During this time of continued Air Force Innovation, the T-7A Test Team of the Air Force’s new pilot trainer, the T-7A Red Hawk, has developed innovative ways to maintain the Air Force Test Center’s level of excellence in support of the T-7A Test Program. The T-7A Test Team executed Distributed Test Operations (DTO) in a Mission Control Room at Ridley Mission Control Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Rebecca Mitchell, T-7A Lead Flight Test Engineer, 416th Flight Test Squadron, watches real-time flight telemetry of a remote T-7A Red Hawk test flight from the Boeing flight test center in St. Louis, Missouri, at the Ridley Mission Control Center on Edwards Air Force Base, California. U.S. Air Force photo by Giancarlo Casem.

“This capability will permit subject matter experts from AFTC and Boeing to work together to provide expertise on high-risk testing from control rooms in two different locations,” said Rebecca Mitchell, T-7A Lead Flight Test Engineer, 416th Flight Test Squadron. “The addition of a second control room also increases the number of seats available for any given mission, improving our ability to train new engineers.”

DTO allows engineers within Ridley to view real-time flight tests from remote locations. The latest test took place approximately 1600 miles away in St. Louis, Missouri. Engineers on Edwards were able to watch video and view flight telemetry real-time. 

The 412th Range Squadron enabled DTO by establishing a Defense Research and Engineering Network (DREN) connection between Ridley Mission Control Center at Edwards and the Boeing flight test facility in St. Louis.

The DTO project began in June 2019, during Boeing’s first phase of flight testing the T-7A Red Hawk.  With the need for the Edwards’ T-7A Test Team to participate in test activities in St Louis, pilots and engineers from Edwards would be required to travel to the Boeing facility for weeks at a time, removing their expertise from other critical test efforts at Edwards.

The 412th RANS Range Engineering team, under the technical leadership of Bill Rauch and Darryl Watkins, collaborated with Boeing and the 416th FLTS, the T-7A Lead Developmental Test organization, to evaluate DTO requirements for telemetry, voice and video connectivity. They assembled and successfully tested all equipment in the 412 RANS Engineering lab, then deployed, tested and completed initial operation of the T-7A link in early March.

“We then worked with Boeing to develop processes for our day-to-day DTO operations, such as transferring the software files required to operate our data displays in the Edwards AFB control rooms,” Mitchell said. “We did an initial checkout where the control rooms were connected and we did a playback of a completed test flight. The combined test team performed our first real-time DTO mission with engineers at both test locations today.”

In the name of test efficiency and cost savings, the DREN connection enables the Edwards’ T-7A Test Team to support safe and effective flight test activities with aircraft telemetered data and voice communication for real time remotely executed flight test.

The test team also includes the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center’s Detachment 5.

“AFOTEC is the Operational Test Agency for the T-7 program,” said Master Sgt. Kyle Quigley, T-7A Operational Test Team Deputy Test Director, AFOTEC Det. 5. “We represent the warfighter’s viewpoint within the integrated test team and strive to provide relevant and timely feedback to the program office and AETC (Air and Education Training Command).”

Testing for the T-7A Red Hawk is expected to relocate to Edwards in the Fall for the second phase of flight tests, and Boeing engineers will be able to support the T-7A program in St. Louis while the aircraft flies over the airspace at Edwards. Significant time and cost savings will be realized by reducing the travel requirements for the test team, in addition to decreasing T-7A Test Team members’ separation from their families, Mitchell said.

“Before COVID-19, our T-7 test team maintained a constant presence in St. Louis to observe missions, with engineers spending up to 50 percent of their time TDY (temporary duty assignment) in St. Louis,” Mitchell said. “This travel burden was a significant financial cost to the test program, and it put a lot of strain on our test team and their families. DTO will allow us to stay involved in flight test operations in St. Louis without overburdening our engineers with travel.”

Mitchell, Quigley and other members of the test team believe DTO could have wider-spread use in the overall testing enterprise past the recent COVID-19 travel restrictions.

“I see DTO being a large benefit across the test enterprise after COVID-19 because it will greatly reduce the amount of travel needed to monitor testing at remote sites,” Quigley said. “For systems where the testing is being performed by the primary contractor, increased oversight from the government test community will make it easier to validate contractor testing and reduce the amount of developmental testing that needs to be repeated.”