AEDC expands footprint from coast-to-coast over past 24 years

  • Published
  • By Jill Pickett

Since Arnold Engineering Development Center, now Complex, was dedicated in 1951 in middle Tennessee, the organization has grown to include many units, spanning the country from Maryland to California with many points in between. Most of the units and organizations were formed prior to joining AEDC and bring with them a history all their own. All of them have the ability to help AEDC to continue making history.

Hypervelocity Wind Tunnel 9

The expansion of AEDC beyond the bounds of Tennessee began in 1997 with the addition of the Hypervelocity Wind Tunnel 9 at White Oak, Maryland - an addition that boosted the hypersonic testing capability of the Complex.

The Naval Ordnance Laboratory was established at White Oak in 1944. In 1945, a German supersonic wind tunnel captured during World War II was transferred to the Navy for installation at the site and assigned the designation of Tunnel 1, thereby beginning the history of wind tunnel testing at White Oak. The wind tunnel complex at White Oak expanded over the years with Tunnel 9 being the last and most advanced facility established at White Oak to support the development of the strategic re-entry systems for both the Navy and Air Force. Tunnel 9 became operational in 1976 and was operated as part of the Naval Surface Warfare Center before it was transferred to AEDC in 1997 as part of a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decision in 1995.

Tunnel 9 is a critical facility for the aerodynamic and aerothermal testing of advanced offensive and defensive hypersonic systems for the Department of Defense. The tunnel has a large 5-foot diameter test cell and can operate for longer durations than many other hypervelocity facilities – up to 15 seconds compared to a few milliseconds. These capabilities combined with the high pressure, high temperature operational range of the tunnel make it the highest Reynolds number, largest scale hypersonic ground-test facility in the U.S., with the ability to collect continuous pitch-polar static force and moment, pressure and heat transfer data during each run.

Since the initial operating capability (IOC) of Tunnel 9, the capability has expanded its operational environment to support evolving national test requirements. Most notably in recent years, members of Team AEDC have stretched even further. A new Mach 18 capability was developed and successfully operated with IOC being officially achieved in 2020. Tunnel 9 operational capabilities now are available at Mach 7, 8, 10, 14 and 18.

“While the uncertainty associated with the BRAC transition was difficult at the time, the end result where Tunnel 9 became a part of AEDC was by far the best decision for the nation,” said Joe Coblish, AEDC White Oak Air Force site director. “I truly believe that since the transition, AEDC and our customers have benefited greatly by the synergy that has fostered over the years between Tunnel 9 and the other hypersonic capabilities within the enterprise. Working collaboratively, we are maximizing our support to provide the test and evaluation insight necessary to reduce developmental risk and field critical hypersonic systems to the warfighter in the shortest possible timeframe.”  

National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex

The next remote site added to the AEDC footprint is located on NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field near Mountain View, California. In 2006, the National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex, or NFAC, was placed under AEDC operations and added a large-scale, subsonic test capability to the suite of AEDC wind tunnels.

The 40- by 80-foot wind tunnel was built in 1944 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, known as NACA. An 80- by 120-foot test section was added in 1987 by NASA, and the facility was dedicated the NFAC. In 2003, the NFAC was temporarily shuttered as a result of a decision by NASA to reduce operating costs. However, it was soon reopened under AEDC management due to its unique capabilities and importance to national security.

The 40- by 80-foot wind tunnel circuit is capable of providing test velocities up to 300 knots and Reynolds numbers up to 3 million/ft., while the 80- by 120-foot test section is capable of testing at velocities up to 100 knots at nominal unit Reynolds numbers of 1.1 million/ft.

The large sizes of the test sections enable AEDC to conduct innovative and non-traditional types of experimentation that could never be done in a normal wind tunnel. These non-traditional tests include flying refueling systems in the tunnel, demonstrating active flow control over aircraft surfaces, shooting mortars in the tunnel to simulate planetary decelerator parachute deployments, spraying water on a test article to test improvements to pilot visibility in heavy weather, and operating rotor and tiltrotor testbeds at speeds never before accomplished anywhere on earth.

“It is clear that the NFAC facility and the dedicated team that operates and maintains it are a critical part of the AEDC suite of test and analysis capabilities used to develop the tools needed by our services,” said Scott Waltermire, site director, AEDC Moffett Field. “It is very satisfying knowing that so many of the military aircraft currently fielded and flying in support of our national defense were, in some small part, developed in the same place we go to work every day.”

McKinley Climatic Laboratory

The McKinley Climatic Laboratory, or MCL, located at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was one of several units and facilities that joined AEDC in 2016.

MCL was built in the early 1940s and was part of the Army Air Corps when it first opened. The first operational test was conducted in 1947, the same year the Air Force was established as a separate military service.

MCL has five climatic testing chambers, including one capable of accommodating a full-scale operational aircraft. Temperatures from -65 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit can be generated in the Main Chamber, along with solar radiation, variation in humidity, wind, rain, sand, dust, snow, freezing rain, ground and inflight icing, and a high corrosive salt fog environment.

In addition to the Air Force, the facility is used for testing by the Army, Navy, Marines, Missile Defense Agency, other government agencies, foreign militaries and many commercial companies.

In 2020, members of Team AEDC put an HH-60W Jolly Green II to the test at MCL. The Air Force’s new combat search and rescue helicopter was operated in extreme conditions inside the facility, including temperature extremes, high winds and heavy rains. The test team took the chamber from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to subfreezing in only three days.

“The McKinley Climatic Laboratory is an exciting place to work,” said Kirk Velasco, chief, McKinley Climatic Laboratory. “You get hands-on with the equipment that all of the DOD will be using in the future. The personnel at the MCL are proud to be supporting the warfighter in all aspects of their mission.”

704th Test Group

The 704th Test Group also became part of the AEDC family in 2016 and added four additional remote locations to the Complex’s footprint. The 704 TG is primarily located at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, where the headquarters for the Test Group; 704 TG, Detachment 1; 586th Flight Test Squadron; 746th Test Squadron; 846th Test Squadron; and the 704th Test Support Squadron are located. The 704th TG Operating Location AA is based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. The 704th TG Operating Location AC performs testing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The 586th Flight Test Squadron, Detachment 1 works out of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

The history of the 704 TG stretches back to the 1950s, though the organization’s name has changed over the years. Notable accomplishments include Lt. Col. John Stapp’s ride of a rocket propelled test sled at 632 mph in 1954, earning him the nickname “The Fastest Man Alive.” In 1960, Capt. Joseph Kittinger Jr. stepped out of an open-balloon gondola at 102,800 feet to evaluate high-altitude bailout techniques, breaking four world records at the time – highest open-gondola manned-balloon flight, highest balloon flight of any kind, highest bailout and longest freefall.

The 704 TG operates facilities and aircraft that provide a diverse array of test and evaluation capabilities.

At Holloman AFB, the 846th TS operates the Holloman High Speed Test Track to simulate select flight conditions ranging from subsonic to hypersonic speeds, at large scale. The test track also is used for ejection seat testing.

Additionally, the Central Inertial and GPS Test Facility run by the 746th TS to test and evaluate GPS user equipment and integrated GPS-based guidance and navigation systems, is located at Holloman AFB. The Test Squadron also operates an antenna test range that allows multi-element GPS antenna testing using multiple jammers in an open-air environment.

Another significant facility run by the Test Group is the National Radar Cross Section Test Facility, or NRTF, it is located at the White Sands Missile Range, where the 586th FLTS, Det. 1 is located serving as the Air Force liaison for all Air Force programs tested at the Range. The mission conducted at the NRTF is radar cross section characterization of full-scale, aerodynamic vehicles and antenna radiation pattern development.

Back at Holloman, the 586th FLTS, plans, coordinates, conducts and analyzes flight tests of advanced weapons and avionics systems. While based at Holloman, most of the flight testing is conducted at White Sands Missile Range. The Squadron operates three different types of aircraft – highly-modified AT-38C Talons, a C-12F and a Beechcraft C-12J Huron.

The 704 TG Operating Location AA located at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, is part of the Directed Energy Combined Test Force. Unlike the other test and evaluation units, the OL-AA does not manage a test facility, but uses all available test community resources across all the military services to execute the test and evaluation mission of DE technology.

At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, the 704th TG Operating Location AC operates two facilities – the Aerospace Vehicle Survivability Facility, or AVSF, and the Landing Gear Test Facility, or LGTF. In the AVSF, the OL-AA team conducts research, development, test and evaluation of weapon systems and components against combat survivable aerospace vehicles. At the LGTF, the team can simulate real-world operating conditions for the testing of aircraft tires, wheels, brakes and landing gear assemblies.

“The 704th Test Group is proud to be a part of AEDC. With a diverse portfolio of test capability, the 704th fits well within AEDC’s already diverse portfolio and aligns synergistically in some areas such as hypersonic, nuclear modernization and directed energy,” said Col. Darren Wees, 704 TG commander.

Hypersonic Flight Test Team

The Hypersonic Flight Test Team (HFTT) based at Edwards Air Force Base, California, was the last unit to be realigned under AEDC.

Before becoming part of AEDC in 2017, the HFTT was part of the 412th Test Wing and called the Hypersonic Combined Test Force (CTF). The HFTT joined with the newly-formed AEDC Hypersonic Ground Test Team, which operates the Aerodynamic and Propulsion Test Unit (APTU), to form the Hypersonic Systems Test Branch. A second ground test facility is currently under construction at Arnold AFB.

After the reorganization, the Branch was given responsibility for executing the Test Resource Management Center’s High Speed System Test Program and the Hypersonic Test and Evaluation Investment Portfolio.

The HFTT has been operating since the 1950s under many different names, including a previous stint as the HFTT – Manned Spacecraft Office, 1959-1969; Research Projects Branch, 1970-1974; Office of Advanced Manned Vehicles, 1975-1986; Research Projects Office, 1987-1995; Access to Space Office, 1987-2003; HFTT, 2004-2007; Hypersonic CTF, 2008-2017; and HFTT, 2017 to present.

Test programs supported by the organization have included the X-15, a hypersonic manned aircraft; the Space Shuttle; and the X-51 WaveRider, an unmanned scramjet.

More recent programs supported by the HFTT include the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, Tactical Boost Glide and the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon. The HFTT partners with other organizations, such as the 412th Test Wing, to accomplish its assigned test mission.

“By utilizing the expertise and capabilities of AEDC ground testing to support flight test planning and analysis, the flight test team is able to assist with the rapid development and fielding of these critical capabilities,” said Lt. Col. Jeremy Hamilton, HFTT director.

ICBM Developmental Test Branch

The LGM-30 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is the currently fielded land-based component of the strategic nuclear triad. The Minuteman III first became operational in the early 1970s. The Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) ICBM is the planned replacement for the Minuteman III.

The ICBM Developmental Test Branch of AEDC and the GBSD Combined Test Force (CTF), both located at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, provide developmental test and evaluation support for the sustainment of the Minuteman III and the development of the next-generation GBSD. The test branch stood up in 2017 and was the first ICBM-focused test organization within the Air Force Test Center. The GBSD CTF stood up in 2020.

Space Test Operating Location at Peterson Air Force Base

The 2018 National Defense Strategy recognized space as a warfighting domain and prioritized investments in resilience, reconstitution and operations to assure U.S. space capabilities. To prepare future space systems to survive and operate through contested domains, AEDC joined then Air Force Space Command Test and Evaluation, Air Combat Command’s 53rd Wing, and Detachment 4 of the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center in January 2019 as charter members of the first Space Warfighting Combined Test Force (CTF). The CTF was envisioned to support life cycle test and evaluation (T&E) for Air Force and partnering organization space systems.

AEDC provided developmental T&E planning, provisioning, execution, analysis and reporting support to the CTF, and served as the formal conduit to the Air Force Test Center (AFTC). AEDC established the Space Test Operating Location, consisting of three Test Pilot School graduate engineers, to provide on-site support to the CTF and space acquisition programs.

With the creation of the United States Space Force (USSF), AEDC continues its relationship to support space T&E, formalized through a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the USSF Test and Evaluation Directorate. This MOA established the roles and responsibilities between organizations, and allowed AEDC to provide expertise as the USSF determined its organization structure and life cycle T&E strategy.

“Today, the Space Test Operating Location continues to provide direct developmental test and evaluation support to U.S. Space Force programs, serve as liaison to the Air Force Test Center, and is instrumental to the establishment of the National Space Test and Training Complex,” said Lt. Col. Adam Quick, chief of the AEDC Space Test Branch. “The complex will provide combined ground and on-orbit test and training resources to accelerate the fielding of space warfighting capabilities.”