Formation Flight of Six C-17s Made for Flight System Test

Six C-17As from the 418th FLTS and other units sit on the ramp at Edwards AFB in preparation for a formation flight test.
Photo: USAF / Mike Cassidy

3/25/2009 - EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, CA -- The Global Reach Combined Test Force concluded a colossal mission of performing a formation test with six C-17 Globemaster IIIs March 14 and 17.

As the newest, most flexible cargo aircraft to enter the airlift fleet, the C-17 is capable of rapid strategic delivery of troops and cargo to main operating bases or directly to forward bases in deployed environments.

The aircraft is equipped with a formation flight system that enables the pilot to monitor and fly the aircraft in formation with other C-17s.

"The C-17 has a basic mission requirement to be able to fly large-scale formation, both in the clear and through the clouds," said Lt. Col. James Hanley, 418th Flight Test Squadron commander. "The purpose is to be able to deliver a sizeable Army force of both personnel and their equipment into a hostile environment very rapidly."

Initially, the formation flight system was tested at Edwards in the summer of 2008, afterward it was tested at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., in four-ship formation.

"While we were there, we discovered several system deficiencies that caused us not to recommend the system for the next phase of operational testing," Colonel Hanley said.

One of these deficiencies included electronic interference on the formation flight system's ability to "see" other aircraft.

"We didn't know the source," the colonel said. "Both the Systems Group, Program Office and Boeing engineers have been analyzing the test for the last six months. They needed some more data on what was causing these issues. They asked the Global Reach CTF to perform six-ship testing to gather data and hopefully, resolve these issues. The thought-process was the more aircraft there are in the formation, the more demand you are putting on the system and the more chances you will be able to see these deficiencies. "

Through the formation testing, the Global Reach CTF was trying to figure out the root cause of the system deficiencies.

"For a test of this scale, there is a lot of planning involved," said Colonel Hanley. "The specific formation geometries for the test and what airplane needs to be in what position require a very detailed plan in both how we are going to taxi and take off with six C-17s."

The test team performed a planning process, including forming a test and safety plan and programmatic scheduling for the aircraft.

Six C-17As from the 418th FLTS and other units taxi out to takeoff at Edwards AFB for a formation flight test.
Photo: USAF / Mike Cassidy

"Imagine driving a big rig truck that is 10 miles long; you have to think about what you are going to do before you do it," said Maj. Mark Jones Jr., 418th FLTS experimental test pilot. "When we were performing the test, we had 10 miles long formation. It takes a lot of forethought and planning to figure out how we are going to fly and how we are going to move the airplanes around in different formation geometries."

Part of the testing also included simulating airdrops and finding out what happens when the aircraft formation goes through a cloud.

"There were also a couple of challenges in dealing with six C-17s," Major Jones said. "It is not like the Thunderbirds where they take off right next to each other. When C-17 aircraft take off, they start to get stretched out. We also have to plan our route of flight, speed and climb schedule to make it easy for the last aircraft to catch up with the formation."

During testing, the pilots used the formation flight system to communicate with each other using their Global Positioning System and Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems. The pilots monitored each aircraft system to ensure they were working correctly.

"The lead pilot was responsible for sending information electronically, through the system, to other C-17s so that the whole formation knows what's going on," Major Jones said. "Our mission was to collect data. Test engineers wanted to see when the system malfunctioned. They wanted to find out when other aircraft systems interfered with the operation of the formation flight system."

According to Major Jones, the system will provide a substantial increase in capability once it becomes operational.

"The formation flight system is head and shoulders above the C-17's legacy formation system, which is called Station Keeping Equipment," the major said. "If we get it up and running, it is going to streamline how we do formation and increase our capabilities. It will make flying in formation easier for the pilots, thereby increasing airdrops and supplies to warfighters."

Colonel Hanley said various organizations were critical in completing the C-17 formation flight system testing. The 412th Operations Support Squadron provided the ramp space for the six aircraft as well as coordinated the taxi plan. The testers used the temporary runway to prevent clogging the main taxi ways.

The 412th Maintenance Group provided maintenance support, while the 412th Test Management Group and 412th Operations Group gave approval on the test and safety plans. In addition, Air Mobility Command loaned four aircraft and crew as well as maintenance support personnel for the test.

"Without great teamwork, we couldn't have done it," Colonel Hanley said. "This is overall a phenomenal effort from the whole team. We were able to fly all these aircraft on time and get the data we needed in two missions. The professionalism of the aircrew is remarkable. It was an overall incredible effort, and I was proud to be part of it."

Source: USAF Press Release by Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes

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