The Joint Strike Fighter Integrated Test Force is responsible for developmental test of the world’s most advanced 5th generation fighter, the F-35 Lightning II. In 2019, as part of the Auto Ground Collision Avoidance System team, the ITF won the coveted Collier Trophy for “for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America.” In the letter below, ITF leadership reflects on the historical and strategic significance of the team’s accomplishments throughout 2019.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the first flight of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. The P-38 was born into a world of great power conflict and, designed and produced in haste, it proved well-matched to the challenges of its day. At the time of its introduction, it was the fastest fighter in the world by over 100 miles per hour; from its inception to the end of the war six years later, over 18 unique variants of the P-38 were fielded to Allied forces around the world; and by the end of World War II, it was the most lethal American fighter of the Pacific Theater.
Like its namesake, the F-35 Lightning II has been born into a world of great power tension. As before, the strategic context demands rapid development of capabilities to blunt our potential adversaries’ advancements. Our predecessors, the team that designed, built, and tested the P-38, rose to the challenge by continually evolving the P-38 in response to battlefield conditions. Faced with similar demands, we — the men and women of the F-35 Integrated Test Force — should take great pride in having carried on the P-38’s legacy of mission success.
Over the past year we have tested 11 unique F-35 software suites and fielded two. Through those efforts, we have laid the foundation for increased F-35 lethality and survivability with functions like multi-ship Infrared Search and Track. We have advanced strategic capabilities like Dual-Capable Aircraft and large rocket observation missions. We have expanded the flight envelope for KC-46 air-to-air refueling, enabling extended missions with America’s most advanced tanker. And we have done all these things by constructing a partnership of Joint, Operational and Developmental Test units around the nation. The Integrated Test Team that we envisioned and lead has become the standard for fighter test everywhere, producing strategically relevant capabilities at a four-fold rate compared to legacy fighters.
These accomplishments are in many ways quite remote from those of our predecessors over eight decades ago. Yet our most important contribution this year brings us full circle to our namesake. As the fastest fighter of its time, the P-38 took its developers into transonic and supersonic regimes that were not yet well understood. Consequently, the P-38 suffered from a tendency to tuck under at high speeds, leading to steep fast dives that were difficult or impossible to recover from. In 1941, Lockheed test pilot Ralph Virden lost his life while trying to recover his P-38 from just such a dive. A number of P-38s were lost in test and in combat due to this phenomenon, and P-38 pilots’ reluctance to enter dives gave enemy pilots a distinct survivability advantage.
This year, our team completed testing of the Auto-Ground Collision Avoidance System (AGCAS) and fielded it to F-35s around the world. In doing so, the Integrated Test Force has provided warfighters with protection against the number one cause of death in fighter aviation – controlled flight into terrain. As the P-38’s difficulties with high speed dives illustrate, AGCAS affects both the survivability and the lethality of fighter platforms, making the F-35 safer to fly at the same time that it inspires pilots’ confidence in their ability to press the F-35 to its design limits. Thanks to the dedication and ingenuity of our extraordinary team, F-35 warfighters will forevermore be able to accomplish their missions and come safely home without fear of inadvertently impacting the ground.
In recognition of having “successfully completed a rapid design, integration, and flight test of critical, lifesaving technology for the worldwide F-35 fleet,” the Integrated Test Force joined the larger AGCAS team in winning the Robert J. Collier Trophy this year. The Collier Trophy is awarded annually “for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency, and safety of air or space vehicles, the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by actual use during the preceding year.” This recognition places our team in the pantheon of air and space giants alongside the likes of Glenn Curtiss, Orville Wright, NACA, Hap Arnold, Carl Spaatz, Chuck Yeager, the Mercury Seven, Apollo 11, the Global Positioning System team, the International Space Station team, and others. Earning the Collier Trophy makes explicit what members of this team have long known, that the Integrated Test Force is truly exceptional.
Above all, what makes us exceptional are our common purpose and our culture of caring for our own. Whether we hail from Engineering, Maintenance, Operations, Mission Support, or Administration; whether we are Military, Government Civilian, or Contractor; these two elements of common purpose and genuine care transform us from a diverse set of tribes into an extraordinary team. And together, we have made contributions to the warfighter this year that will echo throughout the lifetime of the F-35, ensuring that the Lightning II carries on the P-38’s proud tradition of saving lives, deterring conflict, and if necessary, vanquishing our enemies in pursuit of a just peace.
The mission that our nation and her allies have entrusted to us is noble and worthy of our dedication. Over the past year, we have proven ourselves worthy of that trust. Thank you for all that you do — it is an honor to serve alongside you in the defense of our nation, our principles, and our allies.