Outgoing director of research at TPS shapes legacy via X-62A VISTA

  • Published
  • By Gary Hatch
  • 412th Test Wing Public Affairs

On Sept. 22, 2023, Dr. Malcolm Christopher Cotting became only the eighth honorary graduate in the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School’s history. Cotting is leaving the school after a 13-year stay, but not without leaving a legacy that pushes the envelope of flight test to a new plane – a first-of-its-kind capability for testing autonomous flying with the X-62A Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft.

Cotting, the director of research at the TPS for the past three years, led the VISTA team in its effort to modify and update the aircraft, which has been an invaluable tool for teaching flight dynamics, advanced flight control concepts and other lessons to student test pilots and flight test engineers. But something happened on the way to a simple update.

The team imagined more. Much more.

They set out to not only improve VISTA’s already unique test-training capabilities, which have been part of the TPS program since 1992, but also to create a new capability altogether – one that did not yet exist in the Department of Defense. They saw the possibility to transform VISTA into a vehicle for testing autonomous flying, a capability that is still in the formative stages of development.

One element of autonomous flying that VISTA will help develop involves the capability of a small group of aircraft, both manned and unmanned, which fly independently of each other but whose operating systems communicate and coordinate with each other in real time to enable them to act as one cohesive unit to complete a mission.

Additionally, the VISTA is now able to simulate any aircraft through its new model following algorithms and can host sophisticated machine learning and artificial intelligence agents with the aid of a new computer to support that function. The ecosystem that was created around this unique aircraft and capability allows it to rapidly support the flight testing of autonomy and artificial intelligence, in some cases flying updated agents in as little as 14 hours.

Cotting, often called Doc by his coworkers, will be the first to say that all the work done to upgrade VISTA has been a team effort, and rightly so, according to TPS technical director David Vanhoy, but he also credits Cotting as the driving force in developing its current capabilities.

“Without Doc’s efforts on VISTA, it would have been updated and still be a very good variable in-flight simulator, just like it’s always been. But he is the guy behind the upgraded capabilities. He revamped the whole system and not only improved VISTA’s existing systems but also added next-level capabilities,” Vanhoy said.

The Air Force took notice. The redesignation of VISTA from NF-16 to X-plane status recognizes the metamorphosis that has taken place, the dramatic increase in capability, Vanhoy said.

The flight test community also weighed in. The Society of Flight Test Engineers awarded the VISTA team with the James S. McDonnell Award for Outstanding Team Achievement in the Field of Flight Test Engineering.

“That’s a significant award in the flight test world,” Vanhoy said.

When the Air Force designated the VISTA as the X-62A, it essentially made it a program-office-level function, but didn’t include any additional manpower, Vanhoy said.

“So Doc wore a lot of hats in seeing this upgrade through,” he said.

“He was the program’s chief engineer, was lead program manager, he was instrumental in working contracting actions and also acted as the strategic development guy looking for future work,” he said.

The legacy Cotting leaves is not lost on his VISTA and TPS team members.

“As director of research he focused on bringing TPS a one-of-a-kind test asset in the X-62A VISTA. This move positioned TPS at the forefront of flight test, not only ahead of all the other test pilot schools, but ahead of the entire DOD Test Enterprise,” said Chiawei Lee, acting director of research at the TPS.

“Our students, staff and customer partners are already reaping the benefits of Doc’s efforts. TPS and the X-62A reflect his foresight and technical expertise. This leaves us uniquely positioned as we look to the future of flight test and our role in it,” Lee said.