ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- The demand for testing at the Arnold Engineering Development Complex is expected to reach historic levels in many facilities during 2019 and continue into the foreseeable future… and U.S. Air Force leadership is noticing the work we do.
The number of recent tours given to the U.S. Air Force Headquarters and Department of Defense personnel is directly attributable to the work accomplished across all the AEDC locations.
Increases are projected in areas of testing that include hypersonics, turbines, arc heaters, wind tunnels, rockets and the climatic lab, just to name a few. Some areas will double and others will triple the amount of testing conducted.
“Everyone thinks back to the space race of the sixties,” AEDC Test Operations Division Chief Col. Keith Roessig said. “Arnold had a huge role in everything that went on back then and in some ways, we’re in a similar role today.”
As other countries, China and Russia, for example, increase spending on defense, so does the United States with a significant investment in developmental test and evaluation.
“The work done at AEDC directly contributes to the success of the warfighter,” Roessig said. “I really hope everyone here understands that what they’re doing is extremely important and matters to the nation. Regardless of who you are or the job you have at AEDC, you’re absolutely contributing to what we’re trying to do. We’re all playing a role in developing the systems that keep our warfighter safe and protect the country. It doesn’t matter what kind of badge you wear; we’re all on the same team.”
Roessig points to the National Defense Strategy as one of the reasons customers are lining up for test hours at AEDC. One of the NDS’s three focus areas is to build a more lethal force. Under building a more lethal force is modernizing capabilities or bringing on new ones that have been in development for years and there’s an effort to modernize the nuclear triad.
“The testing we do hits a lot of these areas. At Hill Air Force Base we set up a new Combined Test Force to support the AF Nuclear Weapons Center, and while right now that is predominantly a test management function for upgrades of legacy systems, we’re preparing to do much more rocket testing,” he said.
“Right now we test two rocket motors every year to examine aging. In three to four years, we’ll be ramping up to test about 20 motors a year in support of modernization programs,” Roessig said. “We expect there will be follow up testing for surveillance of these new motors as well.”
Roessig said hypersonics will drive much of the workload now and in the future. Some program offices will test in multiple AEDC facilities as well as at other bases in Air Force Materiel Command.
“When we talk about hypersonics, we’re not talking about a single facility or even a single site. In addition to Arnold Air Force Base, it is Tunnel 9, Holloman (AFB) and Edwards (AFB) all tied together to make everything work the way it should. Tunnel 9 has increased workload planned for the next few years. The von Kármán tunnels are busy examining aerodynamic data that complements the rain field erosion testing at the High Speed Test Track at Holloman. The Air Force Test Center designated the Hypersonics CTF at AEDC as the Executing Test Organization for all AFTC hypersonics test and the personnel within the HCTF are busy coordinating the efforts between all these locations.”
The J-5 facility, formerly used for rocket motor testing, is being upgraded during the next several years and will eventually join the hypersonics test effort at AEDC.
AEDC’s two largest turbine test cells now have two military projects running which is something that hasn’t happened in more than a decade. To prepare for the current workload and the upcoming engine competition in the Advanced Engine Technology Program, the C-2 test cell which had been used for commercial engines was reconfigured to test for military engines.
“There will be over 500 hours of testing on these engines. Projections are for this kind of workload for at least the next four to five years. Then we recapitalize all these aircraft and systems, so there’s more work,” Roessig said.
The sea level cells will be conducting accelerated mission testing to examine the lifecycle durability of the F135 engine. This testing examines whether the proposed re-designs of certain engine parts will actually last the complete engine lifespan.
Arc Heaters and Wind Tunnels
“The arc heaters are doing a variety of testing and roughly, they’d normally have 40-50 missions a year,” Roessig said. “In fiscal year 2018, we accomplished about 40. This year’s request is to quadruple the workload. Our goal was 100 and right now it looks like we’ll accomplish between 80 to 90 tests. However, the request for FY20 is more than 170 tests, and we know the requirement is going to be almost 200 tests a year for the next four to five years or longer.”
Arc heater testing will determine the material selected and used in a flight test at Edwards Air Force Base. Roessig notes the schedule is tight to get the material data to Edwards before they begin launches from a B-52 over the test ranges in the Pacific Ocean.
A facility returning to service after being in mothball status for 19 years is the Supersonic Wind Tunnel, 16S. But this will be a new and improved 16S. When all of the funded upgrades are completed, the tunnel will be able to reach Mach 5.
“To have continuous flow of Mach 5 capability with such a large tunnel cross-section will be an important capability, and one of the things we’re looking at is increasing our staff here and having the ability to switch between 16T (the 16-foot transonic wind tunnel) and 16S more quickly,” Roessig said. “We’d like to run three shifts if we have the people to do that. However, as always, budgets will be a key driver to what test capability we can generate.”
Roessig said there are customers waiting to get into 16S and a full test load for 16T, so effectively using personnel and efficient processes will be key since those two tunnels can’t run simultaneously.
The current operational tunnels in the Flight Systems CTF have a total test request of approximately 7,000 hours. The goal is to accomplish 5,000 hours.
“We are designing and fabricating a new fifth-generation aircraft model for store separation efforts in 16T. The Air Force Seek Eagle Office, which oversees store separation efforts for the U.S. Air Force, recently passed along that it could start requesting twice as many air periods as it usually does.”
Roessig said he expects the fifth-generation aircraft will be around for decades of future testing at AEDC. He points to a recent test of the B-1 in 16T as an example. AEDC first tested the B-1 almost 48 years ago.
Space Chambers and STAT
AEDC Space and Missiles is involved in discussions with Air Force Space Command about new capabilities and the new organization at AFSPC for test and evaluation.
“We’re working with Air Force Space Command to coordinate and stand up greater capabilities looking at the natural space environment, the atomic oxygen, the electrons, and combine that with man-made threats such as cyber or directed energy,” Roessig said. “That is an area we expect to see growth also.”
While Roessig can’t yet predict how much work this would bring to AEDC, he said the chambers and the Space Threat Assessment Testbed are receiving lots of attention from the Air Force Test Center as well as other government organizations.
Taking care of our people
It’s an exciting time to work at AEDC, but greater workload, while good news, comes with its own set of challenges such as staffing.
“We fully know you cannot expect people to work 12 hours a day, six days a week without a known goal and a realistic end date. People will leave or burn out. But if we can say ‘hey for a month we need you to work more and here’s why and then it’s done,’ our team will respond to that as long as leadership keeps to the timelines it promised. We have a lot of work to do for the next four to five years and we want our people to have that family and life balance.”
There are ongoing hiring efforts within the government and with several of the AEDC contractors. Once hired, training becomes the next concern. A Human Capital Plan is being developed by AEDC Vice Director, Wayne Ayer, to address issues like compensation, progression and experience levels for the government workforce.
“There are sharp young folks out there, but they are inexperienced. We also have many folks who are close to retirement age, so we have to make sure we leverage their experience to help the new team members. We need the correct experience level to run efficiently,” Roessig said.
One idea being considered to get new employees up to speed more quickly is simulators. So instead of someone learning during a test, they could train at any time under realistic conditions.
While hiring more personnel is required to accomplish all the testing being requested of AEDC, budgets must accompany the test requirements to significantly increase the test capacity.
“While defense budgets have overall slightly increased the last couple of years, the Air Force is dealing with the reconstruction of Tyndall, Offutt and Elmendorf Air Force Bases after each of these sites experienced natural disasters in the last year,” Roessig said. “This will prevent any increase in the test and evaluation budgets for fiscal year 2020. Therefore we will have to prioritize the work that we can accomplish with the resources we have. Regardless of funding levels, U.S. Air Force and DOD leadership understand the importance of AEDC and the work we do.”
Even with the increase in testing, AEDC will still have maintenance periods to complete routine items as well as system upgrades under the Service Life Extension Program. Roessig says the timeframes may shift a little, but there’s no getting around the need to adequately maintain the aging infrastructure. The ETF plant summer outage was delayed one month to accomplish some critical engine testing already months behind due to plant mechanical issues.
“We need to nail all of that down early to get workload on contract at the right time and enable the workforce to plan summer vacations,” Roessig said.
Meanwhile, AEDC facilities are expected to remain in high demand while its most valuable resource, the people of AEDC, continue to play a major role in testing and evaluating the best military systems for the nation.