In an environment where flight test is synonymous with the words Edwards Air Force Base, aircraft aren’t the only components being tested on a continued basis.
Thanks to a team under the 418th Flight Test Squadron, the Parachute Test Team at Edwards continues to provide peace of mind for flyers and aircrew personnel who rely on knowing their parachute system has been tested and proven to work.
“The last thing a pilot wants to think about in flight test is jumping out of the aircraft so it’s our responsibility to ensure an unproven parachute system functions without any room for error,” said 1st Lt. Jonathan Sepp, 418th Flight Test Squadron Test Parachute Program commander. “Although we don’t develop anything, what we do is personnel testing which involves testing parachute systems based on the needs of the Air Force and verifying that it actually works.”
Although the team officially falls under the 418th Flight Test Squadron, Sepp said there are many other entities that play a role in executing each test with the employment of associate organizations under the 412th Test Wing.
“Because it’s a real small team, we depend on a test engineer who writes the test plans, airdrop and drop zone personnel, a team of parachute riggers who pack and inspect all the parachutes during tests as well as an operations manager and the test parachutists, which includes Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialists,” said Sepp, who also doubles as a flight test engineer for the Parachute Test Team.
When it comes to the parachute’s design, Sepp said the test team provides feedback that will eventually be incorporated into the overall design of the unproven or proven parachute system.
“Initially, when there is a new parachute system, the harnesses are brought to us and we’ll hang from a crane in order to perform a field analysis,” added Staff Sgt. David Watters, 412th Operations Support Squadron SERE specialist. “Additionally, we’ll apply the different configurations necessary for the different types of jumps to see how it feels, to include being dragged down a field. It’s a very hands-on approach after the analytical side is completed.”
After the teams write up the human factors portion that inquires about how everything feels once the parachute is worn, while in use or when simply wearing the parachute system, Watters said the remainder involves the operational portion at a local drop zone.
Aside from the testing parachutes, Watters said a good portion of the testing also involves an aircrew member’s helmet; maintaining proficiency in airborne photography; testing new instruments that come out; and even testing everything from boots, uniforms and commercial products the Air Force may consider buying.
“Although it is called test parachuting, it’s not just about testing new parachutes, we also test aircrew equipment capability and compatibility with an old parachute developed in a new way to wear,” said Senior Airman Jonathan Case, 418th Flight Test Squadron SERE specialist, currently in a billet for a test parachutist.
Currently, the team is testing a new back-style parachute on the AC-130 Gunship that will act as a replacement for the old parachute system equipped on the aircraft and contain a new and more comfortable constant-wear system, according to Sepp.
“The parachute system that is being testing right now is a constant wear parachute and will enable aircrew on that aircraft to get out faster, giving them a much higher rate of survival if something did happen to the aircraft,” said Case. “As with anything in flight test, it has to be proven before it can be taken in a real world situation. You’re not just counting on yourself; you have other team members that depend on you as well and you don’t want to put a live individual under a worst case scenario for the first time with something that has never been tested.”
Initial testing on the AC-130 Gunship parachute system is expected to be completed this month.