Test flying as a systematic activity started during the First World War, at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in the United Kingdom. An "Experimental Flight" was formed at the Central Flying School. During the 1920s, test flying was further developed by the RAE in the UK, and by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in the United States. In the 1950s, NACA was transformed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. During these years, as work was done into aircraft stability and handling qualities, test flying evolved towards a more qualitative scientific profession. In the 1950s, test pilots were being killed at the rate of about one a week, but the risks have shrunk to a fraction of that because of the maturation of aircraft technology, better ground-testing and simulation of aircraft performance, fly-by-wire technology and, lately, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to test experimental aircraft features. Still, piloting experimental aircraft remains more dangerous than most other types of flying.
The world's oldest test pilot school is what is now called the Empire Test Pilots' School (motto "Learn to Test - Test to Learn"), at RAF Boscombe Down in the UK. There are a number of similar establishments over the world. In America, the United States Air Force Test Pilot School is located at Edwards Air Force Base, the United States Naval Test Pilot School is located at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland and EPNER (Ecole du Personnel Navigant d'Essai et de Reception - "School for flight test and acceptance personnel"), the French test pilot school, is located in Istres, France. There are only two civilian schools; the International Test Pilots School in London, Ontario, and the National Test Pilot School, a not-for-profit educational institute is in Mojave, California. In Russia, there is a Russian aviation industry Fedotov Test Pilot School (founded 1947) located in Zhukovsky within the Gromov Flight Research Institute.
Test pilots can be experimental and engineering test pilots (investigating the characteristics of new types of aircraft during development) or production test pilots (the more mundane role of confirming the characteristics of new aircraft as they come off the production line). Many test pilots would perform both roles during their careers. Modern test pilots often receive formal training from highly-selective military test pilot schools, but other test pilots receive training and experience from civilian institutions and/or manufacturers' test pilot development programs.