National Guard November 2011 : Page 24
Old School By Andrew Waldman A test center in the Arizona desert is fusing old and new technology to enhance the Air Guard aircraft fl eet. Among its current projects is an aircraft reminiscent of World War II D ESERT S HARK An AT-6 Texan II ﬂ ies over the Barry M. Goldwater Range in southwest Arizona during precision-guided munitions testing in September. Photos By Jim “Hazy” Haseltine 24 | Na tional Guard
A test center in the Arizona desert is fusing old and new technology to enhance the Air Guard aircraft fleet.<br /> <br /> Among its current projects is an aircraft reminiscent of World War II<br /> <br /> TUCSON, Ariz.WAITING TAKEOFF FOR a test flight, the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 Texan II looks too heavy to climb through the clear desert air.<br /> <br /> The aircraft is normally equipped as a two-seat pilot trainer and known as the T-6. Even then, the plane appears bloated, its belly nearly scraping the ground. But this version adds bombs and sensor pods to the wings and fuselage, making it even heavier.<br /> <br /> Still, on a late September morning at the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Command Testing Center (AATC), the aircraft takes off without any problems, even with a 500-pound, laser-guided bomb aboard. A few minutes later, it successfully deploys its cargo over the Barry M. Goldwater Range, an aerial gunnery range south of the city.<br /> <br /> Not bad for a propeller-driven two-seater equipped with avionics designed for jet planes.<br /> <br /> The AT-6 is a unique program executed by the equally unique AATC, which is a joint venture between the Air Guard and Air Force Reserve.<br /> <br /> In its 30th year, the center is located on Tucson (Ariz.) International Airport alongside the Arizona Air Guard’s 162nd Fighter Wing. AATC Uses mostly off -the-shelf commercial or military equipment to improve aircraft that reside primarily in the Air Guard and Air Force Reserve.<br /> <br /> The center has proven to be a lifesaver for the Air Guard, which is often asked to complete extraordinary missions with sometimes less than extraordinary aircraft.<br /> <br /> In general, the Air Guard operates some of the oldest planes in the Air Force fleet, which means it often has to make do with aging aircraft that need hard-to-get parts. And because the planes are older, the technology inside the fuselage is older.<br /> <br /> This is where AATC comes in.<br /> <br /> Often using funds from the congressionally directed National Guardand Reserve Equipment Account (NGREA), the test center helps adapt 20th century aircraft for the rigors and requirements of 21st century warfare.<br /> <br /> And the center does it for pennies on the dollar. Its motto is “80 percent of capability at 20 percent of the cost,” says Lt. Col. Keith Colmer, the former Director of engineering at AATC and the AT-6 program manager.<br /> <br /> In the case of the AT-6, AATC is using almost exclusively off-the-shelf components. The laser-guided bombs are used on the F-16 Fighting Falcon while the avionics system is from the A-10C Thunderbolt II fighter.<br /> <br /> The AT-6 is not funded by NGREA, however. The three-year, $15.4 million program was funded by an addition to defense legislation pushed by the Kansas congressional delegation.<br /> <br /> The dollars are aimed at determining whether a low-cost, light-attack aircraft could be fielded from an already Existing airframe, therefore requiring much less development—and time and money—than an entirely new system.<br /> <br /> Light-attack aircraft are mostly used to engage targets on the ground at low altitudes. There is no such system currently in the Air Force inventory.The only true ground attack aircraft in the Air Force is the A-10, a jet aircraft that is much faster than the AT-6.<br /> <br /> The AT-6 program was given to AATC because it is staffed by experts who know how to adapt old technology for use with newer systems.<br /> <br /> “The Guard doesn’t buy airplanes, but we wanted to refine the types of technology that could go on a propeller- driven airplane,” Colmer says. “We haven’t looked at anything like that in our Air Force since the ‘50s or ‘60s.” <br /> <br /> So far, the AT-6 program has proven that a propeller-driven airplane can use weaponry designed for jets.<br /> <br /> The AT-6 is slow compared to the fighter and attack aircraft already in the Air Force inventory. But that’s an advantage in some ways. It uses less fuel than its more-advanced counterparts and can stay airborne much longer.<br /> <br /> Colmer estimates that the AT-6 costs less than $1,000 an hour to fly, a stark contrast to its more-advanced brethren like the F-16, which runs upwards of $8,000 per flying hour.F-15 Eagles and fifth-generation fighters cost even more.<br /> <br /> “This airplane has got a little bit more of an old-school flavor, which is what keeps the cost down,” he says.<br /> <br /> In addition, the AT-6 could have advantages in domestic airspace over more-expensive fighters. Derek Hess, Hawker Beechcraft’s director of AT-6 development, says that the plane could be used as an alternative alert fighter in the Air Sovereignty Alert (ASA) mission to intercept slow, low-flying airplanes that most often violate domestic airspace restrictions.<br /> <br /> Currently, this task falls to F-15s and F-16s, which are often too fast and too much of a weapon for the potential threat they are intercepting.<br /> <br /> Hess says the Air Guard has already successfully tested the AT-6’s ability to contribute to the ASA mission.<br /> <br /> The turboprop flew in one of U.S. Northern Command’s Falcon Virgo exercises over Washington, D.C., last November and intercepted a Cessnastyle plane four times, Hess told a briefing at the Air Force Association In September.<br /> <br /> “We had been on station for a little more than two hours, the F-16s had departed, they didn’t have a tanker so they had gone back to land and they asked us, ‘OK, are you guys ready to land?’” he said. “We said, ‘Well, we still have an hour and a half of fuel left.’” <br /> <br /> The AT-6’s loitering capability also means it is well suited for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, both domestically and internationally.<br /> <br /> Plus, it can land on less-thanperfect runways and be refueled with handheld fuel cans.<br /> <br /> Since AATC received the AT-6 program, it has worked with Hawker Beechcraft to outfit it with all the modern weapons and avionics systems that have been tested.<br /> <br /> The crews working on the plane have completed successful weapons testing, including dropping conventional, nonguided bombs, as well as the laserguided systems tested in September.<br /> <br /> The test was a significant achievement.In one day, pilots successfully hit the targets with three GBU-12s—500- pound, laser-guided bombs.<br /> <br /> “It’s one of the most challenging things you can do on an airplane, and we did it three times in a day,” says Colmer.<br /> <br /> The plane has been equipped with a .50-caliber machine gun and a forwardlooking- infrared system. It will soon be Tested using missiles and rockets.<br /> <br /> And in a nod to the plane’s oldschool charm, the crew wants to perform a firing test using a large fabric banner with a target painted in the middle.<br /> <br /> “It took us a while to find one, but we finally did,” says Don Parker, one Of Hawker Beechcraft’s AT-6/T-6 test pilots.<br /> <br /> The AT-6 has other advantages over new weapons systems. Because the T-6 trainer is already in the military’s inventory, supply and maintenance Programs are in place to support it.And since almost every current pilot in the Air Force has trained on the T-6, they have a general feel for how the plane handles.<br /> <br /> After a final third phase of testing, the AT-6 program will be complete.Colmer, who recently ended his tour at AATC and returned to traditional Guard status as a fighter pilot in the 162nd Fighter Wing, says that a report will be completed and submitted to Congress and the Air Force.<br /> <br /> While there is no guarantee that the AT-6 will become a part of the Air Force fleet, the weapons tested at AATC could be used on many propeller-driven aircraft also in the inventory. And the airplane could be sold as a light-attack aircraft to foreign militaries.<br /> <br /> “All of the work we’ve done here can be applied to other aircraft,” says Colmer.<br /> <br /> The AT-6 program will be only about three years in length, from start to finish, which is a relatively short time for development and testing of a weapons platform in the modern era.<br /> <br /> But this is what AATC was designed to do.<br /> <br /> The center started out as the ANG Fighter Weapons Office in 1981, and its initial mission was the sustainment and modernization of two fighters, the A-7 Corsair and the F-4 Phantom. A year later, the Air Force Reserve Command came aboard.<br /> <br /> The organization’s main purpose remains relatively unchanged from 30 years ago. The testing center responds to requests for additional capabilities, modernization and sustainment upgrades that can help the war fighter in the field today, says Col. Rick Dennee, AATC’s commander.<br /> <br /> The center’s focus, he says, is on “accurate, honest and defendable testing results” that will define the system’s suitability in warfare.<br /> <br /> This concentration makes the AATC a perfect match for NGREA funding, which enables Guard and Reserve units to acquire equipment that’s already “on the books” in military equipment lists.<br /> <br /> One recent success of AATC was the testing of LITENING targeting pods, which enable the precise delivery of laser-guided munitions. The first LITENING pods entered Air Guard service in 2000 and immediately turned some of the oldest block 30 F-16s in the Air Force fleet into some of its most capable.<br /> <br /> Today, the pods are being used on block 30 F-16s flown in Afghanistan by the District of Columbia Air Guard’s 113th Wing, which is the first Guard wing to fly F-16s in that country. That’s possible only because the pods were acquired through NGREA.<br /> <br /> “Without NGREA, the block 30 F-16, the backbone of protecting America’s skies, would be irrelevant today,” said Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III, the Air Guard director, during a House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee hearing last month.<br /> <br /> Currently, the center is working on numerous projects, including an operational flight program upgrade on pre-block 40 F-16s, a targeting pod on F-15Cs, a data link on C-130H cargo aircraft called real-time-in-cockpit and a helmet-mounted integratedtargeting system on F-16s and A-10s.<br /> <br /> Almost all of the projects at AATC take available technology and adapt it for use in Guard and Reserve aircraft.Colmer compares it to updating an old computer with newer applications and operating systems.<br /> <br /> “The motivation behind these Projects is to maintain Air Reserve Component aircraft in a state of operational readiness and enhanced capability that mirror the capabilities of active-duty [aircraft],” says Dennee.<br /> <br /> The structure of the organization enables the quick completion of programs, Colmer says. Unlike big developmental test centers, AATC runs slim.<br /> <br /> “We give people the ability to do the right thing,” he says. “And skinnying down the management chain means that you have nobody to blame but yourself when something goes wrong.”<br /> <br /> Often, a test pilot is also a program manager, scheduler and even an engineer able to make decisions on a project without running it up a long chain of command.<br /> <br /> “We have a unique set of people here,” Colmer says. “We are a lean organization that relies on hiring the right people with the right background. We hire people that can play multiple positions and are at the top of their game.”<br /> <br /> The testing center doesn’t work on new weapons systems. That’s not the mission, nor will it ever be. The Air Force’s active-component units remain more capable of those large-scale projects, he says.<br /> <br /> “We can’t do brand new multibillion- dollar, brand-new airplane testing,” Colmer says, “but we are very good at taking legacy tech or new commercial off-the-shelf technology in older airframes and are able to integrate stuff very quickly.”<br /> <br /> Andrew Waldman can be contacted at(202) 408-5892 or at email@example.com.