Since humans learned to fly, it’s gone from being an insane stunt to something anybody can do with a little bit of training. As one pilot explains, you can get a Private Pilot’s license in about 70 hours of time on a plane and another 210 of studying, review, and planning. Most people get their license somewhere between six and eight months after they start… which is awhile, true, but not that long for a hobby.
Flying experimental planes is not like flying a mass-produced aircraft, and an experimental pilot needs a particular set of skills. Here are the five things people tend to forget about experimental pilots.
#1: Conducting Research
Many experimental pilots research aircraft by flying planes with specific design elements, techniques for operation, or specific uses. For example, a weather-research plane may have a unique radar installation and customized control panel, while a firefighting plane may carry unusual dispensers for fire retardant.
Neither of these can just fly out and be used, though – thorough testing needs to be done to ensure that the ideas are as safe and viable as possible. For example, that special radar might interfere with military operations, while firefighting equipment might be prone to breaking apart and cutting holes in the plane.
No matter how good an idea for planes is, it needs to be tested before the FAA will accept it for wider use, and that’s where an experimental pilot comes in. These pilots often receive special training with the parts being installed on their planes, allowing them to safely research anything they (or their sponsor) wants to examine.
In many cases, this research can’t be done on standard aircraft, so working with experimental aircraft is the only way these ideas can be tested. To put it another way, some experimental pilots risk their safety to gather useful information for the future of aviation, and that’s why it takes special care.
#2: Crew Training
Getting new parts and options for airplanes is good, but it doesn’t help if the only person qualified to use things is a private pilot doing it because they want to. Don’t get me wrong, here – their love and dedication are amazing, and it makes a huge difference. Still, books can only take you so far, and there may not be many planes with a specific testing element during its early years.
This is where crew training comes in. Over the course of the experimental phase – however long that ends up being – pilots can begin training others on the practical use of a system. In many cases, this involves the student flying as a passenger, but it may go as far as having people test the system while flying solo to learn how quickly they can figure it out with no prior knowledge.
An experimental pilot may also be asked to help create training materials ranging from buyer’s guides to best practice manuals. No matter how something is intended to be used by the designers, there’s no substitute for real, first-hand experience with experimental elements.
Designers may go through several iterations of an idea, with dozens of hours of testing and hundreds more in a lab, before even submitting a device for wider consideration. From the very first iteration, the experimental pilot is often the one providing guidance and expertise that companies otherwise lack.
Every company wants to show their plane at its best. Whether that’s proving the capabilities of the plane in question, using it to perform certain tasks, or flying it for television shows, movies, or air shows, the experimental pilot is there to show off everything the plane can do.
It’s important to note that this isn’t quite the same as being a stunt pilot. While they’re similar, a pilot program focused on experimental planes tends to emphasize practical matters like stability, flying in reference to a specific point, and demonstrating capabilities instead of showing them off. (One is about impressing crowds, the other is to provide real-world verification of design specifications.)
Exhibitions are one of the most important aspects of experimental planes. At the popular level, showing off planes helps to maintain interest in the industry and encourage other people to become pilots. In turn, this supports the research and development that ultimately leads to safer and more capable planes.
Experimental pilots aren’t limited to planes, either. Many also study helicopters, gyroplanes, powered hang gliders, powered parachutes, and even amphibious vehicles. Each of these comes with their own set of unique learning requirements, and experimental pilots are excellently positioned to learn the systems and show them off when exhibitions are necessary.
On a less obvious level, exhibitions help to verify that each part of a plane performs as intended. Sooner or later, every new part needs to be taken up in a human-controlled aircraft for the first time, and everyone wants to be sure it functions as intended. This includes everything from checking its drag to seeing how it performs at the low temperatures of the upper atmosphere.
Some parts don’t pass the test – and that’s a good thing. Manufacturers don’t want to spend more time and money on development than they have to, and being motivated to make things correctly the first time is good for the industry as a whole.
After all, this isn’t like flying a kite – if something breaks, the pilot (and any passengers) could die.
#4: Market Surveys
“What is a pilot study good for,” you ask? When it comes to experimentals, the pilot meaning includes something few people realize at first – market research and surveys. Aside from general aviation surveys (so the FAA knows what people are flying), market surveys are used to gather in-depth information on a variety of topics.
Several of these are critical to the functioning of the industry. Many pilots are judged on their flight hours – someone who has 10,000 hours in the air without a problem is going to be trusted more than someone who only has 100 hours. That’s just how it is. That said, you can see how there’s the potential for a problem if average flight times among pilots start dropping too low.
If that occurs, there’s a real loss of experience, and that can have a ripple effect on the broader aviation world. (The good part is that most pilots won’t give up their wings very easily. You don’t spend almost three hundred hours getting basic certification to give it up a week later.)
Similarly, market surveys provide critical information about trends and what potential customers are most interested in. For example, can you tell me off the top of your head if most pilots are more interested in performance or fuel efficiency in their engines? Most people can’t rattle that off, and even engine manufacturers don’t always know what people are interested in unless they come out and ask.
The parts being tested now are the standard equipment of the coming decades – in a very real way, every pilot program focused on experimentals (and the pilots who fly them) helps determine the future of aviation.
#5: Demonstrating Compliance
Finally, after all of this, experimental pilots are critical for demonstrating compliance with wider airworthiness regulations… or providing a good case for changing the regulations. That’s rarely a fast process, but it’s usually an option. Technology marches on, after all, but this may be the most important reason experimental aircraft are issued a special airworthiness certificate at all.
In order to fly, you need the certificate – but it’s hard to demonstrate a craft is safe unless you fly it. The catch-22 here is avoided by the FAA’s special certificates, which allow flying non-standard planes (such as most kit-built craft) that have yet to show compliance with the normal guidelines for that type of plane.
This is a point that many people don’t realize: It’s not enough for an experimental part to work. It has to work to broader airworthiness standards.
As part of this, certification requirements help discourage a ‘race to the bottom’ approach where manufacturers would be competing to meet minimum regulations instead of pushing to excel in each field.
Remember, most aircraft are worth tens of thousands of dollars (or more!), and a single major incident could drive discerning pilots away. Planes have to be more than good enough, and experimental pilots help prove they’re everything the manufacturers claim.
Some experimental pilots don’t want to get deep into surveys or writing technical manuals for others to follow – they just want to fly an experimental plane. That’s perfectly fine. The point to understand is this: Consider how you want to fly, then find a pilot program that matches your pilot meaning. That’s the only way you’ll truly enjoy yourself.
Don’t be afraid to talk to more experienced pilots and seek their input on your piloting goals. They can give you personalized advice from, in many cases, their thousands of hours of experience – and there’s no substitute for that.