HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
Innovations created by the cumulative efforts of the Air Force Test Center, headquartered at Edwards Air Force Base, California led to team HAVE LIGHT, piloted by Holloman’s 96th Test Group winning the International Test and Evaluation 2016 Technical Achievement award for their advancements in Electro-Optic Flight Test Techniques.
The Air Force Test Center is a decentralized conglomeration that consists of Air Force test wings and flight simulation testing facilities across the country.
Lieutenant Colonel Brian Neff, the commander of the 746th Test Squadron, led a team toward the innovative advancements in their air-to-ground targeting flight test program.
Although Neff pioneered the new techniques, the members of team HAVE LIGHT were the backbone of the program’s success.
“It was a multi-organizational and multi-base team,” said Neff. “There were about eight to nine personnel from Holloman with significant contributions to the effort, along with an equal number of personnel involved from the Test Pilot School as well as the 775th Civil Engineering Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, California -- all totaled a team of about 18-20 truly dedicated to this effort.”
Neff and his team’s efforts took a large step forward in both cost-effectiveness and efficiency of their testing platform.
“We took an aircraft, a C-12J, that was part of the 586th Flight Test Squadron, which is not normally designed to carry targeting pods and made it so that it was now an asset that could do that,” said Neff. “The reason this was so important is that it is a lot cheaper to fly a C-12J with a targeting pod than it would be to fly an F-15, F-16, B-1 or A-10.”
Aircraft and systems go through many updates and changes throughout their service life.
“When a system comes into the arsenal, it does not stay static for its lifetime,” he said. “There are constant modifications that are being made, and any time those modifications are made, we have to go back and re-test them. It’s a lot cheaper to fly the C-12J, so it’s a lot cheaper to do testing on the targeting pods with the C-12J as the flight test platform.”
Neff realized that if he could bring his ideas to fruition they could greatly increase their testing abilities while simultaneously reducing the time and cost associated.
“Part of our mission at the 96th Test Group is to test these systems,” he said. “So, we wanted to look for a more efficient way to do that, and this saves a lot of time and money on assets that might have been harder to come by.”
In these specific tests, Neff and his team were using a Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, an air-to-ground targeting pod that is recognized as being reliable, easily sustainable and advanced.
“Targeting pods are typically used for air-to-ground targeting,” he said. “They are used for figuring out coordinates of target locations and sensing things. The pod we were using here is a Sniper Targeting Pod. It has a visual sensor which can see things similar to what a television camera can do, it also has an infrared camera, so it can see things under the cover of darkness as well.”
Utilizing a C-12J over their standard test aircraft proved to be a solution to a low cost and efficient testing platform.
“Prior to using the C-12J, testing would always be done on a more traditional targeting pod carrying platform,” said Neff. “Platforms such as the F-16 and the F-15 cost around $10,000 an hour to fly. We can now do it with the C-12J for about $600 an hour, which is orders of magnitude cheaper to do.”
Along with a large reduction in the cost of flight time, team HAVE LIGHT also discovered a reduction in overall test time as well.
“We developed some new techniques, which cut down the amount of test time required by about 95 percent,” said Neff. “I could get all of the same information for resolution and sensitivity capability of a sensor in about five percent of the test time.”
Since these innovations were a team effort, the findings and results have had benefits outside the scope of testing.
“We have taken the information we learned from the development of the techniques and have now incorporated that back into the curriculum at the test pilot school,” said Neff. “I still go back and guest instruct at the test pilot school every six months, and I teach Electro-Optics there.”
Academic instruction of the Electro-Optic Flight Test Techniques have had little to no advancement over the past 15 years. The test pilot school has benefitted from the findings by having their curriculum refreshed.
“We are teaching a new technique and are keeping their curriculum on the cutting edge -- versus the legacy techniques that were fraught with variability and uncertainty.” said Neff.
The 586th FLTS has had their share of benefits as well.
“Additionally, we have opened a whole new line of customer capability for the 586th FLTS,” said Neff. “We have now rejuvenated this capability for the C-12J to carry targeting pods, and it’s a preserving capability. Because we were able to be so successful, this effort stemmed a significant interest and the 586th FLTS now have a sustained customer basis for this capability.”
Neff had the idea for these innovations for years, but shortly after his arrival to Holloman from being an instructor at the test pilot school, he was able to see them come to life.
“I had been doing the research and talking about these concepts for many years,” said Neff. “I arrived here in July 2015. We executed the program in March of 2016. We pitched the idea in early July, and it got some interest. But by August-September, it was firing on all cylinders.”
Once Neff was able to have his team begin working on the innovations, they were able to see results in a short period of time.
HAVE LIGHT was able to execute this concept in six months even though they had to do it as a side project to their normal daily mission.
“This isn’t the primary mission of the 586th FLTS,” said Neff. “They were essentially in the background trying to prove that a concept is going to work while not allowing any of their primary missions to slip.”
Neff had a large amount of help from one of his previous students who began his time at Holloman the same time. Captain John Tekell, the 586th FLTS flight commander and a flight test engineer, was the individual who has been with Neff since the start of this effort.
“We teamed together right from the beginning,” said Neff. “Tekell really ran with it. I gave him the ‘Hey, here is my vision,’ and he took it and made it the successful effort that it was. A lot of the credit from the Holloman side goes to him and the team he assembled.”
Tekell was an integral part in the planning, coordination and organization that was needed to make Neff’s theory a reality.
“A lot of my efforts were coordinating all of the players to execute the tests,” said Tekell. “I was the project manager responsible for cost, schedule and performance as well as establishing an aircraft integration team between four government and contractor organizations. Test execution required test plan writing, test card development, air space, aircraft, maintenance, airworthiness and safety planning. It’s a large coordination effort.”
As a flight commander and flight test engineer, Tekell had a busy schedule with his every day mission and had to find the time to coordinate this effort as well.
“Coming from test pilot school, it was normal to work long hours,” said Tekell. “This was something that I personally saw as a benefit to the Air Force. The current flight test techniques are expensive, and the new test techniques offered a better way to test sensors. On top of the additional hours, I needed to balance this effort with 42 test programs that we were running to ensure that we still met customer needs.”
Having worked with Neff in the past, Tekell had a vested personal interest in making this theory work.
“I knew from Lt. Col. Neff’s test pilot school courses that we can do this better,” said Tekell. “The integration in this aircraft and these tests are really going to help testing of different sensors in the future.”
Devotion to excel is what made Tekell the key member of the team that he was.
“I really had a personal desire to see that these test techniques were proven,” said Tekell. “It went very well. In addition it has given us a capability to do future testing on a series of sniper upgrades.”
With the success that HAVE LIGHT has realized, Neff and Tekell’s team have helped Holloman lead the way in targeting innovation.
“The 586 FLTS testbed aircraft are much cheaper than doing this with an F-16,” said Tekell. “We can do it faster and cheaper than any other squadron in the Air Force.”