AEDC Hypersonic Systems Test Branch ready to meet, exceed expectations

  • Published
  • By Lance Baxter and Maj. Michael Davault
  • Hypersonic Systems Test Branch

As for all of the Arnold Engineering Development Complex (AEDC), the Hypersonic Systems Test Branch (TSTH) possesses a long, renowned history stretching back to the days of the X-15 rocket plane. In the 1950s, the U.S. was faced with great-power competition in the Cold War, and the U.S. Air Force set out to explore the edge of space, and the speed needed to travel anywhere on the planet quickly. The X-15 was a hypersonic manned aircraft that shattered all of the records for speed and altitude. Prior to those record-setting flights, ground tests commenced at Arnold Air Force Base for testing model configurations and aircraft engine components. Subsequently, the X-15 conducted rigorous flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base for envelope expansion and systems checkout.

Our nation once again finds itself in the midst of great-power competition, and once again there is a call to develop systems operating at the edge of space, and at speeds where the air itself is breaking down. Requirements for hypersonic system development have exponentially grown over the past few years. In anticipation of that growth, the Air Force Test Center leadership identified a need for a Combined Test Force (CTF). In October 2017, as part of the larger AFTC reorganization that broadened AEDC responsibilities, the Hypersonic CTF at Edwards AFB realigned under AEDC. This CTF combined with one of the existing AEDC hypersonic ground test capabilities, the Aerodynamic and Propulsion Test Unit (APTU). These two test entities came to form the Hypersonic Systems Test Branch. With this realignment, the APTU facility became the first ground test asset in our new Hypersonic Ground Test Team, the Edwards CTF became our Hypersonic Flight Test Team (HFTT).

Directly after the reorganization, TSTH was delegated with responsibility for executing the Test Resource Management Center’s (TRMC) High Speed System Test (HSST) portfolio as well as the Hypersonic Test Investment Program (HyTIP). Together, HSST and HyTIP facilitate the various technologies and capabilities to manage the current Test and Evaluation (T&E) challenges. This effort requires effective coordination with ranges across the DOD and NASA to enable the use of technologies to support hypersonic weapon development. In a 2015 report to Congress, the TRMC identified a $350 million program to improve and increase capability that later became known as HyTIP in 2017. The report identified the need for collaboration across the Department of Defense, industry, academia and other government agencies, such as NASA, to mature critical technologies across the enterprise. Much of that technology development is performed or coordinated through the HSST portfolio with an annual budget of up to $100 million. The HSST and HyTIP organizations work together each day with the help of personnel from the AEDC Plans and Programs office to identify opportunities and bring the Nation’s experts together to rapidly solve problems at the speed of relevance. This would not be possible without this cross-cutting organizational structure setup by the TRMC. In particular, the test technologies, tools, techniques, facilities and technical workforce for flight test, ground test/modeling/simulation are being invested and improved to improve these areas of hypersonic T&E. HSST and HyTIP are enabling effective acquisition-caliber T&E of high-speed systems.

Over the past couple years, the impact of all of these strategic organizational changes has been significant growth, change and opportunity for TSTH. With ground and flight test responsibilities in Hypersonics, TSTH was named the Executing Test Organization for the USAF Advanced Rapid Response Weapon, as well as the recently cancelled Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon. The development of hypersonic weapons presents several challenges to T&E and with the rapid prototyping efforts of the DOD. Our organization works with partners across AFTC and beyond to ensure that these programs have the necessary T&E resources and support to not only meet, but to exceed the crucial demands of our program office partners.

Concurrently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency demonstration programs, the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) and the Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) programs are counting on the HFTT at Edwards AFB. The significance is the partnership with our participating test organizations in the 412th Test Wing and the Navy Range at Point Mugu, California, and their support for an unprecedented number of flight events starting this year. The HFTT completed successful ground test and checks for TBG, and most recently for HAWC. Despite the health crisis shutting down most of the state of California, the HFTT-led team accomplished the ground test and checks in one week, which were anticipated to have taken two solid weeks.

 TSTH is set on a path to meet and exceed the demands of AEDC’s strategic priorities: pursue mission excellence, invest in our people and improve/sustain the complex. All of this is giving our branch the chance to demonstrate their outstanding work in pursuit of mission excellence. Our successes have been exemplified in a number of ways, but one of the most visible was seen when the APTU team was awarded the Aviation Week and Space Technology Laureate award for 2019. This award was presented for their execution of the Medium Scale Critical Component program test campaign with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Aerospace Systems Directorate. During the course of this test, the APTU/AFRL team demonstrated the most thrust ever produced by a scramjet. The team’s work with AFRL on large direct-connect scramjets continues with a second test entry currently in progress.

TSTH is investing in our people by reaching across organizations within AFTC to matrix in experts who work alongside us to complete testing that our hypersonic programs require. Whether it is the Computational Fluid Dynamics practitioners from the AEDC analysis branch, weapon lethality test experts from the 780th Test Squadron, B-52 flight test experts from the 419th Test Squadron or researchers from the Air Force Research Laboratory Aerospace Systems Directorate’s High Speed Experimentation Branch deploying advanced instrumentation in APTU; these professionals from across AFMC continue to elevate the capabilities of our team every day as we stretch toward our full potential.

As we begin the process of building next year’s financial plan, we have the unique opportunity to take advantage of the time to focus on the third aspect of our strategic guidance: improve and sustain the complex. Next year marks a huge milestone in the building of a new major capability at AEDC, the J5-Phoenix. J5-Phoenix will be a ground test facility asset capable of providing decision-quality data to support technology development, engineering/manufacturing and major defense acquisition programs for hypersonic flight systems. While the current budgets do not allow growth into this new mission area, TSTH and our TRMC partners remain confident that AFTC will meet its commitment and enable us to start planning for sustainment/improvement of the world’s best hypersonic propulsion capability for the coming decades.

TSTH, a multi-faceted, multi-skilled, versatile and cohesive DOD/contractor team spans multiple locations and pulls together a vast majority of wicked-smart personnel. These personnel derive from diverse backgrounds to provide a knowledgeable team that will support our stakeholders all the way from ground testing to flight testing to production-grade weapons for our nation. As the X-15 started from ground testing at Arnold AFB to flight testing at Edwards AFB, our organization will be there to see an entire project through ground testing to flight testing, through the T&E spectrum while exceeding the demands of AEDC’s strategic guidance.