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An Air Force flight test is a process by which a military organization conducts experimental flights to ensure the design and systems of an aircraft are functioning. In practice, an Air Force flight test is designed to figure out the limitations and possibilities of a piece of equipment. Since the beginning of the Cold War, the importance of Air Force flight tests has enabled an increase in aviation technology as well as breaking many world speed records.
In the United States, the Air Force Flight Test Center is the base operation which conducts the organization's military flight test operations. It is headquartered at Edwards Air Force Base and divided into two segments: the 95th Air Base Wing and the 412th Test Wing. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also maintains a strong presence involved with the Air Force Flight Test Center, operating the Dryden Flight Research Center. Together, the US Air Force and NASA work to develop a variety of aircraft.
Many other nations sponsor flight tests for military squadrons as well. In the United Kingdom, the Defense Research Agency operates the majority of test flights at its headquarters of Farnborough. Russia operates a variety of aircraft test bases, most notably its center near Moscow, the M.M. Gromov Flight Research Institute.
Some of the first full-scale Air Force flight test operations began at Muroc Army Air Base during the height of World War II. It began a top secret series of experiment known as the “X planes.” Over the next two decades, the center would develop many of the modern systems still used in military aircraft today.
Most notably in the achievements of US flight tests was the X-15, a vehicle that set the first records for both speed and altitude. According to the US accepted definition of space, Major Bob White became the first person to pilot an aircraft into space. On 17 July 1962, he achieved an altitude of 314,750 feet (about 95,936 m). It was beat on 3 October 1967 by Pete Knight, who also set the record for speed with Mach 6.72 (4,520 mph). Many of the pilots of the X-15 were chosen for the initial astronaut selection when NASA was created.
Conducting an Air Force flight test is a highly dangerous job. Since at least World War II, hundreds of pilots have died while conducting tests on experimental vehicles. Despite these losses, however, the technology that is used in fighter and bomber aircraft today can point to their sacrifices as the reason so few accidents occur in modern history. In addition, the successes of creating superior military aircraft has cut down on the need for vast amounts of pilots and vehicles that can be placed in dangerous environments such as combat.