Flight test at Edwards normally consists of squadrons taking an aircraft from the developmental test phase and preparing it for its operational test phase at another base.
For members with the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, a tenant unit assigned here under the Air Combat Command, the squadron is ramping up to become ACC’s first operational test unit to begin initial operational testing on the F-35 at Edwards.
“The 31st TES has been assigned to Edwards for a long time as a tenant unit doing ACC operational test. Prior to the stand up for the incoming F-35s, the squadron has traditionally had the mission of executing early influence in developmental test by taking ACC operators and placing them in bomber and unmanned aircraft systems squadrons in recent years,” said Lt. Col. Brian O’Neill, 31st TES director of operations. “With that operational test precedent set by our unit at Edwards we were selected to be part of the F-35 build-up, so we basically started building up manpower since 2010 for this upcoming test.”
As with any aircraft, the F-35 initially goes through its developmental testing at Edwards, which in this case involves the 461st Flight Test Squadron conducting tests to support the development and demonstration of the F-35 and its operational capabilities as early as possible in the acquisition life cycle.
O’Neill said the squadron’s goal is to complete the initial operational test and evaluation of the F-35, which will lead to the fielding of the first true combat-capable software and hardware versions of the F-35.
“With developmental test, testers ensure the airplane works the way it’s supposed to from a function’s perspective. Initial operational test straddles that line with what most people would traditionally think operational test is as a whole,” added O’Neill. “We anticipate that combat air forces will use the airplane in these missions. Our job is to evaluate and verify if [the aircraft] is suitable and effective in these missions and how well it performs in these missions. Based on the nature of the program, we’re all going to be figuring out what does and doesn’t work collectively.”
With the squadron preparing to add F-35 testing to its current operations involving B-1, B-2, B-52, RQ-4 and MQ-9 aircraft, O’Neill said the squadron is rapidly growing from its original compliment of 110 people to approximately 280 personnel. As members of the Joint Operational Test Team, Airmen from the 31st TES will work alongside pilots, maintainers and engineers from the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, United Kingdom, and multiple partner-nations.
“Compared to the other bases where ACC does operational fighter test like at Nellis [AFB, Nev.] or Eglin [AFB, Fla.], this stand up will be different because the F-35 is a joint and multi-national coalition aircraft,” said O’Neill. “At certain points, we will train alongside with our coalition partners as well as our joint partners. We will leverage a lot of the commonalities and efficiencies of the program and the aircraft’s operational capabilities will be the same for everyone as well.”
Prior to executing formal operational test, O’Neill said the 31st would be emulating what that test looks like with the help of its DT counterpart so that they can build their expertise and be ready to test when the time comes.
“We conceptually intend to share as much as it makes sense and helps both units to leverage as much commonality between DT and OT, so both squadrons can trim the excess of any overlap,” stated O’Neill. “The day-to-day interactions with the DT pilots, allows us to give input on topics that will be of valuable to the overall development of the F-35 once we begin testing.”
In conjunction with the 31st being ACC’s first F-35 operational test squadron; the unit will also employ the use of the newest Autonomic Logistics Information System, according to O’Neill.
“The employment of ALIS is truly an asset to the F-35 program,” O’Neill said. “ALIS incorporates a multitude of mission planning features for the aircraft, to include the tracking of current and upcoming maintenance functions, aircraft status, aircraft location and many more functions, so the visibility between operators and maintainers will be very widespread.”
Once the F-35s arrive at Edwards, the 31st will be closely followed by the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nev., who will also be receiving F-35s for operational testing.