The history of U.S. Air Force flight test is inextricably linked with the history of Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert.
In fact, almost every airframe that has been part of the U.S. Air Force inventory was tested at Edwards.
And while some may consider the ‘glory days’ of Air Force flight test — the days of the Bell X-1, or the XB-70 Valkyrie — nothing could be further from the truth. The fact remains that Edwards is the premier flight test center in the world and continues to test aircraft to this day. From the newest fighter, the F-35 Lightning II to the F-15 Eagle, and from the KC-46 Tanker to the B-52, Edwards continues to test aircraft and aircraft upgrades that will benefit the war fighters of today and tomorrow.
The 412th Test Wing is the host wing at Edwards and is responsible for all aspects of Air Force flight testing on base.
The wing oversees base day-to-day operations and provides support for over 10,000 military, federal civilian and contract personnel assigned to a 481-square mile installation.
Additionally, the wing plans, conducts, analyzes, and reports on all flight and ground testing of aircraft, weapons systems, software and components as well as modeling and simulation for the U.S. Air Force. There are three core components for this mission: flying operations, maintenance and engineering.
Innovation is word that describes what happens at Edwards on a daily basis, and during a recent commander’s civilian call, Brig. Gen. Carl Schaefer, 412th Test Wing commander, stressed innovation.
“We are willing to risk failure in innovation,” he said, “but we will not risk failure in our mission.”
“It’s about staying one step ahead of the enemy. That’s what Edwards is all about — having that next innovative idea that helps us either with combat capability or the things that support combat capability for our country. If any place should be innovating, I think it should be Edwards.”
Some highlights from the past 12 months at Edwards include:
HH-60G Pave Hawk — From Jan. 5-22, an Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk was at Edwards testing the ballistic dispersion of a GAU-21 .50 caliber machine gun.
The 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and the 412th Test Wing, partnered up to provide the 413th Flight Test Squadron, Detachment 1 from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., a location for their test team to accomplish baseline ballistics testing. That location is Edwards AFB’s Gun Harmonizing Range.
The testing was part of the Air Combat Command’s “HH-60 Defensive Weapons System Upgrade” modification proposal.
The modification proposal required the new weapon to be an open bolt system, have a longer barrel life, a higher cyclic rate of fire, be lighter weight and have reduced recoil. The selected weapon must also be used currently by other Department of Defense services.
F-35 Lightning II
Edwards personnel continued flight testing the Air Force’s newest fighter jet throughout the year, including deployments to Idaho, Washington State and the Netherlands.
On Jan. 12, an Edwards F35 launched an AIM-9X for the first time over the Pacific Sea Test Range. The AIM-9X is an advanced infrared missile and the newest of the Sidewinder family of short-range air-to-air missiles carried on a wide range of fighter jets.
On Feb. 9, the 412th Logistics Readiness Squadron “deployed” 81 personnel from the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho.
The troops will be involved in a month-long test mission. A day earlier, six F-35s from the 31st TES took off and landed at the Idaho base.
This is the first simulated deployment test of the Joint Strike Fighter, specifically to execute three key initial operational capability mission sets. The 31st TES will execute these in a limited scope from a “deployed” location, which is Mountain Home.
On March 10, a Royal Netherlands Air Force KDC-10 tanker refueled an RNLAF F-35 over Edwards. The test was to certify the KDC-10s ability to refuel the Dutch F-35s, currently undergoing testing at Edwards.
On April 28, the Edwards flightline again saw an MV-22B Osprey (U.S. Marine Corps) from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. This was the first time since 2007 that Edwards had seen an Osprey in the skies on a regular basis.
The Osprey, assigned to Marine Operational Test & Evaluation Squadron 22, was at Edwards to test the Osprey’s ability or refuel the Marine Corps version of the F-35. VMX 22 has a detachment at Edwards supporting JSF testing.
VMX-22 has a detachment here where Marines are testing and evaluating their version of the JSF, which is the short take-off and vertical landing variant.
“The test was to validate ground refueling from an MV-22 to an F-35B, which is integral to the construct of the Marine Air Ground Task Force,” said USMC Maj. Adam Geitner, pilot and VMX-22 F-35 Detachment Aircraft Maintenance officer.
Tailhook testing: When most people hear “tailhook” they think of U.S. Navy planes and aircraft carriers. However, almost all U.S. combat aircraft have a tailhook.
That also goes for the Air Force’s new F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.
The JSF Integrated Test Force at Edwards conducted a series of tests for the F-35As tailhook beginning in May and continuing through the summer. F-35s have landed using a tailhook before, but not at the speeds and weights being tested now.
By nature, Navy aircraft need tailhooks to catch arresting wires on aircraft carriers. The Navy’s version of the JSF — the F-35C — has a significantly more robust tailhook that is designed differently for Navy purposes.
On Air Force planes tailhooks are only used to help the jet stop when landing distance is insufficient or if the jet has a brake malfunction or directional control issue. They are designed as a one-time use device whereas Navy tailhooks like on the F-35C can deploy, retract and stow.
The initial testing included powering the F-35A at 180 knots over the ground; about 200 miles an hour.
As high speed cameras record, AF-04 from the 461st FLTS speeds down the runway. Engineers plan the time to deploy the tailhook, and when the time comes, the test pilot deploys the hook to catch an arresting cable in place to safely stop the fighter. Data is collected and the video footage is reviewed.
AF-04 had several successful engagements with the tailhook and arresting cable, which will clear the path for additional tests coming up.
On May 21, two Dutch F-35As took off from Edwards heading for Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. The two Dutch F-35As took off from Edwards May 21 and landed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. After fueling up and running some checks, the jets launched over the Atlantic followed by two RNLAF KDC-10 aerial refuelers and a NATO C-17 carrying gear and spare parts. The planes landed at Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands, which is one of two bases that will be home to the RNLAF’s F-35s when they arrive permanently in 2019.
The RNLAF plans to replace its legacy F-16A/B fleet with a minimum of 37 F-35s, split between two bases.
The deployment is expected to last three weeks, then the jets will return to Edwards to continue operational test and evaluation.
On July 28, the F-35 Lightning II advanced its combat capability by launching an air-to-air missile and directly hitting a drone over a military test range off the California coast.
U.S. Air Force test pilot, Maj. Raven LeClair, employed an AIM-9X missile from an F-35As external wing against an aerial drone target in restricted military sea test range airspace. Test data and observers confirmed the F-35 identified and targeted the drone with its mission systems sensors, passed the target ‘track’ information to the missile, enabled the pilot to verify targeting information using the high off-boresight capability of the helmet mounted display (HMD) and launched the AIM-9X from the aircraft to engage the target drone. After launch, the missile successfully acquired the target and followed an intercept flight profile before destroying the drone, achieving the first F-35 Air-to-Air kill or “Boola Boola,” which is the traditional radio call made when a pilot shoots down a drone.
Immediately prior to launching the AIM-9X, LeClair employed an internally carried AIM-120C missile against another target drone. This target was beyond visual range and the AIM-120C was given a successful self-destruct signal right before target impact.
In August, and after years of preparation, the 461st Flight Test Squadron and Joint Strike Fighter Integrated Test Force tested the F-35 Lightning IIs ability to be decontaminated from chemical and biological weapons exposure.
Contractors, Airmen and Air Force civilians worked tirelessly in the High Desert heat to finalize the construction of a decontamination system and facility on the flightline to house and decontaminate an F-35A.
This was the first time an F-35 had been decontaminated. The test showed DOD and joint-partner nations that the F-35 has met the F-35 Joint Program Office’s requirements for decontamination and certify the weapon system to go into full-rate production. The effort is to demonstrate the fifth-generation fighter’s survivability can be maintained if exposed to such threats around the world.
August 17 — The F-35 Integrated Test Force completed 25 missions comprised of 12 Weapons Delivery Accuracy and 13 weapon separation tests as part of a month-long weapons firing test surge.
Historically, WDAs take place once a month given the myriad of coordination required. The highest number previously accomplished in a month was three in November of 2014 during block 2B software testing.
Maj. Charles Trickey, interim director of operations for the 461st Flight Test Squadron, flew the final mission of the surge Aug. 17. The mission was completed at White Sands, where the F-35s shot two AMRAAMS at a QF-4 Drone.
“Some of these WDAs were particularly challenging events,” Trickey said. He said the final mission was actually the fourth attempt to complete this test.
“It was really cool to see the satisfaction of the team, and to get that feeling of accomplishment after doing something that challenging.”
All told, the ITF deployed 30 weapons in 31 days, which included 12 WDAs, and 13 separations, according to Trickey.
“30 separations in 31 days; that’s never been done before in flight test,” said Capt. Brett Tillman, a flight test engineer with the 461st. “The fact that we could get everything together to do that number of separations in that few days is pretty amazing.”
These successful test events — performed using the F-35’s newest block 3F software — demonstrated the accuracy of the aircraft. Five of the test events featured dropping multiple weapons.
Aug. 9-Sept. 1 — Three F-35B aircraft and 75 U.S. Marines from Marine Operational Test & Evaluation Squadron Detachment 1 at Edwards Air Force Base along with 21 test personnel from the JSF Operational Test Team at Edwards deployed to Eglin AFB, Fla., to complete Operational Test missile shots of the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile.
In December, all three variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter were used by the 461st Flight Test Squadron for multi-ship testing, which employed four or six jets to ensure communication systems between the planes are working properly and accurately.
The F-35 contains state-of-the-art tactical data links that provide the secure sharing of data among its flight members as well as other airborne, surface and ground-based platforms required to perform assigned missions.
“One of the primary reasons we do multi-ship testing is to ensure data is shared appropriately between aircraft in order to maximize lethality and survivability,” said Maj. Raven LeClair, 461 FLTS, F-35 test pilot. “The F-35 uses [Multifunction Advanced Data Link] to share information on air and ground threats in order to more effectively target. This is especially applicable to one of the F-35’s primary missions — finding and killing advanced surface-to-air missile systems.”
The MADL is a high-data-rate, directional communications link that allows secure transmission of coordinated tactics and engagement for the fifth-generation fighter when operating in high-threat environments.
LeClair said his squadron is specifically testing the ability to find SAM systems using a capability called Enhanced Geo Location.
F-22 Raptors come home
Just after the turn of the century, it wasn’t unusual to see seven F-22A Raptors parked around the 411th Flight Test Squadron compound during the fighter’s early developmental test and evaluation days.
Today, the 411th and F-22 Combined Test Force has just four of the fifth-generation fighters left — including one in the hangar undergoing maintenance — to conduct testing to continually improve the Raptor fleet’s combat and long-term capabilities.
For a few weeks in September, however, Edwards AFB’s Raptors have been joined by four operational F-22s for testing. The jets are from Langley Air Force Base, Va,; Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.; and Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. The planes are accompanied by pilots and maintenance crews from their respective bases.
Lt. Col. Randel Gordon, F-22 CTF director and 411th FLTS commander, said operational F-22s from the Air Force come to Edwards for testing occasionally, but it is “highly unusual” to have eight total Raptors here, including the one being serviced in the 411th FLTS hangar.
The visit by the four operational jets prompted a unique photo opportunity for squadron workers, who were given the chance to take photos with seven planes in the background. The event marks a bittersweet occasion.
“This will be the last time we have this many jets ever in this compound,” said Gordon.
Whenever the Global Hawk begins a mission, it has to travel through a certain area of the atmosphere that, under certain conditions, can create ice on the aircraft, adding weight and aerodynamic drag.
A cloud deck from about 8,000 feet to 22,000 feet is the main concern for the Global Hawk, according to project engineer Jonny Kim, Global Vigilance Combined Test Force.
According to Maj. Ryan Finlayson, test pilot with the Global Vigilance CTF, the ice only forms for about five minutes on the way up, and again on the way down through this cloud deck.
To assure that these variables will not negatively impact the Global Hawk’s role, members of the Global Vigilance Combined Test Force at Edwards are testing the aircraft in a unique way.
Rather than wait for the right weather conditions, the formation of the cloud deck, technology was used to design 3-D printed nylon attachments to mimic the ice that would form on the aircraft during ascent and descent.
“This was a first-of-type testing done here at Edwards. No other program or CTF has accomplished icing testing in this manner,” said Lt. Col. Cory Naddy, director of the Global Vigilance CTF. He said the combination of the testing techniques and the fact that this is an autonomous unmanned air vehicle made the testing high risk by wing standards, and required significant effort behind the scenes in the CTF.
The KC-46 Tanker Program reached a major milestone Jan. 24, when it successfully demonstrated its first-ever aerial refueling contact and fuel transfer with an F-16C from Edwards Air Force Base.
The flight was the first in a block of testing out of Boeing Field in Seattle, Wash., using the boom system.
The Pegasus passed 1,600 pounds of fuel to an F-16 piloted by Lt. Col. Daniel Alix, 416st Flight Test Squadron, who characterized the mission as a complete success.
The KC-46A is currently scheduled to arrive at Edwards AFB in early 2017 to continue aerial refueling certifications and simulator data collection.
In the meantime, 412th Test Wing personnel and assets have been hard at work in Washington. An instrumented C-17 Globemaster III from Edwards is also one of the six total aircraft required to receive fuel in flight in support of the KC-46 Program’s upcoming Milestone (MS) C Low Rate Initial Production decision.
The test was a joint effort between Boeing and Edwards AFB personnel with a 412th TW pilot in the cockpit of the instrumented F-16C. Inside the KC-46A, along with the Boeing Test and Evaluation team, were 418th Flight Test Squadron pilots, boom operators and flight test engineers, as well as discipline engineers from the 418th FLTS. An additional Edwards AFB F-16D served as a chase plane for safety and test support.
On Feb. 10, A U.S. Air Force and Boeing aircrew aboard the KC-46 tanker successfully refueled an F/A-18 fighter jet in flight.
The air refueling was the program’s first using the KC-46’s hose and drogue system. It took place in the skies over Washington state.
According to Boeing, the flight lasted more than four hours and the tanker’s air refueling operator successfully transferred fuel to the F/A-18 at 20,000 feet.
F/A-18s are flown by both the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
The KC-46 refueled an F-16 fighter from Edwards AFB using its air refueling boom Jan. 24.
On March 1, a U.S. Air Force and Boeing aircrew aboard the KC-46 Pegasus tanker successfully refueled a U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II in flight. It took place in the skies over Washington State.
The air refueling used the KC-46s hose and drogue system.
The KC-46A Pegasus connected in flight with an F-16 Fighting Falcon July 8 and a C-17 Globemaster III July 12.
These tests with the F-16 and C-17 were in support of the Milestone C requirements to rendezvous, contact, and transfer fuel to several receiver aircraft types.
An initial attempt with the F-16 earlier this year was successful, however higher-than-expected axial loads on the boom were detected. These loads were again present during the initial attempt with the C-17 and necessitated installation of hydraulic pressure relief valves in the boom.
This week’s successful tests show the boom axial loads hardware fix, designed by Boeing engineers, is performing as expected to alleviate the loads.
On July 15, the KC-46 Pegasus program completed all flight tests required for the Milestone C production decision by offloading 1,500 pounds of fuel to an A-10 Thunderbolt II.
The successful A-10 mission was the last of six in-flight refueling demonstrations required before the tanker program can request approval from Frank Kendall, the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, to award production Lots 1 and 2, totaling 19 KC-46A aircraft.
“It is great to see the KC-46 boom back in action and the program moving forward to a production decision” said Col. John Newberry, the KC-46 system program manager.
The other five required air refueling demonstrations were with the C-17 Globemaster III and F-16 Fighting Falcon using the air refueling boom, the Navy’s F-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier II using the centerline and wing drogue systems, and the KC-46 as a receiver aircraft.
By Jan. 1, 2017, the European Union is requiring all existing aircraft to have Traffic Collision Avoidance System version 7.1 installed on aircraft entering its airspace. TCAS monitors the airspace around a plane for other aircraft independent of air traffic control and warns pilots of the presence of other transponder-equipped aircraft, which may pose a midair collision situation.
TCAS is generally required on all aircraft larger than 12,500 pounds and/or on planes that carry more than 19 passengers.
The system is installed to prevent close calls and midair collisions by notifying pilots of approaching aircraft with attention signals and commands, both audio and visual. Pilots are notified with TAs and RAs – traffic advisories and resolution advisories. TAs are for situational awareness and RAs are instructions to the pilot on what maneuver to make.
About 30 testers led by the 418th Flight Test Squadron are working to test the upgraded TCAS 7.1 for the Air Force’s KC-135 Stratotanker fleet, which current uses TCAS 7.0 software.
The first air-to-air refueling from a Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport to a C-17A Globemaster III occurred Feb. 10.
The five-hour sortie was conducted by members of the RAAF’s Air Warfare Centre Aircraft Research and Development Unit, 86 Wing and the 418th Flight Test Squadron. During the sortie approximately seven tons of fuel was successfully transferred from the KC-30A Advanced Refueling Boom System to the Edwards C-17.
Air-to-air refueling of a C-17 significantly increases the aircraft’s range, making it capable of carrying heavy payloads further.
The tests with the C-17A are one part of the RAAF’s Air Warfare Centre’s Flight Test Program. The next steps are air to air refueling trials with the U.S. Air Force’s F-15 and F-16 fighters.
C-17 Globemaster III
Starting in March and continuing through the year, the 418th Flight Test Squadron conducted testing for the C-17 Drag Reduction Program.
The program involved collecting data on how airflow is affected (and thus fuel consumption) with different modifications done to a C-17. The modifications were scheduled for different phases using Vortex Control Technologies Finlets(TM) and Lockheed Martin microvanes and fairings. The ultimate goal is to see which, if any, modification reduces drag and thus, reduce fuel consumption.
Following extensive testing at Edwards, the Air Force fleet of F-15s will receive a wheel and brake upgrade.
The Air Force F-15 fleet of more than 500 aircraft benefit from F-15 Wheels and Brakes System Improvement program by saving $194 million in F-15 maintenance costs by increasing number of landings to 1,400 between brake changes, reducing chance of brake fires and improving the braking capability of the F-15 C/D and E aircraft.
Since Edwards does not have any F-15s, all parts and maintenance support had to come from organizations with F-15s. The project received support from the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center.
Canadian CC-130J Hercules
In June, for the first time ever, a Royal Canadian Air Force plane has entered the Benefield Anechoic Facility.
A team of engineers, operators and defense scientists from Canada, are wrapping up electronic warfare testing of an RCAF CC-130J Hercules transport plane.
Canada is updating its fleet of legacy CC-130H aircraft with the J model, which are the same as the U.S. Air Force C-130Js and used for tactical airlift of troops and supplies.
The team has conducted multiple tests in the past couple of weeks focusing on the ALR-56M radar warning receiver and its integration with the rest of the Defensive Electronic Warfare Suite and aircraft mission computer.
“The BAF is the closest thing to actually flying the aircraft in an RF threat environment. The chamber allows us to execute multiple test objectives in a controlled-repeatable manner and collect data to evaluate the radar warning receiver’s technical performance and effectiveness.” said Emil Poliakov, Canada Department of National Defense, radar warfare engineer.
The isolation from outside interferences enables testers to determine the electromagnetic compatibility of the CC-130J’s systems.
The B-1B Lancer came home to test in the Benefield Anechoic Facility.
Engineers and maintainers from Edwards teamed up with testers from around the Air Force to examine the B-1B’s ALQ-161 threat protection system with the goal of improving it to enhance the bomber’s survivability. The ALQ-161 is a receiver/transmitter that detects and identifies threat radio frequencies then applies the appropriate jamming technique to protect the B-1 while on missions.
“The ALQ-161 receives all of the radio frequency energy when it’s flying and will process it and determine if it’s a threat, and then it can set up automatic jamming to jam that RF energy from a missile, aircraft or ground missile,” said Rodney Brooks, 579th Software Maintenance Squadron, out of Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. “The 161 system has been on the B-1B since it was built and we’ve done a lot of improvements in the last 10 years. We’re looking to make some more improvements in the future and we need to collect data from the antennas here in the BAF so we can move forward.”
Data is being collected from directional signal testing, antenna pattern testing and system channel testing. The team is observing how the ALQ-161 responds to signals and what the system is looking at when it sees signals out in the field. The data will be analyzed to see if hardware, software, or both, need to be upgraded.
Team Edwards accomplished another first recently by executing a clean separation of three Joint Attack Surface Standoff Missiles, or JASSMs, from the internal weapons bay of a B-52 Stratofortress.
The aircraft has long been capable of carrying JASSMs on its wing pylons, but this is the first time they have been successfully released from Conventional Rotary Launcher in the internal bay.
“That was a first-ever for the B-52, and is also going to be another amazing enhancement in B-52 combat capability for Global Strike,” said Brig. Gen. Carl Schaefer, 412th Test Wing commander, who flew the F-16 photo chase plane for the JASSM mission. “I got to chase the first-ever JASSM drop from the internal weapons bay of the B-52. We dropped it right here on the range at Edwards.”
The venerable bomber could carry up to 12 JASSMs on its wing pylons, said Jose Estrada, a weapons integration engineer with the 775th Test Squadron. Integration of CRL in internal weapons bay adds a capability of carrying eight more missiles in the aircraft, increasing the B-52’s JASSM payload by more than 60 percent.
So you can see the legacy of flight test at Edwards is alive and well and shows no sign of ending any time soon.
Talking to wing civilians, Schaefer took time to thank the workers at the base.
“I just want to say thank you,” Schaefer said. “Thank you for giving everything for your country, for the things that you do day in and day out to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and to deliver war-winning combat capability to your nation.”
Editor’s note: Kenji Thuloweit, Chris Ball and Rebecca Amber contributed to this story.