In November 2019 I was fortunate enough to be selected to train at the Empire Test Pilots’ School (ETPS), Boscombe Down, as a Rotary Wing Flight Test Engineer (FTE).
I have written this short blog to give the wider community a bit of an insight into life as a student at the school – hopefully some of you may find it interesting! I am currently half way through the Category B FTE course which typically runs from the start of the year to summer-time and I will follow this blog up with an update on successful (hopefully!) graduation.
Although the graduate course places at ETPS are primarily filled by military students, QinetiQ, in partnership with the Ministry of Defence under the Long Term Partnering Agreement (LTPA), are able to send one or two QinetiQ employees through the FTE course each year; but why? As part of my role in Air & Space, Flight Physics, much of our output is centred around the Test and Evaluation of aircraft. In recent times I have been involved in the widely reported Queen Elizabeth Carrier trials and also the Merlin Helicopter Crowsnest programme. The courses at ETPS provide the knowledge and qualifications required to both lead and carry out trials programmes of new or improved aircraft, systems or equipment. Learning with military students gives both parties the opportunity to draw experiences from each other; I have my engineering background and a few years of Flight Test under my belt already, but I do not have the front line or aircraft operational experience that the military personnel contribute.
ETPS is a school for international customers; as well as two QinetiQ FTE students and a number of Royal Air Force and Royal Navy representatives; we have French, Dutch, Finnish, American, Austrian, Swedish and Australian class mates. Although we are typically split into Fixed Wing and Rotary Wing syndicates, the student environment is brilliant and everyone has been contributing their own experiences from their respective forces or employers.
The benefits of sharing such a breadth of experience was in evidence at the annual graduate presentation for those graduates who had completed their training in 2019 – the first full year of training following the school’s substantial investment in new facilities, flying assets, teaching equipment and a new syllabus. The McKenna Dinner was held in the Officer’s Mess at Boscombe Down and coincided with the start of my own training. By all accounts it was truly a celebration of collective and personal achievement – both for the School itself following such a major transformation and especially for the 26 students who collected their graduation certificates from the renowned aeronautical pioneer, Richard Browning. It was particularly memorable for Flt Lt Brodie Kilkenny from the Royal Australian Air Force who was presented with the McKenna trophy for demonstrating the best spirit of aircraft test and evaluation through his skill, attitude, teamwork and effort.
Today, the course facilities at ETPS are truly second to none and the recent investment in the school complements the high standard of teaching provided by industry experts, current serving military and ex-military personnel. A typical day at the school will start with three periods of ground school lectures in the morning, with time for a morning weather brief in between. Then during the afternoon, time is dedicated to flying exercises (the fun part) and report writing (the less fun part that can easily extend into the evenings!). All teaching/learning is provided via the bespoke Learning Management System implemented recently at the school which, as a student, has proved a seamless way to access lectures, assignments and feedback.
Up until this half-way point, the flying activity has been primarily ‘CONVEX’ exercises. These flights are flown with the instructors in order to get the students up to a standard and qualified on each aircraft, with the objective being to eventually allow student-only test flying. As part of this, on the Rotary side we have been to the Leonardo Helicopters simulator facility in Milan (pre COVID-19!) in order to practise emergencies on the A109, one of the aircraft in the QinetiQ fleet. As an FTE student, the convex flights have been partly FTE role practice, but I have also been given the opportunity to fly the aircraft myself. This is particularly important as it gives us engineers an insight into the handling qualities of each aircraft – one of the main factors in flight test. Add in the first few introductory test sorties and it’s safe to say I have thoroughly enjoyed the last 3-4 months!
What wasn’t in anyone’s plan of course was a global pandemic. ETPS, like everyone else, has been affected by the Coronavirus and the course understandably came to a pause in accordance with the government advice. Many rumours and discussions were shared amongst our student community about whether the course would be cut short as we all isolated at home, but within two weeks the staff at the school had adapted and conjured up new ways to deliver the ground school via E-learning. As a result, any delay in training has been minimised. With the introduction of new Coronavirus measures and processes, the course has also now returned to flight operations with an adapted flying programme that has been scheduled to enable us to catch up completely and safely.
Having completed the specific theoretical ground school during ‘lockdown’, my first flights back involved accurately flying up and down the runway at Boscombe Down in order to measure the error in the pilots’ flying instruments and we are now moving on to aircraft performance. The last few months have flown by and I have learned so much already. Although I don’t want it to end too quickly, I am looking forward to completing the course and applying the trade when I return back into programme delivery work towards the back end of summer. Of course and assuming everything continues to go well, it will also be great to take my place at this year’s graduate presentation and McKenna Dinner!
Hopefully this commentary on my experience has been of some interest to people. I could easily go on for hours – it has been a tremendous experience - so please feel free to send any questions my way.