Test engineer, analyst training accelerated with innovative method

  • Published
  • By Jill Pickett
  • AEDC Public Affairs

Tasked with accelerating and improving training of test engineers and test analysts, the 717th Test Squadron, 804th Test Group, Arnold Engineering Development Complex, is delivering with a solution that could reach across the complex.

Test engineers, or TEs, are responsible for coordinating and conducting the test. Test analysts, or TAs, are responsible for analyzing and evaluating data collected from the test. Both are key functions to successfully running a test in any of the test cells operated by the 717th Test Squadron, or 717th TS, at Arnold Air Force Base. AEDC, headquartered at Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn., with geographically separated units across the nation, has TEs and TAs in other units as well.

Prior to this effort, the time to train a new employee from entry level to basic for either position with the 717th TS was approximately two years.

Now, an employee can be basic qualified in less than a year, a significant and important time reduction for military TAs and TEs. They usually are stationed at Arnold AFB for about three years. Under the previous timeline, they spent most of that time just becoming qualified.

“We don’t want our military guys sitting around two years just training,” said Steve Arnold, technical adviser for the 717th TS. “We want them getting in there and covering the tests, understanding how the facility operates and evaluating data collected from the tests. It is a more valuable career experience for the military engineers if they are getting their hands dirty, so to speak.”

In addition to streamlining the training, TE and TA training has been combined for the entry level, giving new hires an opportunity to learn their preference and increasing the common knowledge across the workforce.

“Before, when you were hired in straight off the street you were given a slot as a test engineer or a test analyst,” Arnold said. “Coming out of college, you may not know exactly what the difference is. We’ve combined the curriculums to a common training for test engineer and test analyst for the basic level. There is a lot of knowledge that should be common to both, but wasn’t in the previous training curriculum.”

After an employee qualifies to the basic level, they can have input as to whether they specialize as a TE or TA.

The previous methods of instruction, primarily computer-based trainings, self-study, mentoring and on-the-job training also posed a challenge to accelerating the timeline and assessing qualifications.

“One of the things that slows down our training at the initial level is just getting on-the-job training because you’re tied to whatever program is executing during that time,” said Capt. Brian Gatzke, former chief of Training for the 717th TS. “Last year after COVID hit, we had very little engine testing and there was little opportunity for a lot of people to get on-the-job training. COVID also prevented a mentor from looking over the shoulder of a trainee during a live engine test.”

Even if an employee arrives when the test operations tempo is high for the squadron, when everything is operating smoothly, as is the goal, the employee does not have many, if any, opportunities to learn in a real-time situation how to identify indicators of a significant problem.

A solution to both remove dependence upon the test schedule, improve quality of training and increase performance feedback was sought.

Arnold approached the Data Solutions Group with a brief description of what he wanted in a training software application utilizing actual test data. In a month, a prototype was developed, and in six months, the software engineers delivered a product that runs on an enterprise System for Test data Acquisition, Recording and Redistribution, or eSTARR, system, with further development still ongoing.

“It was quick; it was inexpensive; it was useful,” Arnold said. “We still haven’t realized the full benefit of it yet. It’s the way I’d like to see other efforts undertaken to help make things better.”

During testing, TEs and TAs use the Real-Time Test Display System, or RealTDS, to view data being acquired and recorded in the eSTARR, system. The training application uses this recorded data with RealTDS.

“eSTARR already had the capability to do a playback of test data, but the team had to modify the software to record this playback data as though it were real time,” said Stephen Powell, instrumentation, data and controls data systems subject matter expert. “Normally, the playback would run much faster than real time.”

Initially, the simulations could only be executed in the Engine Test Facility computer room. In order to make it more accessible and not tie up stations in the computer room, Hanh Tran and Danna Pemberton, eSTARR software engineers, continued working to enable it to run on eSTARR systems at the users’ desktops. Another capability they had to develop was having RealTDS use calculated data in an offline playback mode.

The simulations allow for playback at varying speeds, rewinding and stopping the simulation entirely. They are also interactive to a degree. RealTDS has many different displays from which users can view different data sources in different ways. Choosing which displays to use for a given test is one of the skills TEs and TAs must learn.

“This is a way to practice certain skills offline,” Gatzke said. “We don’t need to be air-on to get these data playbacks going and build those skills, so that when they do finally get in the seat and we have some air-on time, they spend most of their time learning the pertinent things about their job instead of figuring out what different parameters mean and, for example, what an engine acceleration looks like on a RealTDS display. You can get all of that through playback and spend the actual expensive air-on hours learning something a little more meaningful.”

The simulations also provide an opportunity for evaluation of the trainee and repetition of exercises to build confidence.

“One of the simulations they had me do beforehand was very helpful in getting me familiar with the software before doing the real deal,” said Max Kreeb, a new test analyst with the 717th TS and the first employee to use the simulations for training. “That software was RealTDS, and it’s just one of a handful of programs we need to know while in the data room during test. Going through the exercise was really almost the same thing as using RealTDS in the data room.”

The accelerated training program and simulations have already proven their value, resulting in military TEs being able to make significant contributions to a long-running test program.

“This new training program, using arriving Air Force officers, demonstrated how new hires can go from unknowledgeable on how AEDC runs ground testing of air-breathing jet engines to being fully capable of being alone in their position in the control room,” said 1st Lt. Ryan Blount, current chief of Training for the 717th TS. “The accelerated mission testing conducted throughout 2021 is a perfect example. Twenty-five percent of the more than 1,000 hours of engine operation during that test project was executed by military test engineers who had gone through this accelerated training program. This is the first time military engineers were qualified to ‘fly solo’ as a TE in the Propulsion Test Branch [now 717th TS].

“Now that the program is trusted by leadership, all new test analysts or test engineering personnel will go through this program to rapidly attain an understanding of acquiring and reporting actionable data for our customers.”

Currently, all the simulations are from actual test data, therefore scenarios are limited to situations that have actually occurred during testing. Further development may enable the programming of scenarios from scratch or a simulation that can be controlled in the moment.

RealTDS and eSTARR are used in multiple test facilities across Arnold AFB, making the simulation-based training a possibility for other test units that are interested in having scenarios generated from test data gathered in their facilities.

The training playback capability was demonstrated for the Hypersonic Systems Test Branch, which is using the playbacks to show test engineers and analysts what certain test events look like in the various data streams.

The Hypersonic Systems Test Branch has also been working to reduce the time to basic certification and recently was able to shorten it to less than six months for test analysts without the use of playbacks due to active testing. The new training capability will remove the dependence on the test schedule.

“We will be incorporating the capability and video recordings of test runs to enable realistic scenarios for our junior workforce to relive and learn from our more interesting test events,” said Jonathan Lister, lead test analyst for the Hypersonic Systems Test Branch.

Lister said the playback capability also has value for assisting test customers prepare.

“In our process, customers sit side by side with the TEs and TAs monitoring the test,” Lister said. “They may need to manually trigger their test article, so this gives us a critical capability to iron out communications and get our timing down. There comes a point in our test sequence that we are beyond the point of no return. Once we reach that line we are releasing a large amount of high pressure air. It’s highly important that we get that timing right. The playbacks give us that capability also.”

The intent for both units is to continue developing the capability to be able to do true simulations with test scenarios developed to meet training needs that then respond to variable changes from the trainees.