USAF testers prepare for F-35 operational evaluation

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US Air Force operational testers received their first Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters at Edwards AFB, California, and Nellis AFB, Nevada, in eary March, kicking-off preparations to begin the formal operational evaluation of the stealthy fifth-generation warplane.

Thus far, the Nellis-based 53rd Test and Evaluation Group (TEG), which is the parent unit for both the Edwards and Nellis-based test squadrons, has received a total of four F-35s. More are expected to arrive later this month, says Col Robert Novotny, commander of the widely dispersed unit.

Deliveries to the Edwards-based 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) will be completed this year with the arrival of its sixth and final F-35 late this summer. Meanwhile, the Nellis-based 422nd TES will receive two more jets by mid-March. Eventually the unit will receive a total of 12 conventional take-off and landing A-model aircraft.

 

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The 31st TES is composed solely of USAF personnel and, due to the necessities of operational testing, will not rely on contractor support. At its core, the mission of the 53rd TEG comes down to "product testing" new hardware and its associated tactics with a dispassionate eye, Novotny says. As such, units like the 31st TES and 422nd TES have to be representative of operational F-35 units in order to ensure that testing conditions are reflective of real world deployments.

"The 31st is operations and maintenance all in one squadron. It is the first time that it's been pure air force," Novotny says. "At Eglin [AFB in Florida], and also at Edwards, where the guys are doing some of the test stuff, [there is] very heavy contractor participation and understandably so."

Formal operational testing will not start for a few years yet, but in the meantime the 31st TES has to build up its capacity. That means training a cadre of pilots and maintainers to operate the new fighter, Novotny says. Already, the unit has three pilots who are qualified to fly the F-35, with more to follow. "Over the next two years or so, I have to get them to a capability where they're ready to go execute a wartime scenario," Novotny says.

Operational testing for the F-35 will be somewhat different from the more traditional route taken by the Lockheed F-22 Raptor, which underwent developmental testing and initial operational testing at Edwards AFB with the 31st TES sequentially. Afterwards, the Raptor underwent follow-on operational testing with the 422nd TES, only after which the formal training unit at Tyndall, AFB, Florida, received their aircraft.

 

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Because of the concurrency built into the F-35 programme, instructor pilots at the F-35 training wing at Eglin AFB received their jets before the operational testers. As such, the training unit's pilots are discovering many of the problems that would normally be found by operational testers, Novotny says.

Another artifact of concurrency is that the 31st TES and 422nd TES will be working together much more closely than they have on past progammes. Normally, the 31st TES conducts initial operational testing while the 422nd TES subsequently undertakes force development evaluations. But because both units are receiving their aircraft at the same time, they will closely coordinate their activities. "I envision this being a collaborative process between the two squadrons," Novotny says. "They all know each other, they all fly together. So 31st guys will come here and fly 422nd jets and vice-versa."

However, when operational testing formally begins, the burden of evaluating the F-35 will fall on the 31st TES first. "Eventually, the 31st, I'm going to put them under the spotlight and they're going to go out and do Block 2 OT&E [operational test and evaluation]," Novotny says.

Having participated in the Raptor's operational test phase, Novonty hopes to incorporate lessons learned from that programme into the F-35's forthcoming trials. "We made mistakes during the F-22 programme, as anybody does, and we've learned a lot of lessons," he says.

The pilots who evaluated the F-22 were all people who transitioned from fourth-generation fighters like the Boeing F-15. Novotny says that one error those early testers made was that they flew the F-22 like a better performing F-15. "Initially that was okay, but then I think we realised we were holding ourselves back," Novotny says. "You really have to think about how you're going to use these jets because of the information provided to the pilot, because of the capabilities the airplane brings to the fight."

 

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One way that Novotny hopes to avoid that trap is to recruit an operational test pilot who has flown the F-22 from the beginning of his or her career. Like the F-35, the Raptor has fused sensor systems and stealth, which require a similar mindset to operate. "We've got to get an F-22 fifth-gen baby into the F-35 programme," Novotny says. Ideally, the operational test squadrons would prefer graduates of the USAF's elite Weapons School, but such personnel are in high demand, he says.