When a test aircraft takes to the sky, on many occasions it is accompanied by a chase airplane.
The chase plane can provide safety support by giving visual feedback, serve as a flying target, and document the test sortie through photography and video taken by an additional crewmember.
Testing new systems on almost every aircraft type in the Air Force inventory, with several sorties each day, can be a grind and the demand for chase aircraft is higher than ever.
The 412th Operations Group at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., is exploring ways to augment its chase plane fleet and one option is using Alpha Jets.
“The primary test support aircraft is the F-16, which is very capable,” said Christopher Klug, 412th Operations Group technical director. “The demand for test support, mostly safety chase and flying as a target, exceeds F-16 capacity. While the Alpha Jet isn’t as capable as the F-16, it can service the part of the test support mission that doesn’t require the higher-end capabilities of the F-16.”
Edwards currently has two Alpha Jets contracted through Modern Technology Solutions, Inc. and Gauntlet Aerospace to support certain test sorties as an experiment to see what they can offer.
According to Gauntlet Aerospace, the owner of the jets, the two-seat Alpha Jets were designed to be light attack and trainer aircraft in the 1970s through a partnership between French aircraft company Dassault and German company Dornier. The Alpha Jet was also designed to be launched quickly after each sortie and does not require ground-support equipment. The jets are still in military service in France, Belgium, Egypt, Portugal, Thailand, and are operated by French test pilot school EPNER and Britain’s Empire Test Pilot School, according to Gauntlet.
Klug added that Alpha Jets can be well-suited to handle shorter-length test support missions executed at around 30,000 feet and less than 0.8 Mach speed. So far, Alpha Jets have supported test missions with F-16s, F-15s, F-22s, B-1s and F-35s, he said.
The ability to capture visual data is another important role of a chase plane and the 412th OG hopes more test missions can be properly documented with lower-priority test missions getting the necessary photographic documentation needed.
“The F-16 is a much more versatile photo platform than the Alpha Jet, but there just aren’t enough D-models (two-seat versions) to go around,” said Christian Turner, Media Fusion Aerial Photography manager. [U.S.A.F. Test Pilot School] is a pretty high priority when it comes to getting D-models since they’re required to have instructors for most of their flights. Having access to Alpha Jets simply gives us greater access to a two-seat photo chase platform.”
As with all testing at Edwards AFB, data will be analyzed and leaders will decide if Alpha Jets can be used as permanent fixtures to support future tests.