Edwards Test Mission Helping Shape Future Force
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., April 27, 2007 A team of military and civilian employees and contractors at the Air Force Flight Test Center here is helping to build the Air Force of the future as they improve on air systems in use around the world today in the war on terror.
Senior Airman Daniel Myers, Staff Sgt. Daphne Jaehn and Staff Sgt. John Davenport load an AIM-1120D Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile on an F-22A Raptor aircraft in preparation for noise and vibration testing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The airmen are assigned to the 412th Aviation Maintenance Squadron. Photo by Kevin Robertson
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
For the past 60 years, this sprawling Mojave Desert base has hosted more major aviation milestones than any other spot on the globe. Then-Capt. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in his rocket-powered Bell X-1 aircraft here in 1947. Other test pilots here followed his lead, pushing Yeager’s speed and altitude records to new limits.
It was also here that the X-15 rocket plane probed the threshold of space, and where the space shuttle landed on its initial return from orbit.
Today, “Team Edwards” is building on that legacy, pushing aviation to new limits and ensuring the safest, most dependable aircraft possible, Col. Chris Cook, commander of the 412th Operations Group, told American Forces Press Service.
Engineers, scientists, logisticians, technicians and test pilots here – “50-pound brains,” as Cook calls them -- strive to push the aviation envelope and work out every imaginable “bug” before delivering a new aircraft or system to the field.
“We try to mitigate some of the risk,” said Cook, a former test pilot himself. “What we try to make sure is that the second lieutenant flying the aircraft for the first time isn’t a test pilot.”
For that, Edwards has its own test pilots, trained at the Air Force Test Pilot School here. Most are senior captains or junior majors who come armed with technical degrees and high ratings as aircrew members before being selected for the rigorous year-long program.
One of their most important attributes, Cook said, is the ability to think on their feet – or in just about any other position or situation imaginable. “I have to be able to talk to you about my altitude while upside down and spinning,” he said. “Those are the things that separate test pilots from the rest of the world. You have to be able to fly, but you also have to be technically oriented to understand that side of things.”
These test pilots work shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the country’s brightest engineers, scientists, logisticians and technicians throughout the aircraft research, development, testing and evaluation process, Cook said.
“We try to get involved as early as possible in the concept stage so the testing effort gets planned for early,” Cook said.
The goal is to avoid surprises and the need for “rework” that can send a project back to the drawing board or signal its death knell. “Rework is the thing that kills us,” Cook said. “The (development) schedule goes out the window and the cost goes way up.”
As aircraft systems and platforms are developed, they’re put through the test process in what Cook calls “baby steps.” Tests typically begin through computer models and in simulators before progressing to real flight operations.
Those tests, too, go in a precise step-by-step sequence. “Sometimes going very fast requires us to go slow,” Cook said. “We’re very methodical. After all, you have only one opportunity to do it right.”
Only when real-life results begin to validate those projected in computer models, the testing expands “from what we know to what we don’t know,” he said. They’re subjected to different altitudes, different speeds and new demands.
“It’s kind of like being a blind person,” he said. “We have our cane and start to tap around looking for cliffs. There are still cliffs out there we don’t even know about.”
The meticulous work done here aims to make sure operators never have to encounter those cliffs during real operations, he said. “We want to ensure they have the safest, most reliable systems possible,” he said.
Cook said the staff members here recognize they “stand on the shoulders of giants” who served before them. Over Edwards’ history, its people have played key roles in developing nearly every aircraft that’s entered the Air Force inventory since World War II.
Now, as they focus on new and future systems — the F-22A Raptor, the RQ-4A Global Hawk and the F-35 “Lightning II” Joint Strike Fighter, among them — Cook said he recognizes they’re helping shape the future Air Force for generations to come.
“We recognize the importance of what we do here and the long-term implications it has for the Air Force,” he said. “I tell my guys we’re history makers.”