US Air Force uses remote control rooms to support T-7A flight testing

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The T-7A Test Team for the US Air Force’s new pilot trainer, the T-7A Red Hawk, has used a remote control room during flight testing for the first time as a way to comply with travel restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The T-7A Test Team used what the US Air Force calls Distributed Test Operations (DTO) in a mission control room at Ridley Mission Control Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California last week.

Rebecca Mitchell, T-7A lead flight test engineer, 416th Flight Test Squadron said, “This capability will permit subject matter experts from Air Force Test Center and Boeing to work together to provide expertise on high-risk testing from control rooms in two different locations.

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

The DTO uses a Defense Research and Engineering Network (DREN) connection between Ridley Mission Control Center at Edwards and the Boeing flight test facility in St. Louis.

Removing the need to travel to the test

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

Working in partnership with Boeing, US Air Force engineering teams evaluated DTO requirements for telemetry, voice and video connectivity and assembled and tested all equipment in the 412 RANS Engineering lab. They then deployed, tested and completed the T-7A link for the first time 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 (AFOTEC) 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 Air and Education Training Command.

Longer term use

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. The team predict that 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% of their time 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.”

Mitchell added that being a part of history and seeing the future impacts DTO has on the test enterprise is exciting: “It is very exciting to be part of the T-7 test team as we do envelope expansion testing on a clean-sheet design jet aircraft for undergraduate pilot training. DTO will improve our ability to test the aircraft both in St. Louis and at Edwards AFB with a combined test team of USAF and Boeing personnel.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how DTO benefits the T-7 test program and to seeing what benefits DTO offers future programs across the test enterprise.”

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Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering almost all aspects of technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before eventually becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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