The Empire Test Pilots’ School celebrates 70 years of successful flight test training

Today, the 70th anniversary, we take a look at the birth of The Empire Test Pilots’ School (ETPS), and follow-up in the coming weeks with further insights into the history of the school.

Flight test training can be traced as far back as the infancy of military flight. Just seven years after the demonstration of British Army Aeroplane No 1 (a bamboo and canvas bi-plane flown by Samuel Franklin Cody), an experimental flight centre was set up at the Central Flying School at Upavon Aerodrome, in the summer of 1915. The few experienced pilots who had not been sent to the Western Front, gathered with the sole purpose of assessing the qualities of new aircraft, their armament development and their suitability for operational flying.


1943 Course No1

1943 Course No1

In 1943, Air Marshal Sir Ralph Sorley, the controller of R&D in the UK, became increasingly concerned by the rising number of fatalities in test flying and a lack of standardisation of flying techniques. As a consequence, the Empire Test Pilots’ School (ETPS) at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, was formed to train test pilots in the art of experimental flight. It was one of a series of RAF ‘Empire Schools’, including the Empire Central Flying School, Empire Air Navigation School, Empire Air Armament School and Empire Radio School; ETPS is the only one still active.

In 1945 the School’s second Commanding Officer (Gp Capt J F X McKenna AFC) was killed piloting a Mustang from Boscombe Down. The aircraft suffered major structural failure; this tragic accident is a clear indicator of the inherent risks associated with test flying. The CO’s memory is perpetuated through the annual award of the McKenna Trophy to the best student at their graduation McKenna Dinner.

In December 1949 the School was presented with its Armorial Bearings, with the motto “Learn to Test – Test to Learn” suggested by G. Maclaren Humphreys – a civilian Technical Officer at A&AEE.

By 1963, the growing military importance of helicopters led to the introduction of the Rotary-Wing Course. Similarly, recognising the expanding importance of the link between the flight test pilot and the designer in modern aircraft, the School added a Flight Test Engineers’ (FTE) Course in 1974.

Over the years, QinetiQ’s ETPS has set a world-class standard, which others strive to emulate. Former graduates have formed the nucleus of three similar schools set up elsewhere – two in the US and one in France. Cooperation between these establishments continues today, with the constant aim of improving standards within the flight test profession.


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