846th Test Squadron qualifies vital new ejection system for Air Force’s new trainer jet

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  • By Bradley Hicks

Since the Air Force announced its intent to replace the T-38C Talon with the T-7A Red Hawk, various aspects of the successor have been studied to prepare the trainer jet for its imminent deployment.

The examination of a critical component of the T-7A is underway at the Holloman High Speed Test Track at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

In January 2021, testing to qualify the T-7A ejection system began at the HHSTT. This ongoing testing is expected to continue through the beginning of 2022.

The HHSTT, a rocket sled track that can test models of varying sizes up to full-scale at speeds of up to Mach 8, is operated by the 846th Test Squadron, part of the 704th Test Group at Holloman AFB. The test group is a unit of Arnold Engineering Development Complex, headquartered at Arnold Air Force Base, Tennessee. The 846th TS uses the HHSTT to provide customers with test data that includes lethality effects, impact survivability, separation dynamics and guidance system performance.

According to Capt. Landon Walrod, 846th TS project manager, a fully-representative forebody sled was created for these ejection system tests.

“Test setup is quite extensive due to all the different buildup activities that have to take place,” Walrod said.

The 846th TS has utilized both the largest-class and smallest-class manikins in order to test the ejection system for the extremes of the body dimension envelope that the T-7A airframe is designed to meet. These manikins are fully-instrumented with a bevy of sensor variations and are outfitted in full aircrew flight equipment dress, which includes a flight suit, helmet and boots.

“Massive amounts of collaboration and setup are also done for the photo optics collection for each test, capturing high-framerate, high-definition footage, from many different angles in order to document system performance, conduct injury analysis of the test manikins and ensure that all systems are functioning as desired before proceeding further into testing,” Walrod said.

Various safety modes of the T-7A ejection seat have been and continue to be tested at the HHSTT. These tests are designed to replicate all various profiles of the aircraft’s flight, such as stationary, slow-speed flight and high-speed flight.

“The failure of the canopy fracturing system would result in an emergency mode backup ejection in which the canopy breakers on the seat and the catapult still have sufficient force to get the pilot and seat safely out of the cockpit,” Walrod said. “Other static tests are done to ensure that the entire operating envelope and ejection seat modes of the aircraft are tested.”

The T-7A System Program Office in the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, which has overseen the procurement and qualification testing requirements and will oversee all acquisition acceptance testing of the new airframe, requested the ejection system testing at HHSTT. A holistic aircraft flight qualification testing regime is being completed elsewhere.

“Our qualification testing is just one subsystem of the aircraft, just a completed puzzle piece that goes into place for the overall actual aircraft fielding,” Walrod said.

In September 2018, the Air Force selected the Boeing T-X to replace the nearly-60-year-old T-38C. The following year, it was announced that T-X had officially been named the T-7A Red Hawk. In September 2020, it was announced that due to the digital engineering used to develop the aircraft, it would be designated as the first “eSeries” aircraft and would also be referred to as the eT-7A.

“The goal of this replacement is not only a modernization upgrade and reset to the predicted aircraft duty lifecycle, but the T-7A is safer, more efficient, more supportable, and easier to maintain,” Walrod said.

Like the T-38C, the T-7A is an advanced jet trainer. This means, like its predecessor, the T-7A will be used to train the next generation of pilots and acclimate them to the tactical and fundamental operation of jet-powered aircraft.