Training the next generation of flight test professionals is not a responsibility the United States Air Force Test Pilot School takes lightly; and as weapon systems become increasingly complex, the school is modernizing the curriculum to more accurately represent future technological trends of the Air Force.
Throughout the remaining calendar year, the school is updating its curriculum to keep the students and the Air Force on the leading edge of technology, which means integrating cyber and space components into an already intensive year-long master’s program.
“Cyber and space has been institutionalized at the Air Force level and it is also part of the Air Force Test Center mission statement. As an Air Force-level school and a member of the AFTC, the school ought to be tracking with those mission statements. Our mission statement is growing to incorporate this and our curriculum also needs to,” said Col. Lawrence M. Hoffman, USAF TPS commandant.
While the curriculum is divided up into four phases of academics (Performance, Flying Qualities, Systems and Test Management), the school is focusing on modernizing the Systems phase; which includes human factors, remotely-piloted aircraft, electro-optics, electronic warfare, avionics systems integration and data link systems to ensure students are adequately prepared for the highly-integrated world of test and evaluation.
“For our Systems phase, the biggest change will be cyber and space elements. All of the aircraft we fly today have a cyber ‘brain’ comprised of millions of lines of computer code. Understanding the ones and zeros and lines of computer code that run these aircraft is absolutely necessary if you want to test the aircraft,” said Hoffman.
“If something bad happens to the computer code, it’s almost like you’ve taken battle damage. The aircraft or the system may not operate the way you expect it to,” he added. “Coupled with this is the dependency on space layer for guidance, navigation, control, communications and data link. All of our modern weapon systems link up through space. If something or someone interferes with your space links it could have the same damaging effects. We must prepare students to test our modern aircraft and systems for these possibilities.”
The rapid advancement of technology puts increased pressure on the school to expand the curriculum to incorporate forecasted technological trends of the Air Force and Department of Defense, better serving the warfighter.
The TPS faculty is reducing redundancies in the curriculum to make room for the cyber and space elements, which are a top priority for the school.
“Technology is multiplying so quickly that we no longer have the time to talk about the changes in technology in class. We only have a year to get the students through. There’s a lot more material coming in and we don’t have the time to talk about it. We need to go back and get rid of the redundancies to get more time available to teach students about the new technology that’s more state of the art,” said Randy Kelly, the school’s Systems master instructor.
The modernization effort will be the first time the school has committed to a top-down approach of developing a cutting edge curriculum with cyber and space integrated throughout the 48 weeks.
“When I went through the school in 1985, there was no formal systems curriculum. There were stand-alone pieces on radars and some stuff on instrumentation, electronic warfare, and a little bit about inertial navigation systems. Over the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve included more and more, but we have never sat down and asked how we need to teach systems from a top-down, let’s build it from scratch approach,” said Kelly.
“This is the first time we’ve really examined what the students need to know who are going to work in the combined test forces and serve the warfighter and take that and build it into an integrated package,” he continued.
Working with Kelly to develop a leading edge curriculum for the school is Kristofer Peterson, who recently joined the school as a civilian instructor. Peterson, who graduated in 2009 from the school, has been gaining valuable test experience on the F-22 Raptor as a flight test engineer with the 411th Flight Test Squadron since graduation.
“The idea is to bring a constant influx of test expertise back into the school. After graduation I worked with 411th for three years and the objective is to bring relevant, current test experience back to the school to apply what we’ve learned and fit it into the curriculum,” said Peterson.
It is that experience that will ensure the school’s curriculum accurately represents current test and evaluation trends. His expertise will help shape the future of the school’s curriculum and see to it that TPS remains on the leading edge of technology.
“It’s very rewarding when you look at all the work going on at Edwards and throughout Air Force Materiel Command; some of the biggest impact can be made at TPS,” said Peterson. “You have approximately 48 operators roll through here each year and they are the professionals going to mold the Air Force’s systems of the future.”
While the complete update to the Systems curriculum will take a year or more, significant improvements are being implemented along the way and many will be in place by the end of the year.