Flight Testing

In 1977, Lt Col Dave Ferguson commanded the 6513th Test Squadron, a unit which had its administrative head­quarters together with a small number of F-4s and T-38s at Edwards Air Force Base. However, the 6513th had a black side, seven of its other aircraft were involved in a highly classified programme known as ‘Red Hat’, these aircraft were MiG-17s and MiG-2 Is based up at Area 51. It was whilst carrying out his duties at ‘a remote test site’, that Dave met Bill Park. At that time, Bill was the Director of Flight Operations for the Skunk Works, but he hadn’t flown military7 jets since his involvement in Project Tagboard, the M-21/D-21 drone evaluations that had taken place nearly ten years earlier. Bill was gearing up to fly Have Blue and Dave was asked to get him re­qualified. This was achieved in a T-38 and through this initial contact, Dave flew the occasional T-38 chase sortie during the Have Blue programme. In 1978, Bill offered Dave a job on the Senior Trend Programme, which he accepted following his retirement from the Air Force in 1979. Earlier that same year Bill Park hired Harold ‘Hal’

Below Having been delivered by C-5 Galaxy from Burbank to Area 51, the F-1 17A prototype (FSDI) is undergoing final assembly. (Lockheed Martin)

Above The prototype’s serial – 780 – would prove to represent an over-optimistic first flight target date, with FSDI completing that task on 18 June 1981. (Lockheed Martin)

Farley in as the projects chief pilot, having poached him from Grumman. Tom Morgenfeld became the third pilot recruited, having worked prior with the YF-18 project development team.

In addition to contractor pilots, it had been decided that developmental together with category I and II, opera­tional test and evaluation (OT&E) of the F-117A, would be conducted by a Joint Test Force. Tactical Air Command (TAC), controlled testing and initially provided three pilots and two analysts. The third party involved in this ‘tripartite’ force, was Air Force Systems Command. They provided three pilots, four engineers and approxi­mately forty aircraft maintenance personnel.

To prepare themselves for the first series of flights in the F-117A, the team contacted Calspan, and asked them to provide a flight simulation programme based on aerodynamic data acquired through wind tunnel tests and Have Blue. As the programme was so highly classified, the data was delivered to Rogers Smith of Calspan by Hal, Dave, Tom and Bob Loschke, in a restaurant out at Newhall. During that meeting they detailed their require­ments from Calspan, without telling Smith what he would be simulating; all he had to work from was a set of aerodynamic data of the predicted flight characteristics of the aircraft in the landing pattern. Rogers Smith took the information with him to Buffalo, New York, to create a simulation which would be programmed into the Lockheed/Calspan NT-33A.

This aircraft enabled the predicted stability and control aspects of different aircraft to be simulated, allowing pilots to familiarise themselves with the likely characteris­tics to be encountered prior to their first real flights. In keeping with earlier Skunk Works, blackworld, aircraft development projects, flight testing would be conducted at the now legendary Area 51. On 1 January 1979,

Be/ow Chief test pilot Hal Farley, prepares to vacate the cock­pit upon successfully completing the F-117’s first flight.

(Lockheed Martin)

preparations at the remote site got underway to receive the latest guest.

Back at Burbank, the first production engine arrived in April 1980 and on 2 September, the first engine run was conducted. The complex design and engineering of the exhaust nozzle caused more than a few headaches and on 22 December, the team suffered the first of several nozzle failures. This led to further delays with to first flight. However, on 12 February 1981, an improv. d nozzle was fitted, which helped to eradicate at least some of the problems.

On 16 January 1981, a C-5 from Burbank touched down at Groom Lake, onboard was Aircraft 780, FSD 1 – the combined test team at last had an aircraft. It wasn’t until 18 June 1981 that Hal Farley was finally able to

take Aircraft 780 on its first flight, an event cut short due, yet again, to a temperature build-up in the exhaust section. However, the significance of this event was such that film footage shot during the sortie was edited at the test area into a one-minute sequence. It was then flown by special courier aircraft to Andrews AFB, and then taken to the White House, where it was viewed by President Reagan.

The second FSD aircraft, ’781, was flown for the first time by Dave Ferguson, on 24 September 1981. After completing just four sorties however, it underwent considerable rework, which included retro fitting larger interim tail units and a ‘production’ nose section, which,. after further tests, housed the Infrared Acquisition and Designation System (IRADS) units. In addition, an asymmetric, four-probe, production configured air data system was added.

It was decided to qualify the aircraft for air refuelling (A/R), early in the programme; the first such sortie being flown by AFSC test pilot Skip Anderson, on 17 November 1981. Once A/R qualified, the test program further accelerated, as evidenced by a flight completed by Hal in ‘780, just two days latter, which lasted 2.8hrs. The first night flight of an F-117A was completed by Roger Moseley flying Aircraft ’782 on the 22 March 1982; he flew the same aircraft on the 19 April 1982, successfully conducting the first night air refuelling.

Low Observability airborne testing of the F-117A was exhaustive. For ’783’s fourth flight, TAC pilot Tom Abel went airborne on 15 July 1982 to conduct IR tests of Senior Trend with the help on an NKC-135, an exercise repeated the next day by Pete Barnes. Four flights were then flown against an F-4 to evaluate the IR threat from air-launched heat seeking missiles. By 13 January 1983, Air Force pilots had flown ’783 on no less than 21 RCS

Above After ten flights, FSD I was grounded for over ten months, while larger tail units were fitted to improve direc­tional stability. The earlier desert-camouflage paint pattern was also removed and replaced by an overall, low-visibility grey scheme. (Lockheed Martin)

Below For a month FSD I had wing leading edge extensions added during an evaluation of its handling qualities. (Lockheed Martin)

and IR sorties. These included cued and uncued tests against the best US detection systems available, in addi­tion to ‘Special Category’ tests, flown against Soviet-made equipment ‘acquired’ through various means by the United States. One particular test, flown by John Beesley on a December 1982, included taking RCS measurements while the aircraft’s right bomb-bav door was open – a period when the aircraft is at its most vulnerable.

Aircraft ’783 continued to be the ‘fleet’s’ RCS work­horse throughout 1984, with analysis of the air-air threat continuing. On 24 April, an F-16 made four radar passes against the aircraft, two days later, thirteen radar passes were made by the Fighting Falcon.

By late July, F-15s, F-14s and an EF-111 had conduct­ed similar threat tests against ’783. Thereafter, it was utilised alternately between low observability tests and evaluations, and the integration of improvements made to the navigation and weapons delivery systems.

Aircraft ’784, FSD 5, was the dedicated IRADS test and evaluation ship, consequently its first 106 flights were made in pursuit of this task; after which on 23 September 1983, it was placed in temporary storage.

At the end of November 1984, the aircraft was disman­tled and moved, via C-5, from Area 51 back to Burbank. The operational limitations of an infrared targeting

Right and below Having qualified the F-117 for air refuelling from а КС-135 on 17 November 1981, Senior Trend was cleared to tank from КС-10 Extenders on 8 September 1983. (Lockheed Martin)

Above FSD5, serial ’784, the final developmental aircraft, completed its first flight on 10 April 1982. It is seen here drop­ping a 2,0001b GBU-27 practice bomb during separation trials.

(Lockheed Martin)

Left Initially equipped with the GBU-10, the Paveway II guidance unit corrected the weapons trajectory using full deflection commands to the canards. This had a negative impact on the weapon’s performance. (Lockheed Martin)

Be/ow The GBU-27 featured an improved Paveway III guidance section and when dropped for the first time by Jim Dunn, from 783, the inert weapon scored a direct hit on the 55 gallon barrel target, splitting it in half! (Lockheed Martin)

system with which to aim weapons (however accurately), was already fully appreciated. Consequently, Aircraft 784 underwent modifications to install a low observable radar system to conduct both ground mapping and target acquisition.

It was returned to Area 51 and from September 1985, until the end of the year 34 sorties totalling 45.5hrs were flown, during which time all aspects of the radar mapping and targeting system in ‘784 were evaluated: RCS of the antenna and radome; the ability of the system to perform the ground mapping task; threat evaluation during system
operation; system resolution including four sorties which were flown by 4450th TFG pilot, Maj William Aten (Bandit 164), enabling the system to be evaluated from a front line pilot’s perspective. Those involved in this evaluation have stated that the system was remarkable and incredibly stealthy.

However, it wras not deployed operationally for reasons of cost and on the basis that, to date, Senior Trend as a concept, had not been tested under actual combat condi­tions, something of a Catch 22 – stealth still had its ‘doubting Thomases’.

After a three year programme to improve the aircraft’s RAM coating, a compound known as BX185 was developed. A one – quarter scale model is seen being made ready for RCS evaluations at Lockheed’s Helendale test range. (Lockheed Martin)

When the test detachment at Area 51 changed command on 14 December 1983, John Beesley completed a fly-by in ‘782 patriotically adorned. (USAF)


Formed on 15 October 1979, designated the 4450th Tactical Group, and referred to as А-unit, the Air Force’s first operational F-117 unit was commanded by Col Robert “Burner” Jackson and would be located at the Tonopah Test Range, located northwest of Nellis AFB, Nevada. A security cover story for the blackworld unit was provided by twenty Ling Tempo Vaught A-7Ds and a small number of two seat A-7K. S. These were based at Nellis AFB and referred to as P-Unit. The 4450th Test Squadron (established on the 11 June 1981), was referred to as І-Unit and Detachment 1 of А-Unit, based at Tonopah, was Q-Unit. In addition to providing the ‘avionics testing’ cover story, the A-7s were used to main­tain pilot proficiency until F-117As became available and were also used as chase aircraft.

Supplemental to overseeing the construction program, Col Bob Jackson also set about recruiting the initial cadre of pilots, as A1 Whitley, at that time a Major, recalls:

“My interview occurred in late 1980 at the Nellis AFB, Visiting Officers Quarters. When the time came for the interview, I proceeded to the designated meeting place – Colonel Jackson’s room. When I knocked on the door, it opened slightly and Colonel Jackson asked to see my identification card. I produced it, the door closed, and a few seconds later he opened the door and said ‘Yes, y ou’re Whitley, come in’. In the next few minutes.

Colonel Jackson told me very little about a program

which would involve significant family separation, yet the opportunity to not only remain at Nellis AFB for another full assignment, but also the chance to fly the A-7 again. He didn’t say much more, other than I would have no opportunity to discuss it with my wife and that I had five minutes to make up my mind. With no hesitation, I said, ‘Sign me up’. Colonel Jackson said he’d be contacting me in the future on specifics. That was the end of the inter­view.” In the spring of 1981, Lt Colonel Jerry Fleming the Squadron Commander called Whitley and a couple of the new members of the unit to a remote, secure location in Area 11 (or Lake Mead Base) of the Nellis AFB complex. There, for the first time, they were shown photos of what they would be flying. Whitley remembers: “I was genuinely excited and honoured to be part of something that was on the ‘leading edge’ of technology.

I quickly added a new word to my vocabulary that would have a significant impact on the rest of my Air Force career – ‘stealth’.”

The original plan was that the unit should achieve initial operational capability (IOC), forty months after aircraft ’780’s first flight, which was scheduled for July 1980. Therefore Q-Unit, nicknamed the ‘Goatsuckers’, were expected to assume a limited operational role in November 1982. This was not achieved owing to various design and manufacturing obstacles. In fact, the first production aircraft, number ’785, didn’t attempt its first flight until 20 April 1982. As with the previous FSD aircraft, aeroplane number one, from Lot 2, had been completed at Burbank and flown via C-5 Galaxy to Area 51. There it had been re-assembled and following various ground checks, Lockheed test pilot Bob Riendenauer

In March 1991, the combined test force put this formation together; it depicts ‘781, 782, 783 and ‘831.780 had already been retired. (Lockheed Martin)

The first home for F-117 operations was Tonopah. Note the ‘drive-through’ barns, grouped in blocks of six. (Lockheed Martin)

advanced the throttles and began his take-off* run. The aircraft rotated as planned, hut immediately after lift off everything went horribly wrong. 1’he nose yawed violently, it then pitched up and completed a snap roll which left it on its back before impacting the ground. It was nothing short of a miracle that Bob survived, not so though aircraft ’785, which was totally wrecked. A post accident investigation established that the pitch and yaw rate gy ro input to the flight control computer had been cross wired.

In September, detachment 1 of the 4450th was designated the 4452nd Test Squadron and it was while the unit had a complement of just two aircraft that another milestone was achieved. On the night of Friday

15 October, Major A1 W hitley conducted his first Senior Trend flight and in so doing, also became the first operational pilot to fly the aircraft.

The sporadic nature of the delivery schedule continued and by the end of 1982, the unit still only boasted seven aircraft. Col James S. Allen had assumed command of the 4450th, from Col Bob Jackson on 17 May 1982 and by 28 October 1983, Senior Trend was deemed to have achieved Limited Initial Operational Capability (LIOC). As the potential of Senior Trend became increasingly more apparent to those cleared into the program, the procurement plan was increased to a total of 57 aircraft (the final total was 59). The impact of this decision creat­ed the need for two additional squadrons, consequently in July 1983, І-Unit “Nightstalkers”, was activated, to be followed in October 1985 by Z-Unit, “Grim Reapers” (later redesignated the 4450th Test Squadron and the 4453rd Test and Evaluation Squadron respectively).

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