AEDC captain is bound for Air Force Test Pilot School

In February, Capt. Chuck McNiel, an aeropropulsion test technology program lead with Arnold Engineering Development Center’s (AEDC) 649th Test Systems Squadron, showed Air Force Chief Scientist Dr. Werner Dahm the J85 engine being used to test instrumentation at the Propulsion Research Facility on the campus of UTSI. Captain McNiel is the first AEDC military member to be selected for Test Pilot School since Captain Carmen Evans left for the school in 2005. Captain McNiel’s class will have 10 pilots, 10 engineers and two navigators.  While at the school, he will fly in numerous trainer, fighter, bomber and other types of aircraft learning experimental test techniques in preparation for conducting flight tests on new and legacy Air Force aircraft. (Photo by David Housch)

In February, Capt. Chuck McNiel, an aeropropulsion test technology program lead with Arnold Engineering Development Center’s (AEDC) 649th Test Systems Squadron, showed Air Force Chief Scientist Dr. Werner Dahm the J85 engine being used to test instrumentation at the Propulsion Research Facility on the campus of UTSI. Captain McNiel is the first AEDC military member to be selected for Test Pilot School since Captain Carmen Evans left for the school in 2005. Captain McNiel’s class will have 10 pilots, 10 engineers and two navigators. While at the school, he will fly in numerous trainer, fighter, bomber and other types of aircraft learning experimental test techniques in preparation for conducting flight tests on new and legacy Air Force aircraft. (Photo by David Housch)

Capt. Chuck McNiel

Capt. Chuck McNiel

Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn. -- At 29, Capt. Chuck McNiel knows a lot about being a student, having spent much of his adult life as one. In 2007, he put his academically honed engineering skills to practical use as Arnold's aeropropulsion test technology program lead with the 649th Test Systems Squadron. 
He has enjoyed his time at Arnold, but Captain McNiel will leave Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) in June to attend the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School's (TSP) class 09B in July. Reflecting on his career so far, he never thought much about pursuing the school. 
"I'd always known about it, but I thought that's for other people, not for me," he said. "But then I started to discover more about my career field and how my career field has the opportunity to go and I said well, I want to do everything I can to be eligible, to be competitive for it." 
Close to seven years ago, Chuck and Julia McNiel was a recently married couple that was both in the midst of attending undergraduate studies at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. He met some Air Force representatives on campus and was interested in joining, but not enough to make the move at the time. 
By his senior year, Captain McNiel had made up his mind. 
"I thought that it was a really good opportunity to use my degree and have leadership experience and serve my country, which I thought about a lot, too," he said. "We've both loved it, every bit of it." 
When his coworkers ask Captain McNiel about what he has gotten from his tour at AEDC, he doesn't have to think hard for the answer. 
"I've really gotten a test and evaluation focus by being a manager of our test technology program here and focusing on engine tests," he said. "That and my first assignment with the Air Force Research Lab, Dayton, Ohio, have really given me a focus on testing. So, I got a lot more experience with test and evaluation and how you think about acquisitions from a test perspective." 
Before coming to AEDC, Captain McNiel earned his master's degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT). Education is not only important for officers who want to advance in their respective fields; it also serves a higher purpose for some. 
"I've always had the dream of becoming an astronaut," he said. "I think a lot of kids do, and on the Air Force ladder, test pilot school is a big step towards becoming competitive to be an astronaut. So, that was always the ultimate goal and something I've always dreamed about, but the chances are so slim. Doing something like test pilot school makes you more competitive to become an astronaut, but I'm going to have a great career anyway, whether or not I ever become an astronaut." 
Captain McNiel acknowledged having some mixed feelings about the heavy academic regimen. 
"I finished my masters in 2007 and that was a full-time assignment there at AFIT," he said. "At that point I thought, I want to get away from school for a while because I'd been in school for seven and a half out of 10 years. So, I thought I'd like to do something else for a while. And test pilot school really is a curriculum-based assignment as well. So, it really is school and now they do actually confer a degree - as of just last year, when you graduate from test pilot school you're also given a masters in flight test engineering." 
Capt. Rod Koch, 650th Test Systems Squadron deputy, had praise for his friend and coworker. "Chuck is the rare person who is driven yet humble," he said. "[He] is able to see a goal and move toward it without sacrificing others or his values in the process. To that end he knows his strengths and has found a path, through test pilot school, towards meeting his ultimate goal." 
Captain Koch said being accepted into test pilot school puts Captain McNiel in a good position career wise. 
"Frankly, it puts him at another level," said Captain McNiel's peer. "Most of the senior acquisition leaders across the Air Force have distinguished themselves from their peers. TPS is one of only a few ways to do this in acquisitions. It is confirmation of what, those of us who know Chuck, we knew he deserved and is destined for in service to the Air Force."