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Reserve Component Test Pilots Wring Out Aircraft

A little-known flight test center tests low-cost combat aircraft improvements

At a test center in the American West that has mostly escaped public notice, military pilots are wringing out two aircraft that make a stark contrast – the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6C Texan II turboprop light attack plane and the Lockheed Martin F-16C/D block 25/30/32 Fighting Falcon jet fighter.

The location is the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Command Test Center (AATC) at Arizona’s Tucson International Airport, commanded by Col. Richard J. “Bones” Dennee. The center also tests upgrades to the F-15C/D Eagle and A-10C Thunderbolt II.

The test center, co-located with an Arizona Air National Guard F-16 fighter wing and across the runway from airline terminals, conducts operational tests on behalf of the reserve component – a term that encompasses both the Guard and Reserve. AATC is staffed by active-duty, Guard, Reserve, government civilian and contractor members.

The center “owns” seven F-16s and three A-10s and borrows other aircraft as needed. The two AT-6Cs (formerly called AT-6Bs) built by Hawker Beechcraft as a private venture in Wichita, Kan., are now residents at the center and are in the second stage of a prolonged evaluation funded by legislative earmarks from the Kansas congressional delegation.

“Our job is to field low-cost, low-risk, off-the-shelf improvements for aircraft and weapons systems,” Dennee said. AATC’s two most important projects today are the AT-6C, a candidate for the Air Force’s Light Armed Attack Aircraft (LAAR) and early models of the F-16C/D, which are being modernized for 21st century missions.

Lt. Col. Keith “Coma” Colmer, AT-6C test pilot, said the lean and efficient approach at AATC is “perfect” for evaluating a light-attack aircraft. Coma said AATC can perform some tests for as little as 20 percent of their cost elsewhere.

An AT-6C Texan II releases a flare during a flight test at AATC in Tucson on Oct. 5, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Gabe Johnson.

Air Force officials have sent mixed signals on how far they intend to proceed with LAAR. In 2008, chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz spoke of purchasing 100 LAARs for conflicts in insurgencies like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, Schwartz has cited smaller numbers and emphasized the ability of a LAAR to enable U.S. airmen to train flyers in “partner” nations. “I don’t see how we can afford not to do it,” said Colmer. “The cost of getting a gallon of gas to an F-16 or an A-10 is one ungodly number. We fly six sorties in the AT-6C on half the gas it takes one F-16 to fly its first mission. We flew [the AT-6C] for four weeks with half a quart of oil and didn’t have to change the oil. We need those kinds of economies.”

Superficially, the AT-6C looks like a World War II fighter. Its interior is all high-tech. Along with traditional manual flight controls – levers, cables and pulleys – the AT-6C carries mission computers, data links, radios, helmet-mounted cueing systems, HOTAS (hands-on throttle and stick) controls, and threat countermeasures.

FIGHTING FALCON FLIGHTS

Together with the AT-6C trials, AATC’s other big mission at the present time is testing and validating improvement to the versions of the F-16 in U.S. inventory. The center concluded similar work on the A-10C Thunderbolt II more than a year ago.

AATC is testing Software Capability Upgrades (SCUs) to block 25, 30 and 32 model F-16s. There are 113 F-16C/D block 25 and 319 F-16C/D block 30/32 models that have been in the fleet for more than 30 years and are the oldest of the 1,060 “Vipers” currently operated by the reserve component. These aircraft fly the air sovereignty alert (ASA) mission, guarding U.S. skies as part of the Pentagon’s overall homeland defense effort.

The current round of improvements to the F-16 block 25/30/32 series is known as SCU-7. Air Force officials said SCU-7 is aimed at bringing to older Vipers capabilities previously found only in newer models, including sensor and ordnance capabilities. That includes helmet mounted integrated targeting (HMIT), a lower cost day-night solution for helmet cueing than J-HMIT.

An AT-6C Texan II at the AATC test center at Tucson International Airport in October 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Gabe Johnson.

“We’ve made that legacy platform very capable for combat commanders in theater,” said Col. Leonard S. “Wizard” Dick, AATC vice commander. With the SCU-7 modifications expected to be in service fleet-wide by the end of calendar 2010, AATC maintainers and pilots are now working on further software improvements in what they call SCU-7.1 and SCU-8 programs. SCU-8 will provide a helmet-mounted cueing system employed now by F-16C/D block 40/42s and 50/52s (which the center doesn’t work on) and needed by block F-16C/D 30/32s. SCU-8 will improve the multi-functional display (MFD) to show the full resolution (fidelity) of an advanced targeting pod. It will have “federated” displays that make it easier to change the software in the display.

Said Dick: “We are working on integration of the small diameter bomb [SDB] as part of SCU-8 in the roughly 2013 time frame. A BRU-61 rack carries four SDBs, dramatically increasing my weapons load-out, and provides some opportunity to do things with a lower blast or frag radius.

“The block 30/32 is the premier CAS [close air support] airplane in the Air Force,” said Dick. He said reducing blast radius will directly address current concerns over civilian casualties in Southwest Asia.

Dick said that the center is developing F-16C/D air-to-air tactics to counter the threat of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) thrown into battle by an adversary. AATC has also worked on air-to-surface methods against rogue fast boats.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...