Job: A fighter jet test pilot.
Salary: When you love what you do, the salary is not your top focus, says Billie Flynn, an F35 fighter jet test pilot for Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin, who has been flying for 35 years, although he admits, “I live an OK lifestyle.”
“For me, it’s about the opportunity, it’s never been about the salary or compensation. It’s getting the chance to do something very few people get to do. I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mr. Flynn says.
One recent job ad posted on the website of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, based in Lancaster, Calif., show an FAA test pilot salary can range from $95,000 to $147,000 depending on experience. But salary depends on the job and the pilot’s experience, says the SETP.
Education: If a company is going to let you fly the incredibly expensive new jet that could make or break their company’s fortunes, they’re going to expect you to be educated. Many pilots get into being a test pilot after spending time in the military as an officer or commander and then an active fighter pilot. You need at least a college degree, preferably in a subject like engineering, and then you need to spend at least a year at a private or a military test pilot school, said Mr. Flynn. He has a bachelor in mechanical engineering from Royal Military College, a master in mechanical engineering, a master of aerospace engineering and an MBA. Then he spent a year at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, based in Patuxent River, MD.
There are a number of private test pilot schools, including ones in the U.S., England, France, Brazil and Canada, says the SETP. But it’s not cheap to attend a private test pilot school. Courses at the National Test Pilot School in Mojave, Calif. range from $170,000 (U.S.) to $915,000.
Role: You test new fighter jets that are on the cutting edge of aerospace technology. “Everything I do in the air is new and undiscovered,” says Mr. Flynn. But first, you spend hundreds of hours testing everything that a new plane can do in a flight simulator.
By the numbers: There are less than 10 F35 fighter jet test pilots around the world, but about 2,500 test pilots globally, testing jets of all types. Many belong to the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
Job prospects: Good, especially if you’re Canadian. Mr. Flynn says there’s a large percentage of Canadian test pilots working around the globe for the big jet makers. Many get their start in the Canadian Air Force or Canadian Armed Forces.
Challenges: You’ve got to be comfortable taking risks, because accidents can happen, and they can be fatal. You have to be comfortable flying at twice the speed of sound, or at speeds ranging from 1,600 to nearly 2,000 kilometres per hour, flying at a height of 50,000 feet, about as high as a fighter jet can go, or only a few meters off the ground or water. And you have to be able to handle the pull of 9Gs. You need to be fit, able to keep your cool under pressure and a quick thinker.
Why they do it: “I have the coolest job on the face of the planet,” Mr. Flynn says.
Misconceptions: “We’re not adrenaline junkies,” says Mr. Flynn, nor does he wear 60s style aviator glasses and a cap, along with a bomber jacket and a scarf tossed stylishly over his shoulder. And he is not a “tough talking, swaggering” pilot. Before any test flight, pilots spend hundreds of hours in flight simulators practicing for any potential event that might occur – both good and bad – so they are fully prepared when they finally step into that new jet. “You take all the risk out as best you can,” he says.
Give us the scoop: Are you a test pilot? Write a note in the comments area of this story or e-mail your comment to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you would tell others who are interested in the profession.
Want to read more stories from our Salaries Series? Find more here.