AF Secretary Kendall experiences VISTA of future flight test at Edwards

  • Published
  • By Gary Hatch and Mary Kozaitis
  • 412th Test Wing

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall flew in the front seat of the X-62A VISTA, May 2, to experience firsthand the unique aircraft, which incorporates machine learning and highly specialized software to test autonomous flying and other cutting-edge capabilities.

The most potent feature of the X-62A – called VISTA for Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft – is its new capability to develop and test flying capabilities in real-time using machine learning and live agent integration. This technology was successfully tested through a collaboration with DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program. The team was a finalist for the 2023 Robert J. Collier Trophy as an acknowledgement for their breakthrough efforts.

“The potential for autonomous air-to-air combat has been imaginable for decades, but the reality has remained a distant dream up until now. In 2023, the X-62A broke one of the most significant barriers in combat aviation. This is a transformational moment, all made possible by breakthrough accomplishments of the ACE team,” Kendall said.

The research division of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School leads overall program management responsibilities for the X-62A. The division’s primary focus is to lead research that accelerates multidomain capabilities for the warfighter, while embracing challenges to rapidly test novel technologies.

About four years ago the team set out to improve VISTA’s already unique test-training capabilities, which historically allowed it to simulate another aircraft’s flying characteristics, but they didn’t stop there. They created 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 incorporating and testing artificial intelligence theory through real-time use of live agents.

VISTA’s initial capabilities were reimagined, reworked and fundamentally expanded, culminating in an upgrade that was completed in 2022 and featured three new highly specialized software suites with significantly more computing power to make it all work.

“AI is really taking the most capable technology you have, putting it together and using it on problems that previously had to be solved through human decision making. It’s automation of those decisions and it’s very specific,” Kendall said.

During Secretary Kendall’s flight, the X-62A conducted a variety of tactical maneuvers utilizing live agents that responded in real-time to a simulated threat. He completed a series of test points, which were parts of an aerial dogfight within an operation that validated the models and tested its performance. Sitting in the front seat, the controls of the X-62A remained untouched by both Secretary Kendall and the safety pilot in the backseat throughout the entire test flight.