Washington Post correspondent Wilson (Mud Soldiers, 1989) offers a vivid, wide-ranging account of how and why America's Navy trains its test pilots. To gain firsthand knowledge of his subject, the aging author (a Navy veteran of WW II and Korea) stayed an 11-month course with the hundredth class to pass through the Navy's Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland. Having flown with the base's demanding instructors and spent upwards of 20 hours per week in lecture halls, Wilson has substantive points to make on the rigorous TPS curriculum and the 34 superbly qualified trainees he observed taking it in. While his interim shipmates included civilian engineers, a couple of women, and officers from three foreign countries as well as other branches of the military, Wilson resists the temptation to engage in slice-of-life journalism. Opting instead for a wide-angle agenda, he provides background on the development of naval aviation, Pax River, and programs designed to determine whether state-of-the-art aircraft and weapons live up to their contract specifications. Covered as well are the carrier trials of a new plane, plus the griefs of mishaps (the USN euphemism for fatal accidents) and the resultant boards of inquiry. Wilson's most valuable contribution, though, is his understated briefing on weak links in the procurement chain that allow senior officials and manufacturers to override or ignore the objections of TPS grads to the performance of systems to which the Navy has committed. In an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets, he argues, neither the US nor its naval forces can afford such deficiencies. An engrossing, close-up fix on the US Navy's TPS and its place in our national defense.
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