A CV-22 Osprey from the 413th FLTS hovers over Hurlburt
Field during a fuel jettison test mission. The back half
of the aircraft is coated with a substance that shows
where the fuel has made contact.
Photo: USAF / Thomas Cooper
3/12/2009 - What the movie "Top Gun" did for fighter
pilots, "The Right Stuff" did for test pilots.
But developmental test pilots at Eglin Air Force Base say test
flying has come a long way since the early days depicted in
"Most people think we're all Chuck Yeager" said Lt.
Col. Geno Wagner, 413th Flight Test Squadron commander. Retired
Air Force Maj. Gen. Chuck Yeager, a former test pilot, was the
first man to break the sound barrier in 1947 and set several
other speed and altitude records. "They think we're cowboys
and wear space suits."
That idea, in part, is what drew retired Lt. Col. Andy White
to the career field.
"When I first went to test pilot school, I thought I'd
get to do all these cool things with new airplanes that nobody's
ever done before," said Mr. White, former commander and
now civilian test pilot with the 413th FLTS. In fact, Mr. White
was the first test pilot to drop the GBU-43B, known as the Mother
of All Bombs in 2003. "But there's a lot of time that I
spend flying around in circles - same altitude, same airspeed."
Today's developmental pilots are not the adrenaline junkie,
hot shots taking on deadly test missions, but studious, methodical
engineers. While testing new weapons, software and airframes
will always have an element of danger, everything is tested,
measured and put through hundreds of simulations on the ground
before it is put in the air.
"Safety is a big part of what we do," said Maj. James
Stahl, 413th FLTS assistant director of operations and test
"We mitigate risk probably better than anybody,"
said Colonel Wagner. "We don't fly with 'no' risk, we fly
with 'known' risk."
Developmental test pilots certify that weapons do what they
are supposed to, and test new weapons and software to ensure
the contractor satisfies the requirements. For instance, Air
Combat Command will set requirements for a new capability, such
as a missile, radar integration software or a guidance system
on a bomb.
The test pilots are involved early in the process with the
contractor building the capability so they can figure out how
to test it and what criteria should be used to judge its success.
It's during these times the more methodical chores are broken
up with the test pilots pushing a new system to the limits of
its capabilities - called the envelope.
"In developmental testing, we're certifying an envelope,
so we'll say the new capability can go to these speeds and survive,
and won't shake the aircraft apart," said Maj. Kyle Kolsti,
40th FLTS assistant director of operations. "Our primary
task is to make sure the capability meets the specifications
set forth and it can be safely carried within the envelopes
the user requires."
THE 40th FLTS
The 40th FLTS employs 21 aircraft in testing; F-15s, F-16s,
A-10Cs and UH-1 helicopters. They test many of the weapons used
by military aircraft down range, such as the JDAM (Joint Direct
Attack Munition), SFW (Sensor Fuzed Weapon), the SDB (Small
Diameter Bomb), AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile)
and the AIM 9X (Sidewinder missile).
"Since we are part of the Air Armament Center, we are
fortunate enough to be involved in the development and improvement
of weapon systems," said Capt. Matt Phillips, 40th FLTS
F-16 assistant flight commander. "These weapons are critical
to the warfighter."
Weapons testing encompasses everything from how munitions bolt
onto the aircraft to whether it successfully engages the target.
The flight test squadrons determine whether it works. After
rigorous developmental testing, it is handed off to operational
test pilots for further testing in a combat or operational scenario.
The tests commonly flown by the developmental test pilots are
separations, compatibility flight profile and flutter testing.
F-16CG #88-0441 of the 40th FLTS is seen aloft during
a weapon test sortie.
Separations testing analyzes all aspects of weapons that separate
from an aircraft.
"It starts on the ground," said Major Kolsti, an F-16
test pilot. "It goes to the lab; once it's done there,
we'll take it out to the jet, bolt it on, turn it on, power
it up to make sure it doesn't interfere with the other systems.
We'll take it through the (computer) wind tunnel models, we'll
fly it in the wind tunnel and then we'll go through a taxi test."
This build-up testing is designed to minimize risk when the
new capability is tested in the air.
Next, the pilots test the weapon in flight to ensure the weapon
separates cleanly without impacting the aircraft and "to
see if the bomb tumbles, fishtails or does other things they
weren't anticipating," Major Kolsti said.
Chase aircraft and the test aircraft itself record the event
on camera or video.
Flutter testing is another important aspect of the weapons
test program. Flutter testing deals with stores, which are any
items hung off the wing of an aircraft. Weapons, brackets, pylons
and pods can interfere with the airflow over the wing, and at
certain speeds and altitudes, the wing and the stores vibrate.
The aircraft and weapon's structure can break or the vibration
can be so violent that the pilot can't perform his mission.
"You can see the wing bouncing up and down rapidly, and
it feels like you're driving over railroad tracks," said
Major Kolsti. "We slowly accelerate at different altitudes
until it reaches a point where it's out of limits. That's how
we establish the envelope operational pilots will be allowed
to operate with the munition."
The third type of weapons testing is called Compatibility Flight
Profiles. This is where test pilots "push the envelope"
or establish safe limits for the new capability in flight. During
these missions, aircraft and weapons are taken to the limit
with high-G pulls, high-G bunts, where the nose is suddenly
pushed down, and loaded rolls, where the aircraft rolls from
side to side to transfer G forces to the opposite side. These
missions can last more than three hours and require in-flight
"I've seen test points where we have to climb to 50,000
feet and then put in the afterburner and dive down to reach
a high-speed test point," Major Kolsti said. "And
then we're out of gas," he said. "If we didn't have
a tanker, it could take up to eight flights to complete one
of these test sorties."
The 40th FLTS also test airframes, flight controls, engines,
avionics software and sensors. They test all software development
for active-duty F-15s, and conduct most testing for the A-10C
The A-10 Warthogs received a major modification upgrade for
use in the current Global War on Terror.
"We helped develop the A-10C," said Lt. Col. Evan
Dertien, 40th FLTS commander. Along with the contractors, the
squadron tested a complete modernization of avionics for the
aircraft and the technology to drop precision-guided munitions.
It now has modern electronic displays that include global positioning
system, moving maps and integrated targeting technology.
Modernization of the aircraft is necessary to collect test
data. Test aircraft are specially instrumented with cameras
and telemetry that is monitored by engineers in a control room
on the ground.
"The engineers see the heads-up display video - the parameters,
air speed and altitude - just as we do in the cockpit,"
said Major Kolsti. "They're collecting all kinds of data
in the background. While the pilots fly test points, the engineers
let the pilots know when the test point is met or they may decide
when it's too dangerous to continue. This is an important safety
measure in flutter testing because the engineers have more information
than the pilot on the weapon and measurements of the wing's
The squadron's UH-1 helicopter pilots stay busy testing the
airframes and its capabilities as well as testing capabilities
for other aircraft early in the test process. For instance,
if a navigation system needs to be tested before they can continue
perfecting a new capability for an F-15, they can first fly
it on the helicopter. This gives the contractors an opportunity
to refine their software or weapon before flying it on a more
"To fly it on an F-15 costs about $15,000 an hour,"
said Colonel Dertien. "A helicopter costs less than $1,000
The 413th FLTS
The 413th FLTS has the same mission, but it's located at Hurlburt
Field because it flies developmental test missions on special
operations aircraft, like the various models of the C-130 and
the CV-22 Osprey. The squadron has seven test pilots flying
16 different aircraft models, although it only owns two - a
CV-22 and a C-130. That means they borrow a lot of aircraft
from other squadron for tests.
"One of the things that make us unique is that a lot of
us are attached to operational flying squadrons," said
Mr. White. "We fly with combat units when they do local
training, maintain combat mission ready status and can deploy
with operational units if required."
No other test squadron allows their pilots to do this. "This
gives us more credibility with AFSOC, and makes us operationally
relevant testers," added Major Stahl.
Unlike the fighter jets that are either single- or dual-seaters,
the C-130 and its' many variations typically takes a crew of
five to fly, and the CV-22 typically requires three crew members.
So not only do the test pilots use the combat aircraft stationed
at Hurlburt for testing, but also the operational crewmembers
to assist with flights.
"When I'm out testing a new software load for the MC-130H
and I'm the test pilot, I've got a flight test engineer, and
the rest of the guys onboard the aircraft are operational crew
members," he said.
Mr. White said having operational crewmembers aboard is advantageous
because developmental test pilots no longer fly real world missions.
The crewmembers who fly in combat speak up if they think something
they're testing won't work in theater.
"It gives us a good idea of how (operational crews) are
employing the airplane and the way they use the systems,"
Mr. White said. "Guys stationed at Edwards or other units
physically removed from operational units don't have the same
day-to-day access we do with our ultimate customer."
Test pilots Maj. Karl Seekamp and Maj. Solomon Baase listen
to Lt. Col. Geno Wagner, commander of the 413th FLTS.
Photo: USAF / Noel Getlin
The 413th FLTS tests weapons, software upgrades, radar and
warning systems like terrain-following and collision avoidance
systems. One of the unique capabilities they've been working
on is the Advanced Tactical Laser, a directed energy weapon
to be shot from the belly of a C-130.
"It will be the first time anyone has ever shot a laser
from an aircraft and blown up something on the ground,"
Colonel Wagner said of the chemical laser. "We're the first
guys that get to do that."
"And that's what everybody hopes for," said Maj.
Solomon Baase, 413th FLTS test pilot. "... to go out and
fly a new system or do a first-time test. That's when you really
feel like you're the tip of the spear and pushing the envelope."
The squadron's two CV-22 test pilots have been working on testing
a defensive gun for the tilt-rotor aircraft that was meant to
operate as an offensive weapon.
"The (AC-130H) gunship was built for that, but the Osprey
was never meant to have it," said Maj. Karl Seekamp, 413th
FLTS CV-22 test pilot.
In addition to the Ospreys, they also test other helicopters
and plan to test new search and rescue helicopters in April.
"We are the only helicopter testing squadron in the Air
Force," said Major Seekamp.
EDUCATION AND TRAINING
Most all developmental test pilots are Test Pilot School graduates.
The pilots start out as operational pilots and work their way
up in the pilot hierarchy to instructor pilot. To be considered
for Test Pilot School, they must have an engineering degree.
Once pilots graduate, they stay in the developmental test or
acquisitions for the rest of their career.
The school lasts one year and is focused on four areas; performance,
handling qualities, systems and test management. They learn
to fly about 20 to 25 different military airframes during that
time; one of the bonuses that attract some to the field. "The
really cool thing about developmental test pilots is we can
fly any aircraft in the Air Force inventory and log time in
it," Colonel Wagner said.
"That's the whole point of the school," Major Baase
said. "They put us in so many different airplanes that
you break it down to an airplane is an airplane is an airplane.
You can't get too comfortable with it and rightfully so. You
want to be able to jump from one plane to another."
Flying different airframes is one of the benefits that draw
many pilots to the career field.
"A lot of guys go through their Air Force career and fly
maybe three or four planes, if they're lucky," Major Stahl
said. "If you talk to Mr. White about every single plane
and variant he' flown, it's probably 70 to 80 planes. Who does
that? The richest man in the world with all the resources can't
pay to fly that many different aircraft, and yet they pay us
to do that."
But of all the benefits and privileges afforded developmental
test pilots, the most rewarding aspect is the fact that they
are taking care of the warfighter by providing better and safer
"It's a chance to make an impact and really deliver a
better product," Colonel Dertien said. "My friends
are flying A-10s, F-15s, F-16s and F-22s operationally right
now. We are working on things that I know they're going to get
in a year. And they will call me and say, 'Hey, this sucks,'
or 'Hey, that new weapon you guys worked on for us is awesome.'
The most satisfying part of the job is when a new capability
is proven in combat."
Source: USAF Press Relese by Noel Getlin