Major changes have recently taken effect as the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, California is currently restructuring its operational flight test squadrons. Last year it was decided that ‘Test Ops’ needed to merge into other Combined Test Forces under the 412th Operations Group (OG) and thus the unit formally known as the 445th Flight Test Squadron (FLTS) became redundant. With its inactivation ceremony held on May 1 2015, again a significant step in the process has now been completed.
Maj. Matthew Poisson (left) and Maj. Luke Kippert (right)
Driving force behind the merger of Test Ops among other Combined Test Forces (CTF) was erstwhile 412th Test Wing commander Brig. Gen. Michael Brewer. Due to budget restraints, the 445th FLTS would lose eight F-16s and consequently had to cut 75 civilians and 75 military positions in maintenance. “With this large reduction in maintenance manpower in the ‘Shadow’ fleet, we needed to combine the two maintenance teams to get the most out of the reduced fleet that we now have.” commented Lt. Col. Darren Wees, former 445th FLTS commander and current 416th FLTS commander as of May 5 2015. When Wing Scheduling stood up back in 2008, the aircraft mission control had already been centralized to manage the priorities between all CTFs. It made perfect sense to merge operations as well and combine for instance chase, photo support and test missions at the 416th FLTS.
Test Ops was a “very unique organization” according to Maj. Matthew Poisson, former Director Of Operations. He said it was “kind of the umbrella” that comprised the 445th FLTS, an active-duty squadron, and the 370th FLTS, which is a Reserve unit. It’s F-16s and T-38s provided primary ‘Shadow’ support for the other squadrons that had target and photo chase requirements. Both KC-10 and KC-135 tankers were also used as Test Ops ran the Air Force Refueling Center of Excellence. Any aircraft that needs flight envelope clearance for air refueling gets tested here and data is provided to the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB), Ohio for official certification. Furthermore C-12 Hurons were used by Test Ops for various slow-speed testing purposes.
Historically, the 445th started out as an ordinary Fighter Squadron in Florida on 19 February 1943, but soon became the first active U.S. jet fighter squadron and started experimental testing of P-59A and P-80 aircraft by January 1946. After some deactivation / reactivation cycles and air defense interceptor role detour, the 445th found rebirth as the 6512th Test Squadron under Air Force Systems Command at Edwards AFB in 1969. It was respectively re-designated 445th Test Squadron with its transfer to Air Force Material Command in 1992 and finally 445th Flight Test Squadron two years later. The squadron inactivated again in 2001 when it merged with the 416th FLTS for the first time, but resurrected during reorganizations at Edwards in 2004.
Now history repeats itself once again. As a final symbol of closure, the 445th FLTS flag was cased by Col. Rodney Todaro, 412th OG commander during the inactivation ceremony at Club Muroc on May 1 2015. Historically a sad moment to see the oldest active flight test squadron disappear, nevertheless “the needs of the Air Force comes first” Todaro stated. However, “No one from the 445th FLTS lost their job and no missions have been eliminated as a result of this reorganization.” according to Lt. Col. Wees.
Infrastructure was another significant factor in this decision, as rearranging both office- and ramp space will now free up room to support future new test programs without building costly new compounds. The 445th FLTS F-16 and T-38 personnel plus aircraft have now merged with the 416th FLTS and together moved into Building 1199. Commander Wees added: “There are provisions for the 411th FLTS [F-22 Raptor CTF] to move into the old 416th FLTS compound, which will free up the 411th FLTS space for new work.”.
“The Active duty tanker crews, engineers and program managers moved to the 418th FLTS along with those aircraft and missions.” Wees continued; “The reserve members of the Test Ops CTF, although they aren’t members of the 445th, moved to a separate building and will have operational control of the tanker support mission under the flag of the 370th FLTS. The C-12 Formal Training Unit moved under the 419th FLTS for operational control, but will live in the same building as the 370th on this side of the ramp to conduct operations.”.
The needs of the Air Force comes first. Col. Todaro
Despite the fact that the 445th FLTS and 370th FLTS had separate chains of command, in daily operations Test Ops functioned as a single unit with Lt. Col. Wees dual headed as CTF Director and 445th FLTS commander. The active duty side had most of the test pilots and took on a wide range of testing and ‘shadow’ tasking flying F-16s, T-38s, C-12s and tanker aircraft. Reserve personnel was and still is primarily tasked with tanker testing and augmentation of projects ran by Test Ops and other CTFs. Since nearly all aviators with the 370th FLTS are non-test pilots, they mainly conduct developmental testing opposed to the active duty whereas their focus more lies with experimental testing.
According to Maj. Luke Kippert, F-16 test pilot with the 416th FLTS and 2013 USAF Test Pilot School (TPS) graduate, the 445th FLTS has also been a perfect springboard for Edwards’ own TPS graduates over the years. He explained: “When we go to TPS we lose all of our ‘quals’, so you basically come out of TPS not qualified in the F-16 anymore.”. With plenty of sorties on the flying schedule each day, it was the perfect environment to regain his qualifications and learn some test basics through flying chase support. The ‘High Alpha’ mission, putting the F-16 out of control in a high Angle-of-Attack (AoA) and recovering it, is another “kind of a test specific thing that you need to qualify in being a test pilot” Kippert mentioned that he had learned here before moving forward into the test community.
With tasking now combined at the 416th FLTS, most fighter TPS graduates will go here to get re-qualified on the F-16 first and then either stay or move to other flight test squadrons. Once people have entered the test community, only very few go back into the operational world. But mostly this decision is not theirs to make. “We don’t have a say in where we end up” Maj. Poisson relates; “The Air Force says we are undermanned, so generally what happens is that most of us stick around here or at Eglin; the primary places to go. From Edwards you can go possibly off to a staff tour at the Pentagon or a program office and then return back here for a commander assignment. We are now an acquisition asset as opposed to an operational asset.”. An F-16 test pilot can also be selected to transition to the F-22 or F-35 and it is not uncommon for test pilots to be qualified on multiple aircraft either. The limited amount of airframes and necessary aircraft modifications in between tests could cause irregular schedules for test pilots to fly. So in order to maintain their flight hours, they also fly C-12, T-38 or F-16 to stay current.
Red turns gray
The 412th FLTS, the CTF known as ‘Speckled Trout’, has also inactivated as of May 15, 2015 and personnel plus sole KC-135R merged into the 418th FLTS. Flying distinguished visitors (DV) will no longer be part of their tasking, but the Global Reach team continues to support transport, tanker and related test programs. Tanker wise the 418th FLTS will not only maintains its ‘front end’ testing, which is cockpit/flight oriented, but also adopt ‘back end’ testing, focusing on boom and refueling certifications, which were formerly done by Test Ops.
Their main instrument is the distinct colored ‘Speckled Trout’ KC-135R tanker aircraft which is heavily modified with test engineers panels, fully instrumented boom and additional cameras. Also other KC-135 and KC-10 tankers are frequently borrowed through Air Mobility Command (AMC) from operational units to fly out of Edwards in support of refuelling and other test programs.
The 370th FLTS remains at Edwards AFB as a Geographically Separate Unit (GSU) belonging to the 413th Flight Test Group based at Robins AFB, Georgia. They are primarily working with the 418th FLTS on the operational part of the tanker support missions at Edwards, whether it is tanker aircraft or refuelling receivers related. Occasionally these Reserves also augment other CTFs with experienced (fighter) pilots and various other skilled personnel.
One final other noticeable change at Edwards AFB is the disappearance of the distinctive red-and-white color scheme once worn by the 412th Test Wing F-16s. In times with limited budgets “applying the same color like everybody else is painted as opposed to a unique paint job for here.” makes sense Maj. Poisson commented; “I think with the red-and-white it was a little easier to stay visual compared to the gray paint, which is designed to blend in better acting as a camo basically. But it doesn’t affect us at all!”, which is safety wise a very important factor in conducting flight test missions. Also the plain white paint scheme on the T-38s has turned into standard two-tone gray.
On the contrary and despite a more condensed structure, Edwards AFB remains on the frontline of cutting edge aviation technology. The 412th Test Wing still holds a colorful palette of numerous experimental and developmental test activities that keeps painting history in the blue sky canvas over the California desert.
412th Test Wing [AFMC] – Edwards AFB, California
412th Operations Group
|Combined Test Force (CTF)
|to disband FY2015
|to gain KC-46A in the future
|B-1B, B-2A, B-52H, C-12
|possibly loose B-1Bs by FY2016
|disbanded May 1, 2015
|(Danish Air Force F-16 support)
Edwards AFB – Classic Associate Unit [AFRC]
413th Flight Test Group – Robins AFB, Georgia
|Combined Test Force (CTF)
|KC-10A, KC-135R, C-12, F-16, T-38
|borrows aircraft from 412th OG / Air Mobility Command (AMC)
Phodocu would like to thank Maj. Matthew Poisson and Maj. Luke Kippert at the 416th Flight Test Squadron as well as Mr. John Haire and his team at the 412th Test Wing Public Affairs for their effort and support.