February 2020, President's Message


To the Society,

I’m happy to say that I have a lot to report; we have released the brakes on several initiatives and I’ll let you know when they are airborne.

For now, here’s an update starting with my initiatives regarding test pilot ethics, lessons-learned, and the question “Just what is a Test Pilot?”

A few months ago we prepared a draft code of ethics that was revised and improved upon by a committee headed by Rogers Smith. The draft is in the final stages of review by the voting members of the Board of Directors and I hope to present the adopted version to the Society by the end of February. Your Board of Directors’ intent is to publish an SETP Code of Professional Ethics that captures the ethics lessons repeatedly learned by flight test professionals, and present them in a way that members may readily remind themselves—and others—of their ethical obligations as test pilots. 

We know that lessons-learned are easy to present but difficult to instill. This truth is depressingly apparent when symposium presenters regularly joke about “lessons re-learned.” Before written language, lessons-learned were passed by word-of-mouth and very limited in scope and complexity; stories like “Aesop’s Fables” can only take you so far. Written language changed everything, including how lessons were learned. Even in the information age, when more than 90% of bandwidth is dedicated to video and music streaming, search engines almost exclusively rely on text. If you want your lessons to be applied you need to write them down or—better yet—institutionalize them by changing the rules at the right level. With this in mind, one of the bullets from the draft Code of Professional Ethics is “Incorporate lessons-learned into future practice, and share them when appropriate.”

At my request, Greg Lewis has put together a team to look at finding ways to durably learn lessons. You can expect a change to the qualifications for the Tenhoff award and the way submitted papers are graded that will likely affect other awards in the future. We are also looking at ways to capture peer-reviewed lessons in a more organized fashion than a lessons-learned database.  For now, I believe we need to put the emphasis on institutionalization of lessons-learned at the appropriate organizational level and on ensuring that they may be found by researchers on our website.

If you read the Call for Papers for the Annual Symposium, you probably noticed that submission of a manuscript for publication will be required for Ray E. Tenhoff Award eligibility. (According to our Constitution, the Tenhoff is awarded for the “best all around presentation of a paper.”) In this respect we are returning to the recent past when manuscripts were submitted for 80% or more of the Annual Symposium presentations—a number that nose-dived to less than 10% in the decade since we stopped publishing The Proceedings. With full-text search capability now available on the SETP website, written manuscripts will be much more likely to be found by fellow members conducting research. There is some concern that this requirement—again, only for Tenhoff Award eligibility—will significantly reduce submissions. I believe that it will enhance the overall quality of our submissions and the actual value of the presentations.

Although effectively sharing lessons-learned at symposia is important, it is crucial that we strive to incorporate them into future practice. A lesson-learned is the result of a deficiency in knowledge—whether personal or organizational. If you find a deficiency during flight test, the best way to correct it is to fix the system and eliminate the deficiency. The worst way to correct it is to warn end-users with a briefing. We must strive to correct organizational deficiencies by correcting the system at the appropriate level, not just passing the existence of the deficiency on to fellow test pilots with a paper or presentation. I hope that in future symposia we’ll hear more about how lessons-learned were institutionalized—and can be institutionalized—and not just about how they were learned.

We currently define “Test Pilot” with the membership criteria expressed in our Constitution and guided by the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) approved over the years by the Board of Directors. The design space provided by the Constitution is surprisingly large, with much of our assumed membership requirements actually residing in the SOPs. For instance, the “12 counter rule” is an SOP requirement meant to meet the constitutional mandate that Members have “not less than one year in experimental or developmental flight testing.” At this point, all of our work has been discussing options and interpretations to allow reasonable changes within the requirements of the Constitution. Hopefully I’ll have more news in the months to come.

To all of you, thank you so much for your mentorship, your fellowship, your inspiration, and your trust. I am committed to making the most of this year by improving our Society in substantial ways, but the Society of Experimental Test Pilots is what it is because of the membership and what we all do! Please stay active and involved and help us grow into the future.


“Evil” Bill Gray (F)
SETP President