2014 Edwards Testers
Updated: Feb 3, 2018
Though the days Chuck Yeager flew his Bell X-1 over Edwards AFB seem to be of times way back, Edwards AFB has still held some of its mysticism. Frank Visser visited the base in the Mojave desert and spoke to Colonel David Fedors, a high ranking Staff officer and test pilot of the 412 Test Wing, about the current situation at the largest Test Wing within the USAF.
For decades Edwards AFB in the Mojave Desert in California has been the most important Test Base in the United States for the USAF but also for NASA, several civilian organisations, foreign air forces and companies. It all started in 1932 when a new range was constructed next to Roger Dry Lake. This location was popularly called Mojave Field, though correctly it was Muroc Field. In 1938 the United States renewed its focus on Research and Development and because of its ideal location Muroc Army Air Field (AAF) became even more important, resulting in 1940 in a huge investment of $ 120 million in a base, which already covered an area of 1220 km². Two years later the first America jet, a P-59 Aircomet took off from this base and four years later the USAF started its well-known X-plane programs, culminating in an important milestone on 14 October 1947 when Major Chuck Yeager in his Bell X-1 broke the sound barrier for the first time. The years of test flying after World War II resulted in many new records but also suffered the loss of many pilots and their test aircraft. In 1950 Muroc Field was renamed Edwards AFB after co-pilot Glen Edwards, who had lost his life in a
YB-49 crash in 1948. The following year Edwards AFB became the USAF Flight Test Center.
Many test programs have been carried out in the decades that followed such as the X-15 flights, the
YF-12/SR-71 program, YA-10B, YF-15 up to the Space Shuttle Program initiated by President Richard Nixon in 1972.
The mighty B-52H and the slick B-2A over Edwards AFB. Two of the three types flying with 419 FLTS.
The third type used by the 419 FLTS is the
Various test programs are still being executed daily. The greater part is carried out by 412 Test Wing (TW). The present 412 TW was established at Muroc AAF as 412 Fighter Group (FG) in November 1943. Within three years and after having already been detached at various airfields 412 FG was de-activated just as many other units after WW II. In August 1955, however, 412 FG was revitalized as an Air Defence unit. Its new home base became Wurtsmith AFB in Michigan, where it was stationed till 1960 to be de-activated for a second time. On 1 March 1978 6510 TW was activated at Edwards AFB as part of the Air Force Systems Command (AFSC) and when in 1992 AFSC became Air Force Material Command (AFMC), 6510 TW was renamed 412 TW which had just been activated again.
The present The present 412 TW, the largest TW within the AFMC, has 7,737 persons employed of which there are 1,587 on active duty and a large number of civilians/government officials (3,441). The contractors are another large group (2,483) and there is a small support group of 226 personnel. The 412 TW is divided into various Groups: 412 Test Engineering Group, Maintenance Group, Electronic Warfare Group and Test Management Division. Also part of 412 TW is the Test Pilot School, where U.S Air Force and foreign air force pilots, navigators and engineers are taught how to conduct flight tests and generate the data needed to carry out test missions. In this article I will focus on the aircraft accommodated with 412 Operations Group (OG), which at present has 8 Flight Test Squadrons (FLTS) at its disposal.
A F-22A of 411 FLTS breaking left over Edwards AFB with main base clearly visible in the canopy.
412 FLTS has some KC-135s in its inventory but on a regularly basis KC-135 from operational ACC units are bases on Edwards AFB to support 412 FLTS in the air-to-air refuelling task.
Various versions of the F-16 are flown by 416 FLTS and C-17s, KC-135s, and KC-46s are with 418 FLTS. The B-1s, B-2s and B-52s are operated by 419 FLTS. Test Operations consists of the 445 FLTS and Reserve squadron, the 370 FLTS. Test Ops operates T-38s, C-12s, KC-135s, KC-10s, and F-16s. The Global Vigilence CTF has the RQ-4s at its disposal and finally 461 FLTS tests the all three versions of the F-35s.
According to Col. David Fedors is Edwards AFB a unique place. The entire area comprises North Base, Main Base and South Base plus Roger Dry Lake with a total of eighteen runways at our disposal. Moreover Plant 42 in nearby Palmdale has recently been added. All in all around 75 aircraft are operated by 412 OG, who flew 1,914 test flights and an additional 1,145 support missions such as chase flights and air-to-air refueling missions in 2013. From 1 January 2014 until 30 September 1,595 test flight hours were achieved within a total of 4,562,4 hours and 1,485 test support sorties were flown in 3,280,9 hours.
Due to sequestration budget cuts in 2013 it is expected that the 412 TW will fly more test missions this year than the year before.
Marked as the 412 OG aircraft this F-16D belongs to 416 FLTS.
Two F-16Ds of 416 FLTS taxing towards the runway. Due to budgets costs 445 FLTS will be integrated within 416 FLTS.
Airborne and gear up for this F-16D of 445 FLTS.
Another F-16C of 416 FLTS takes of from Edwards AFB.
The Air Force Test Center based on Edwards AFB decides which test program will be carried out at which location. Col. David Fedors said that the A-10 test programs are at 96 TW Eglin AFB, just as those of the F-15, whereas weapons testing on the F-15 is done at both locations. He also mentioned that the F-16 tests are also executed at both Eglin AFB and Edwards AFB. Small test programs have a timeline of a couple of months. There is an urgent operational need, because of operations in areas such as Afghanistan, testing can be accelerated.
In front of the famous Edwards control tower this 418 FLTS C-17A is taxing back after completing another test flight.
Also in the inventory of 445 FLTS are a couple of T-38s. This T-38C is practising touch and goes on Edwards AFB.
Parked on the ramp at Edwards this C-12C belongs to 418 FLTS.
A RQ-4B towed by personnel of 452 FLTS towed at Edwards AFB during the last Air Show in 2009.
He continued by saying that within 8 FLTS the squadron commander performs the task of Combined Test Force (CTF) director. Members of the CTF formulate the test program, develop the criteria for flight test missions, execute flight test missions, analyze data from these test flights and report on the results. Safety is the highest priority and consequently each test program is executed in accordance with the build-up principle. By starting with the simulator training one will get a picture of what can be expected. The actual test flights are made up of so-called test cards and each test will be thoroughly evaluated at several levels. The test programs are constructed very carefully.
The F-35 is the most important program at this moment and for many years to come. Before the F-35 will be introduced in the various air forces as a complete and valuable system several test phases must be passed through. In 2001 the Pentagon announced that Lockheed Martin had won the competition to build the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and since that year the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase has started. The last few years Edwards AFB was the playground for the SDD phase.
During every test flight a chase plane is escorting the 461 FLTS F-35A. Nowadays the F-35s have the ED code on their tails.
Until 31 August of this year F-35As have flown 132 missions, F-35Bs 228 missions and the last model of the F-35C has flown 175 SDD missions. The SDD phase will end in a couple of years. The Development Testing & Evaluation (DT&E), which has been active at Edwards AFB for some time now has also been accommodated by the 461 FLTS. All three variants of the F-35 are based at Edwards AFB. The Operational Test & Evaluation (OT&E) phase, which will also take place at Edwards AFB, is done by the 31 Test Evaluation Squadron part of the 53 Wing. The OT&E or rather Joint OT&E, since in addition to the USAF, the USMC and the USN, the RAF/RN and the RNLAF are also participating with their own aircraft, will start on the 1 January 2015 and will take four years to complete. Twenty-three 23 F-35s (6 F-35A, 6 F-35B, 6 F-35C (all US), 3 RAF/RN F-35B and 2 RNLAF F-35As will soon be deployed at Edwards AFB and they will fly some 2,200 test sorties.
New austerity measures will definitely have consequences for 412 TW. Col. David Fedors explains: “We will have to reduce our overhead costs and some of the programs will have to be cancelled. By sharing our acquired know-how and the aircraft even more we should be able to realize this.” An immediate consequence of the budget cuts is that 445 FLTS and 416 FLT will merge.
A B-2A of 419 FLTS seen during the Air Show in 2009 at Edwards AFB. 419 FLTS is based on South base and has the B-1, B-2 and B-52 in its inventory.
A rational decision as both FLTSs fly the F-16. Col. David Fedors knows that maintenance and working with so many different configurations of aircraft will be a challenge. “Our aircraft don’t fly that much as aircraft in operational squadrons. Expanding programs like that of the F-35 and limited housing on the base is also a challenge. That’s why civilians already live outside the base. Working together with so many different specialists some of them from abroad in the most complex Operations Group within the Air Force is a privilege.
The men and women of 412 TW are doing a huge and outstanding job. For example the F-22 and F-35 test programs or 412 FLTS and their test evaluations on war programs. We are taking testing seriously and that’s why we are the best air force in the world.”