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A test pilot is a pilot who flies experimental aircraft and aircraft under development, carefully documenting the flight experience to provide feedback for the engineers working on the aircraft. Working as a test pilot requires a great deal of experience, a high level of skill, and the ability to precisely follow test plans and report on their outcome. While test pilots are often viewed as daredevils by the general public, they are actually very methodical, safety-conscious, and deliberate, since a simple mistake can be very dangerous in a new aircraft.
This profession has its origins in First World War-era Britain, when companies working on military aircraft needed pilots to test them. Well through the Second World War, most test pilots were thrill-seekers, since aircraft technology in general was so new that flying experimental aircraft was viewed as a pursuit for the insane. As aircraft became more refined, however, a different type of test pilot evolved, and militaries and private companies began looking for more responsible men and women to test their aircraft.
When a test pilot is given an assignment, he or she is given a precise test plan. The test plan dictates a series of maneuvers which the plane must be taken through, and often includes a series of questions which the pilot is supposed to respond to. The pilot is usually taped during the flight, and readings on the aircraft's monitors are also recorded.
Test pilots usually take the time to acquaint themselves thoroughly with the aircraft they are testing while they are still on the ground, and they remain vigilant in the air to any signs that the plane may be developing a problem. The judgment of test pilots is a critical factor: pilots may take planes down if they feel unsafe, for example, or opt out of a maneuver which the plane does not appear equipped for.
Some notable test pilots include: Chuck Yeager, Fritz Wendel, Neil Armstrong, Roland Beamont, and John Lankester Parker. Test piloting isn't limited to men: Hanna Reitsh, Hitler's personal pilot, was also a test pilot who worked for the Luftwaffe testing aircraft in the Second World War. Because many test pilots have previous military experience and many militaries restrict the opportunities available to women, test pilots are commonly men, but this isn't always the case.
You might make a good test pilot if you are capable of handling massive amounts of sensory input, chaotic situations, and very rigid, controlled job environments. Working as a test pilot can certainly be interesting, and there is fun to be had on the job, but test pilots must be able to follow directions precisely and respond immediately to issues with their aircraft. The work of test pilots contributes directly to the development of all kinds of aircraft, from experimental military bombers to the commercial aircraft which criss-cross the globe with passengers and freight every day.