Edwards Air Force Base continues to be the nerve centre of the test community. With the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter testing ramping up, the base was visited by GAR in 2014 to get an overview of current operations and units at the world-famous Californian base. Words and images by Kevin Jackson.
Edwards Air Force Base, close to the city of Lancaster in California’s arid Antelope Valley, has a long and distinguished tradition of pushing the boundaries of flight. Conducting flight testing is what Edwards specialises in to this day, with the 412th Test Wing continuing that tradition under Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC).
A Testing Environment
Overseen by the 412th Test Wing (TW), Edwards employs over 10,000 military, federal, civilian and contract personnel assigned to the 481-square mile installation. The 412th TW plans, conducts, analyses and reports on all flight and ground testing of aircraft, weapons systems, software and components as well as modelling and simulation for the US Air Force (USAF).
2014 has seen differing fortunes for the 412th TW. On one hand the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) test fleet continues to expand as the aircraft closes in on Initial Operational Capability (IOC). However, this was tempered by a reduction of the F-16 fleet by eight aircraft and the loss of one B-1 bomber by the conclusion of the 2014 Fiscal-Year, this being a result of force-wide budgetary cuts due in part to sequestration.
412th TW Realignment
Adapting to the ever-changing test environment is nothing new for the 412th TW commander, Brig. Gen. Michael Brewer and his wing personnel. Along with the reductions, he announced in June 2014 that this would result in a realignment of the flying squadrons within the wing to consolidate the smaller fleets.
As of FY 2015 the T-38C and F-16 fleets will be assigned to the 416th Flight Test Squadron (FLTS) (Global Fighters). The KC-135 tanker fleet will fall under the 418th FLTS (Global Reach); this will include the Speckled Trout, a specially modified KC-135 which was formerly in a dual-role of a communications test aircraft and flying distinguished visitors (DV) with the 412th FLTS. “We will no longer do the DV mission, we’ll keep the airplane and use it as a test platform and use it as a test tanker,” said Brig. Gen. Brewer. The C-12C Huron fleet’s varied missions will operate under the 419th FLTS (Global Bombers). The 445th FLTS (Test Ops) which formerly operated the shadow fleet, tankers and C-12s will disband along with the 412th FLTS (Speckled Trout). By Fiscal Year 2016 the wing will have two bombers left with the 419th FLTS – a B-52 and a B-2.
The 5th generation fighter test squadrons, the 411th FLTS (F-22) and 461st FLTS (F-35), are unaffected. The test wing has also expanded to oversee facilities and security at Air Force Plant 42 at nearby Palmdale Airport, where contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin conduct their own test and development projects for the Department of Defense.
In addition to the USAF owned and operated F-16s flying from Edwards, Lockheed-Martin uses the test facilities to flight-test its new F-16 Block -50s and -60s purchased by foreign customers. In recent years examples from the Egyptian and Royal Moroccan Air Force have been noted.
Test Pilot School
Edwards Air Force Base is also home to the world renowned USAF Test Pilot School (USAF TPS) which celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2014. The TPS, a tenant unit of the 412th TW, teaches how to conduct flight tests and generate the data needed to successfully carry out test missions. US service members along with a select number of foreign students take a 48-week programme that includes more than 2,500 hours of academics and approximately 120 hours of in-flight training in up to twenty different aircraft types, transforming top operational pilots, navigators and engineers into elite flight test professionals and graduating students with a Master of Science Degree in Flight Test Engineering. The TPS uses 412th TW assets as required, from T-38s to C-17s, and also leases specialist civilian types such as the aerobatic Extra 300 for specific requirements. One very special F-16D however, the heavily modified F-16 VISTA (Variable stability In-flight Simulator Test Aircraft), is directly operated and maintained by the USAF TPS. It is regularly used in student curriculum sorties, and other special academic projects, and wears the school’s shield on its tail.
F-35 Test Operations
The 412th TW is home to 15 Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning IIs. The Edwards F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF) has nine F-35s assigned for developmental testing, representing all three variants of the fifth-generation fighter: six F-35As, two F-35Bs and one F-35C.
The 461st FLTS “Deadly Jesters” was reactivated at Edwards in 2006 to conduct flight testing of the F-35 Lightning II JSF. The 461st flies four development F-35As – AF-01, AF-02, AF-03 and AF-04 – along with the first low rate initial production (LRIP) examples, AF-06 (07-0744) and AF-07 (07-0745). As a joint test venture the squadron also flies two examples of the V/STOL F-35B (168313 VM-12(BF-17) and 168314/18 [BF-18]) in conjunction with the US Marine Corps and is joined by a single naval configured F-35C (168735/ED-104 [CF-08]) with the co-located Integrated Test Force (JSF ITF). The US Navy’s VX-9 “Vampires” test squadron from nearby NAS China Lake have a “Det Edwards” to oversee the F-35C variant’s testing. In the near future, a number of foreign partner nations will begin operational testing of their F-35s at Edwards under the 412th TW ITF umbrella, starting with the Netherlands and Great Britain.
AF-02, the second development F-35 Lightning II for the USAF, became the first F-35 to reach 1,000 flight hours in June 2014.
412th TW F-16s are used as required for chase and support duties and the Royal Danish Air Force have contributed an F-16B to the JSF ITF program, suitably adorned with JSF tail markings.
In addition, operational testing on the F-35A for the USAF is being conducting from Edwards by the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, a tenant unit assigned under Air Combat Command (ACC). The squadron is ACC’s first operational test unit on the F-35 at Edwards with four aircraft assigned.
On 9 October 2014 the US Marine Corps’ Marine Operational and Evaluation Squadron 22 (VMX-22) received its first of two F-35B aircraft at Edwards for operational testing. This will no doubt work closely with the Royal Air Force’s No.17 Squadron which is expected to stand up at Edwards in 2015 as the UK’s F-35B Operational Evaluation Squadron.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has had a long and very close association with Edwards, probably most famously for the use of the dry lake bed as a landing site for its Space Shuttle missions. Long known as the Hugh L. Dryden Flight Research Center, or NASA Dryden for short, this year marked a milestone with a name change to the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center, in honour of and to reflect the former Edwards test pilot and astronaut’s contribution to the community. The dedication took place on 13 May 2014 and the support/chase F/A-18s and other assigned test aircraft now wear “Armstrong Flight Research Center” titles.
Edwards Air Force Base continues to be a core component of the test and development field, providing the warfighter with advanced aircraft and systems that are fully mission-ready. As you first catch sight of the hangars, historic tower and dry lake bed upon arriving, you cannot help yourself imagining Air Force Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager breaking the sound barrier in level flight for the first time in 1947 in his Bell X-1, or the exploits of the record breaking X-15 pilots between 1959-1968, who also qualified as astronauts having flown above 50 miles and reached record speeds of 4,520 miles per hour. Or imagining the Space Shuttle test vehicle, the Enterprise, gliding silently onto the lake bed after its first test release from the Boeing 747 carrier. Edwards is the place of dreams, of pushing the boundaries of man’s endeavours, a place with a history that inspires today’s test pilots. A place with “the right stuff”.
I would like to thank Mr. John Haire, 412th TW Public Affairs for his outstanding assistance during my two visits to Edwards in 2014.