of an exchange. He started the course flying F15Es and then linked up with the 336th Fighter Squadron, the Rocketeers.
When that chapter ended, Steve returned to the UK to face a different kind of challenge. As a staff officer with 1 Group he was asked to look at Typhoon operations at a time when the aircraft was being readied to go into service with the RAF. His role as Flight Commander on the Typhoon Conversion Unit meant day-to-day flying on the aircraft, as well as working closely with pilots from the RAF and other forces. It was also his first exposure to BAE Systems.
He was then offered a place at the Empire Test Pilot School and, after graduating, went back to RAF Coningsby, but this time as a test pilot with 17 Squadron.
“I came to test piloting relatively late but part of test piloting is the amount of experience you bring to the job. You can’t walk into it as your first job; it would be impossible and you’d have no credibility in the role.”
So how does Typhoon compare to other aircraft on his CV?
“It is truly gobsmacking to fly. On the production test flights where we take the performance of the aircraft to the max, I still have those moments where I’m saying to myself, ‘I can’t believe I have this job.’ It’s like riding a huge ball of almost unlimited energy.
"The power is unbelievable. At the end of the day when you’ve just done Mach +1.6 and pulled 9G over the Irish Sea there can’t be too many people topping that day-to-day in the UK.”
It sounds an incredible place to be. It still sounds like one of the coolest jobs on the planet.