Edwards AFB, Calif., is gearing up for a new golden age of flight test, the likes of which have not been seen in 40 years. Units at the storied base will soon be shaking out a new and varied generation of airplanes and weapons, while continuing to keep the rest of the Air Force inventory fresh by proving upgrades to hardware and software alike.
At the same time, Edwards is faced with new challenges. Technology is one, demanding a burgeoning capacity to capture, store, and manage data. Another is encroachment—not from housing developments edging up to the runway, but on the bandwidth needed for telemetry and air traffic. The march of wind-power farms toward the base imperils electronic warfare testing, and California’s historic drought threatens the stability of the dry lakebeds—the huge natural runways—that brought the Air Force here in the first place. Base leaders say they must meet the challenges, though, because of the coming surge in activity.
“We’re kind of in the beginning of another modernization age for the Air Force,” said Brig. Gen. Carl E. Schaefer, 412th Test Wing commander, in an interview.
“Flight test is ticking up,” he said, and Edwards is preparing for an influx of new modernization programs “we haven’t had … since probably the late ’70s, early ’80s.” During those years Edwards was heavily engaged testing the then-new F-15, F-16, KC-10, B-1, and A-10, along with E-3 AWACS—and a host of other sensor platforms and electronic warfare types such as the EF-111—and new missiles.
Now, the biggest effort at Edwards is the massive F-35 program—really three different aircraft for three armed services. Coming very soon will be the KC-46 tanker, and in the pipeline are the Long-Range Strike Bomber, the T-X trainer, and the JSTARS replacement.
Though its formal development program is over, the F-22 remains a strong presence at Edwards as the fighter undergoes refinements. Upgrades to the B-2 bomber are a constant activity—and for its B-1B and B-52 fleetmates as well. Almost every other aircraft type USAF flies is represented somewhere on the flight line.
“Everything in the Air Force still has an active test program,” Schaefer said, “because there are always software drops that need to be tested [and] new weapons.”
If there isn’t a dedicated test asset for a particular type on the Edwards ramp, the owning major command will send a specimen for the test’s duration. For example, “we don’t have any KC-10s here, but we’ll borrow a KC-10 from Travis [AFB, Calif.], … and we’ll instrument it,” Schaefer said.
Depending on the workload, Edwards will adjust its personnel, and in recent years, although it has been particularly busy with the F-22 and F-35, the 412th has undergone a series of consolidations and reorganization to be “as efficient as possible,” said Vice Commander Col. David F. Radomski. At Edwards, the 412th Test Wing merged with the 95th Air Base Wing.
The wing now has 7,700 airmen, supported heavily by contractors.
Edwards is a data factory, generating gigabytes by the hour. One building is dedicated to nothing but servers. “It’s an enormous amount of data to collect and analyze,” Schaefer noted.
The servers are all “sequestered”— separated from the grid—“because they’re proprietary and based on classification,” Schaefer explained. The technological challenge at Edwards in recent years, he reported, is “making sure we’ve got the right tools” to manage and understand the data.
“We’ve exceeded the human capacity to analyze all that data. We need some data tools to help us,” he said. Some of the sensors used in flight test sample information at a rate of three million lines a second. That’s 20 times faster than the state-of-the-art of 20 years ago.
One building at Edwards houses “mission control” rooms. Each can be manned by 50 or more people at dozens of workstations. These include test directors, a test coordinator—the person who actually talks to the pilot—range control and range safety officers, plus all the engineers looking to verify simulations and predictions of how their new technology will behave in practice. The terminals pipe in video, audio, and telemetry from a test flight—not very different from a NASA control room for space missions. These rooms put almost all the people involved with testing something—an airplane, missile, or software package—together, to facilitate cooperation and solve problems quickly.
Modeling and Simulation
Rob Palmer, Edwards’ 412th range operations director, said the control rooms are especially useful when a problem arises in a test. Quick conferences and analysis of the data can soon determine whether the problem demands an abort of the flight, or whether the sortie can be saved to carry out other required tests.
“That saves a lot of money,” he said, since the biggest cost of flight testing is in the flying of airplanes, chase aircraft, tankers, and other support functions.
Despite the advent of ever-more-accurate modeling and simulation, historically these predictors of how technology will work in the real world are only “about 50 to 75 percent accurate,” Schaefer said. “Contractors always bank on more than that,” he added, but the accuracy of predictions has remained remarkably consistent.
The range at Edwards is impressively large, spanning hundreds of square miles, augmented by the proximity of the Navy’s China Lake, NAS Fallon, and ocean ranges; the Army’s Fort Irwin desert exercise arena; and the Utah Test and Training Range, the Mojave Desert, and the sprawling Tonopah/Nellis AFB, Nev., complex. Edwards has a number of distinct practice areas. One is a 225-mile-long “supersonic corridor,” where jets can fly at supersonic speed above 30,000 feet. Bone-rattling sonic booms are a frequent if unsettling sound at the base. Other areas are typically reserved for live weapons releases—one is known as the “barbell” or “dog bone” because of its distinctive shape as seen from above. Most overlap.
“We are working to improve the connectivity” of Edwards with the other facilities, Palmer said, with Edwards serving as a network hub for all the nearby locations, and others besides. Following the consolidation of Edwards and Eglin AFB, Fla., under Air Force Materiel Command’s flight test “center,” the two bases are building up their ability to conduct tests at a distance.
“We recently did an F-16 test where the control room at Eglin Air Force Base was controlling a flight test with an F-16 out here on the West Coast, and it was seamless,” said Radomski. “The pilot couldn’t tell if he was talking to someone 2,000 miles away, and vice versa. … So we are improving those types of connectivity for all the DOD ranges in order to prepare for these future systems.” He said that “if we have the technology to test … we should really be agnostic about testing location.” The F-16 experiment was akin to Predator remotely piloted aircraft being guided in combat half a world away from Creech AFB, Nev., where the “crews” are located, he said.
Range connectivity is essential, Schaefer said, to be able to test new systems such as the Long-Range Standoff missile, which will have such long legs that a mission can’t be simulated within the confines of one or even two or three ranges, but will traverse many.
“You have to have a multirange approach,” he said. The telemetry and connectivity upgrades are necessary for the test enterprise generally, but crucial for testing the coming generation of standoff weapons.
Schaefer, who has 15 years in the test business, said he’s heartened by the attention and focus being paid to the test infrastructure by Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.
“I think both the Chief and the Secretary have realized that if we’re going to modernize the Air Force and spend a lot of money, it behooves us to make sure the resources are available to test it,” he said. “We haven’t really looked at that in such a disciplined manner in my history with flight test.” There’s now a 10-, 20-, and 30-year flight test infrastructure roadmap that aligns with the introduction of new systems, he said. Improvements are needed in “telemetry, … computer system modernization, … range systems modernization,” and in facilities. Some of them have not been renewed for many years, and it makes sense to improve buildings if they are going to house state-of-the-art gear.
“We have a backlog of things that need improvement,” Schaefer reported. It’s not about aesthetics, either. Schaefer said USAF must compete for the most talented scientists and engineers, and having an attractive, state-of-the-art facility is a big recruiting tool. Not having them can be a recruiting deterrent.
The in-house stable of test support aircraft—mostly F-16s and T-38s—are “all in good shape.” Schaefer said he doesn’t expect to need new ones anytime soon.
Nonprogram-specific technologies are also proved out at Edwards, in conjunction with the Air Force Research Lab. Schaefer said Edwards has supported the hypersonic X-51 program, both alone and in partnership with the Navy’s overwater ranges. “Our telemetry reaches out into those [ranges] … so we can monitor and collect data.” Hypersonics testing is likely to be a growth industry at Edwards, he said. “Based on whatever’s coming next from those program offices, we will set aside the right people and facilities for hypersonics.”
A similar pattern will be followed for directed energy systems. Edwards has special range equipment designed to calibrate and measure DE, especially lasers.
In At The Start
Schaefer explained that the test center is involved in a new program “right from the beginning.” That way, the expense of proving the technology out is budgeted at the start, and so Edwards or Eglin have plenty of lead time to put in place the facilities, talent, and other support requirements necessary before a system comes out for testing. Test is kept in the loop in case there are delays, so that the test force doesn’t create a “standing army” of evaluators waiting around with nothing to do.
The KC-46 team is already up and running. A detachment is at Boeing’s Seattle plant monitoring the testing of the commercial precursor to the tanker, called the 767-2C. Once the fully equipped tanker is available, it will be tested by the detachment from Seattle initially, then come down to Edwards. This will happen imminently.
All testing is “phased in as the need grows over time,” Schaefer said.
Some of the ongoing test projects at Edwards include:
Bombers: “We just finished developmental test on what I call the ‘B-1C,’?” said Lt. Col. Michael Williams, commander of the 419th Flight Test Squadron (FLTS), a unit testing bombers. The project knitted together 12 independent hardware and software upgrades inside the cockpit and inside the B-1’s capacious cargo bays. Williams also said that he’s preparing to test the Long-Range Standoff Missile, an antishipping weapon developed from the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff missile, or JASSM. It will be fielded first on the B-1B. Work continues on B-52 modifications that will allow internal carriage of modern “J-series” weapons, and the squadron is also testing the latest B-2 improvements that amount to “a kind of midlife upgrade,” Williams said. The 419th typically has two B-1Bs, two B-52s, and one B-2 to work with. The B-2s usually come directly from periodic programmed depot maintenance at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., plant, so that they have the most up-to-date configuration.
Fighters: With responsibility for F-15s, F-16s, and T-38s, the 416th FLTS recently wrapped up work on the Ground Collision Avoidance System, already credited with two “saves” as pilots in imminent danger of hitting terrain were pulled away by the GCAS. “It’s really good to know we have helped save lives with this work we’re doing,” said 416th FLTS commander Lt. Col. Robert Ungerman III. The 416th is heavily involved with testing Saudi Arabia’s new F-15S, including “several dozen things that have never been done on an F-15 before,” he said. When foreign military sales customers request flight testing of a system that the Air Force doesn’t have, the customer pays the expenses of testing “to get the rigor and quality work that we do,” Ungerman said. The information is also useful for possible future USAF upgrades.
Heavies: The 418th FLTS handles testing for the C-17, C-5, KC-135, KC-10, and some C-130 variants. In April, the C-17 work included recertifying the aircraft type for parachute drops using new parachutes being fielded by the Army. The C-17 was being fitted with an old F117 engine—taken off a retired test Globemaster III—to see how volcanic dust would affect it. “We really have no data on what that dust does to an engine,” said 418th FLTS commander and combined test force director Lt. Col. Eric Bippert. The data have been requested by the FAA, because so many commercial airliners have had to divert around volcanic eruptions in recent years. A recent series of tests proved the value of adding vortex generators to the C-17 to improve fuel consumption, but that modification is not yet funded for the fleet. The unit is also “in the planning stages” for KC-46 tanker work, scheduled to begin at Edwards sometime in the next year. Software updates are also being tested on the C-5M, the up-engined and improved version of the Galaxy that first went to the field a few years ago.
One of the Edwards assets that Schaefer said doesn’t get much attention is its anechoic chamber. It’s a huge “silent” facility—the largest in the US—covered inside with foam spikes and other signal attenuation equipment to permit electronic systems to be tested on the ground.
“We can put a full-size bomber inside the chamber and do electronic warfare testing,” he explained. “We can turn on all the systems. … We can radiate inside the chamber and inject … signals to stimulate the systems … to see if it’s working correctly.” Given that the biggest expense of flight test is “when you take off and the wheels are in the well,” finding problems on the ground and refining the test card in the chamber is a big money-saver, Schaefer said.
“We find problems at low cost, before it gets to open-air flight test,” he said.
Despite its remote location in the high desert some two hours north of Los Angeles, Edwards does have some encroachment issues. Wind farms “have grown like a virus across the hillside,” Radomski said. While the Air Force supports clean energy, the turning rotor blades—“moving pieces of metal”—play havoc with radars.
“So, effectively, we’ve given up radar testing with our aircraft pointed to the west, because there’s such a big interference from those wind farms,” he said. “We’ve got to point away from them to do clean radar testing.”
Base leaders have asked local jurisdictions to confine the wind farms to the already compromised western area. The north and east of Edwards are still good for radar testing and Air Force officials would like to keep it that way.
Bandwidth is constrained: Electromagnetic interference is creeping closer to the frequencies allocated for the US military. Cell phones and broadcasts interfere with telemetry in the L- and S-bands, Palmer said. As data requirements for testing bloom, however, bandwidth quickly gets maxed out. Although Edwards usually has up to a dozen F-35s available for testing, “we can only support three in the air at a time” due to the spectrum limitations, he said. “We just gave up 25 MHz in the L-band to a local phone company.” The base is trying to stay ahead by doing more data compression, but that approach imposes limitations of its own.
Despite all the challenges facing Edwards, overcoming them is what flight test is all about. Radomski said he’s excited that “we could be looking at every airframe” now in the Air Force’s modernization plan in the next 10 years.
“Our workforce shaping that Air Force for the next 50, 60 years—that’s a great honor,” he said. “And the people around here love to be a part of it.”