The Year in Review: Edwards Air Force Base

A look back at 2020

Jan. 1, 2020, dawned as the beginning of a new year — just like any other new year. But this past year was unlike any in living memory, and throughout the year, people started going above and beyond.
In this special series for Aerotech News and Review, we take a look back at 2020 — the year everything changed.

– Ed.

Command changes
412th Test Wing: Col. Matthew Higer assumed command of the 412th Test Wing from Brig. Gen. E. John Teichert during a Feb. 5 ceremony at the base. Higer was previously commandant of the Test Pilot School, also at Edwards.

“It is also an honor to be selected to command the Wing that has the sacred American mission of teaching test fundamentals, like world-class risk management and adaptive test solutions to the next generation of test professionals,” Higer said. “To the members of the 412th Test Wing … it is truly an honor to be your commander. Our nation has never needed us more, and I am beyond description excited to be your biggest fan and supporter.”’

Higer was promoted to brigadier general in May.

Air Force Plant 42: On July 1, Air Force Operating Location Air Force Plant 42 changed leadership hands during a Change of Leadership Ceremony at Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif. Col. Dwayne Robison relinquished leadership to Dr. David Smith in a ceremony presided over by Brig. Gen. Matthew Higer, the 412th Test Wing commander.

Plant 42 has played a significant role in the history of the Aerospace Valley. The sprawling facility is home to the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works division and the birthplace of notable aircraft such as the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, and where Northrop Grumman is currently manufacturing the nation’s next generation stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider. All of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters were also built at the plant.

Prior to being named director of Plant 42, Smith had previously served as the Installation Support Director at Edwards AFB. Smith has had a long and storied career with the 412th TW, Edwards and the Air Force starting as a B-52 Stratofortress navigator and later on as a civilian. He has even served as a Regimental Air Liaison Officer attached to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at the National Training Center on Fort Irwin, Calif.

He recalled that, as a child, he dreamt about being a part of the Aerospace Testing Universe, and now with his new assignment as Plant 42 director, he said it was “absolutely humbling.”

Col. Sebrina Pabon, Test Pilot School Commandant, salutes Brig. Gen. Matthew Higer, 412th Test Wing Commander, as she becomes the newest school commandant during a Change of Command ceremony at Edwards Air Force Base, July 10. (Air Force photograph by Ethan Wagner)

Test Pilot School: The Air Force Test Pilot School bid farewell to outgoing commandant, Col. Ryan Blake, and welcomed its new commandant, Col. Sebrina Pabon, during a Change of Command ceremony on Edwards Air Force Base, California, July 9.

The commander of the 412th Test Wing, Brig. Gen. Matthew Higer presided over the ceremony which saw history made as Pabon became the first female and non-pilot commandant of the school since its inception in 1944.

“It is quite the honor and a privilege to preside over this, very near and dear to my heart, change of command ceremony,” said Higer, who was Blake’s predecessor when he served as commandant of the school from July 2017 to July 2018.

Pabon, meanwhile, is no stranger to TPS and Edwards. Pabon graduated from Desert High School on Edwards prior to commissioning as an Air Force officer. She graduated from TPS in 2006 as a Flight Test Engineer and subsequently served as Chief of Flight Test Safety and Flight Commander with the 416th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards. She then became the Performance Branch Chief and FTE instructor at TPS.

“I am excited to be back, and I am extremely honored and humbled for this amazing opportunity to serve and lead this outstanding team as we continue to educate and train our future flight test professionals,” Pabon said. “My family and I are very excited to be back here at Edwards; definitely never thought 25 years ago I’d be back in the very same stage where I graduated high school.”

Tech. Sgt. Roman Contreras, quality assurance, air crew flight equipment, 412th Operations Support Squadron, 412th Operations Group, 412th Test Wing, fabricates a cloth mask using available equipment in the Air Crew Flight Equipment section at Edwards, April 7. Although cloth masks don’t offer full protection from COVID-19, the CDC advises that a simple cloth covering can slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and not know it from spreading it to others. (Courtesy photograph)

In March, as the scope of the pandemic became clear, Edwards Air Force Base, and Air Force Plant 42 moved to “mission essential only.”

All members of Team Edwards were authorized to report to work to gather teleworking provisions or personal possessions. Those who are not able to telework would be placed on administrative leave. Personnel were advised to consult their commander, director or supervisor for specific mission essential clarification.

Then came the news that Edwards had its first case of COVID-19. The individual, an active duty service member assigned to the 412th Test Wing, was being treated at an off-base medical facility.

“This is our first confirmed case,” said 412th Test Wing Commander, Col. Matthew Higer. “The continued safety and well-being of all of Team Edwards has been and remains my focus. Leaders at all levels of Team Edwards continue to work with our base medical staff and in close coordination with off-base health care agencies to ensure we mitigate the effects of COVID-19 for the installation, the greater Aerospace Valley, and the nation using established Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Defense Department guidelines.”

By March 25, the number of cases had risen to four.

In light of the increased risks, the base raised its Health Protection Condition to HPCON Charlie. However, this did not mean the base was ‘closed.’

“Edwards AFB and AF Plant 42 are and will continue to remain open,” said Higer. “Neither Installation has closed at any time due to COVID-19.  However, the installations are restricted to mission-essential personnel in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

On March 28, the base limited access. At this time, retirees, retiree dependents and veterans could only visit the base on Wednesdays.

After a brief pause to adjust or modify safety procedures, the 412th Test Wing resumed flight operations on April 1.

During resumed operations, Team Edwards sorties included flights on the B-52, C-17, and testing of the F-22 with an F-16 target for a developmental test; while mission partners at the Joint Operational Test Team flew the F-35 for operational tests.

Despite reduced manning levels, Edwards AFB continues to perform its wartime mission each and every day – before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic – delivering future readiness to the warfighter.  “Team Edwards has made amazing and agile progress the last few days at getting the installation postured toward our ‘new-normal’ test-and-evaluation steady-state in the long fight against COVID-19,” said Higer.  “Our National Defense Strategy requirement to compete, deter, and win against peer competitors — in all warfighting domains — does not go into standby or otherwise pause while we are effectively in combat operations against COVID-19.”

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, many at Edwards collectively turned to each other and began exercising their innate innovative culture to help meet emerging needs of the Test Wing community.

Such is the case with Airmen of the 412th Operations Support Squadron, who pulled together various members in the Test Wing and began fabricating cloth masks, to help equip the wing community. This was done in response to the DOD guidance to the workforce to use cloth face coverings on DOD property, installations and facilities when it’s not possible to maintain six-feet of physical distance in public areas or work centers. 

Senior Master Sgt. Brian Holmes is the Aircrew Flight Equipment Superintendent at the 412th OSS and his team is responsible for inspecting, maintaining, repairing, and testing survival gear utilized by Test Wing aircrew.

“A big part of the repair process requires us to be very proficient at sewing,” said Holmes. “Because of this, my team is figuring out a way to produce mass quantities of masks to try and help do our part for the Test Wing community.” The team immediately partnered with the on base spouse network, which had already been building masks for a few days. 

Tech. Sgt. Justin Aguilar, logistics test and evaluator, 412th Maintenance Logistics Test Squadron, shops for essentials at the Edwards Air Force Base commissary, April 22. (Air Force photograph by Christian Turner)

Another example of Edwards Airmen helping each other came April 20, when the community launched a commissary shopping service at Edwards to support those who are high risk, quarantined, isolated and unable to shop for themselves.

The service is limited to the local area as defined in the Edwards AFB COVID-19 Local Area Definition & Public Health Guidance memorandum, and orders can be made for delivery or “curbside” pick-up, according to Master Sgt. Scott A. Bennett, additional duty first sergeant, Air Force Operational Test & Evaluation Center, Detachment 5.

“I think a simple service like this is important because it can mitigate worry, stress, and/or uncertainty during times when everything is complicated,” said Bennett. “It shows people that they are not alone in their particular circumstance and it fosters a climate of compassion in our community as people help people.”

Maj. Marc Nichols, 452nd Flight Test Squadron Assistant Director of Operations, conducts a walk-through inspection of an RQ-4 Global Hawk remotely-piloted aircraft at Edwards April 6. (Air Force photograph by Giancarlo Casem)

452nd Flight Test Squadron: The 452nd Flight Test Squadron worked through the challenges of teleworking and modified work schedules to keep their fleet of RQ-4 Global Hawks flying and meeting mission requirements.

“The 452nd is also the combined test force for the Global Vigilance CTF,” said Maj. Marc Nichols, 452nd FLTS Assistant Director of Operations. “Here, we’re involved with testing systems and avionics upgrades. We also engage in foreign military sales testing; we hope to deliver an aircraft to the Republic of Korea this week.”

The Global Hawk is a remotely-piloted, high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft. With a wingspan of over 130 feet, the aircraft is able attain a flight ceiling of 60,000 feet. The Global Hawk’s main mission is to provide intelligence, communications, surveillance and reconnaissance using a multitude of sensors to combatant commands world-wide, Nichols added.

During the recent Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the 452nd FLTS devised plans to ensure their team members were as safe as possible yet still be able to complete their test missions. “The 452nd’s unique mission provides the unit the ability to execute missions with personnel being separate from each other,” said EmmaLee Shenberger, a Test Conductor and Operations Engineer with the 452nd FLTS.

A Bob Violett Models ‘Renegade’ commercial, off-the-shelf, turbine-powered jet aircraft, is parked at a dry lake bed prior to a test flight at Edwards AFB March 4. The aircraft will be used as an autonomous software test bed by the 412th Test Wing’s Emerging Technology Combined Test Force. (Air Force photograph by Chris Dyer)

Emerging Technology Combined Test Force: The Emerging Technology Combined Test Force successfully completed flight tests on its newest autonomous aircraft test bed last month at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

The flight tests are in support of the Skyborg program with the goal to ultimately provide an autonomous software testing package.

Flight simulators have helped the 772nd Test Squadron provide test capabilities to the F-35 Integrated Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base. Simulators provide engineers a safe testing environment while mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (Air Force illustration)

772nd Test Squadron: As the Air Force Test Center’s 412th Test Wing resumed mission-essential flight testing, the 772nd Test Squadron’s modeling and simulation engineers and technicians restarted manned cockpit simulation operations to support flight test mission rehearsals at Edwards, April 14.

The 772nd TS reopened their doors to the F-35 Integrated Test Force, the first customer to do so since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted operations at Edwards and much of the world.

“Many of our Dual Capability Aircraft (DCA) test points take us to the limits of F-35 performance,” said Lt. Col. James Valpiani, F-35 ITF Director. “Our test pilots and the entire test team are grateful for the opportunity to buy down risk in the Sim before executing airborne over the Sea Test Range.”

Rebecca Mitchell, T-7A Lead Flight Test Engineer, 416th Flight Test Squadron, watches real-time flight telemetry of a remote T-7A Red Hawk test flight from the Boeing flight test center in St. Louis, Missouri, at the Ridley Mission Control Center at Edwards AFB, April 30. (Air Force photograph by Giancarlo Casem)

T-7A Test Team: During this time of continued Air Force Innovation, the T-7A Test Team of the Air Force’s new pilot trainer, the T-7A Red Hawk, has developed innovative ways to maintain the Air Force Test Center’s level of excellence in support of the T-7A Test Program.

The T-7A Test Team made history once again as they executed Distributed Test Operations in a Mission Control Room at Ridley Mission Control Center at Edwards, on April 30.

“This capability will permit subject matter experts from AFTC and Boeing to work together to provide expertise on high-risk testing from control rooms in two different locations,” said Rebecca Mitchell, T-7A Lead Flight Test Engineer, 416th Flight Test Squadron. “The addition of a second control room also increases the number of seats available for any given mission, improving our ability to train new engineers.”

DTO allows engineers within Ridley to view real-time flight tests from remote locations. The latest test took place approximately 1,600 miles away in St. Louis, Mo. Engineers on Edwards were able to watch video and view flight telemetry real-time.  

Maj. Benjamin Gilliland, 411th Flight Test Squadron, F-22 Raptor Combined Test Force, prepares an F-22 Raptor for takeoff at Edwards April 30. Gilliland, along with Lt. Col. Tyler Robarge, 411th Flight Test Squadron, F-22 Raptor Combined Test Force, conducted an operational rapid crew swap with Robarge flying the first sortie and then swapped seats with Gilliland. (Lockheed Martin photograph by Kyle Larson)

F-22 Raptor Combined Test Force: While operating in the constrained COVID-19 environment, maintainers, pilots and engineers in the F-22 Raptor Combined Test Force completed the base’s first F-22 operational rapid crew swap recently at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

In a rapid crew swap, an aircraft is launched, completes its mission and upon returning to base the pilot is quickly changed.  As the pilots are changing out maintenance personnel refuel and complete expedited checks before immediately launching the aircraft for another mission.

An F-16 Fighting Falcon flown by Maj. Jacob Schonig from the 416th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, conducts a captive-carry flight test with a Gray Wolf cruise missile prototype over the Pacific Ocean, June 9. (Air Force photograph by Ethan Wagner)

416th Flight Test Squadron: The 416th Flight Test Squadron recently completed a round of tests of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s “Gray Wolf” prototype cruise missile at Edwards Air Force Base.

Gray Wolf is a DOD-directed prototype production and demonstration of low-cost, subsonic and networked collaborative cruise missiles. The missiles are designed to launch in a swarm to target enemy integrated air defense threats. 

The program has already reached certain test milestones: Electromagnetic Interference & Compatibility and a “captive carry” flight. A live release test at the Naval Air Station Point Mugu Sea Test Range was planned for later in 2020.

A B-52H Stratofortress assigned to the 419th Flight Test Squadron takes off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Aug. 8. The aircraft conducted a captive-carry flight test of the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon Instrumented Measurement Vehicle 2 hypersonic prototype at the Point Mugu Sea Range off the Southern California coast. (Air Force photograph by Matt Williams)

419th Flight Test Squadron: The Air Force took another step towards fielding a hypersonic weapon following its final captive-carry test of the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon under a wing of a B-52 Stratofortress off the Southern California coast, Aug 8.

The flight resulted in the successful transmission of telemetry and GPS data from the AGM-183A IMV-2 (Instrumented Measurement Vehicle) to Point Mugu Sea Range ground stations. The test verified system integration with the B-52 launch platform and telemetry while practicing concepts of operations that will be utilized during its first Booster Test Flight later this year.

ARRW will also expand precision-strike weapon systems’ capabilities by enabling rapid response strikes against heavily defended land targets.

A B-1B Lancer with a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) takes off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Nov. 20. The flight was a demonstration of the B-1B’s external weapons carriage capabilities. (Air Force photograph by Richard Gonzales)

419th Flight Test Squadron, Global Power Combined Test Force: The B-1B Lancer’s expanded carriage capabilities comes one step closer to fruition following an external captive carry flight over the skies of Edwards Air Force Base, California, Nov. 20.

The flight featured a B -1B Lancer assigned to the 412th Test Wing’s 419th Flight Test Squadron, Global Power Combined Test Force, and carried an inert Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile under an external pylon for the first time.

This demonstration may pave the way possibly for the B-1B to carry hypersonic weapons externally.

The captive carry flight was the culmination of the numerous ground tests that began with last year’s expanded carriage demonstration that included a modified internal bomb bay, which featured a moveable bulkhead. The demonstration showcased a configuration of the B-1 that would allow the aircraft to carry larger-sized weapons both internally and externally.

A B-1B Lancer assigned to the 419th Flight Test Squadron, 412th Test Wing, releases a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile during an external release demonstration in the skies over Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Dec. 4. (Air Force photograph by Ethan Wagner)

419th Flight Test Squadron: The 419th Flight Test Squadron successfully conducted an external weapon release demonstration at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M, Dec 4.

“The Air Force Test Center is enthusiastically teaming with the Air Force Global Strike Command to enable greater flexibility in bomber payloads,” said Maj. Gen. Christopher Azzano, Air Force Test Center commander. “Demonstration of B-1B external carriage reflects the potential to keep weapon systems in the fight with increased combat capability.”

A B-1B Lancer assigned to the 412th Test Wing’s 419th FLTS, launched an inert Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile from an external pylon underneath the Lancer’s fuselage. The external pylon usually carries the “Sniper” targeting pod.

This release demonstration also put Air Force Global Strike Command one step closer to building the future bomber fleet for the Department of Defense and U.S. Air Force while utilizing current resources.

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