Science and Technology News

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Air Force modernization takes B-2 to North Pole

By Kate Blais
95th Air Base Wing Public Affairs, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

A B-2 Spirit flew from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to the North Pole and back Oct. 27 on a mission to test the aircraft’s hardware and software upgrades, endurance and its performance at extremely high latitudes.

The 18-plus hour mission consisted of developmental and operational test points to prove that the B-2′s software upgrade works well and is able to operate anywhere in the world.

“A goal of the test force is to prevent a situation where an aircraft experiences an anomaly with a new system for the first time in an operational mission,” said Lt. Col. Hans Miller, the 419th Flight Test Squadron commander. “This flight to the North Pole could reveal data and lessons that were not seen in a lab or simulated environment.”

Although the B-2 has been to the North Pole in simulated tests, this is the first time the aircraft has physically travelled there, marking a milestone in B-2 testing, officials said.

“This is the first time the B-2 has operated at this extreme of latitude before, and (I believe) the longest flight so far for this hardware and this software,” said Maj. Michael Deaver, the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron’s B-2 Extremely High Frequency Test director. “Being a global bomber, it may be required to operate at extreme latitudes, if not where the target is, but possibly for the flight path it’ll take to get there.”

The mission worked to verify that the software upgrades, which include new communication and new navigation equipment, still allows the B-2 to operate effectively anywhere in the world, test officials said.

“The main objective of this mission is to look at how the software and hardware works over a long duration (of time),” said 1st Lt. Derek Moore, a test conductor assigned to the 419th Flight Test Squadron. “We try to push the limits of the aircraft and come back and make sure that operationally, it can still meet objectives.”

The operational portion of this mission consisted of releasing four unguided BDU-38 bombs over the precision impact range area here after the flight, officials said. According to Deaver, one of the biggest objectives was to make sure that the aircraft knew where it was and that it could get to a weapons release point.

To get to that point, extensive coordination throughout the 419th FLTS, Bomber Combined Task Force and other Edwards AFB assets, as well as outside support including the Department of State, was necessary for a successful mission, test officials said.

“Support from the Air Force Flight Test Center allowed us to use the (412th FLTS) as a resource, which served as an airborne control room and communication hub,” said Jeremiah Farinella, a 419th FLTS test conductor and operations engineer. “That allowed us to troubleshoot some issues that we saw when we were airborne and provided us communication back to Edwards (Air Force Base), which was essential to our success and allowed the pilots to stay focused on the mission.”

Officials at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., provided a KC-135 Stratotanker for aerial refueling support, Farinella said. The tanker refueled the B-2 over Alberta, Canada, to ensure that the B-2 could complete the endurance portion (of the mission). The B-2 was further supported with fuel from a second KC-135 from here that helped ensure that the B-2 could complete the operational portion of the polar mission.

“We had an incredible team that went with us, lessened our workload greatly and contributed to the fact that we were able to get up there and back safely and really lowered the risk of the mission for us,” said Maj. Andrew Murphy, a B-2 experimental test pilot assigned to the 419th FLTS.

Flight test helps find problems early on so that they can be fixed before aircraft end up in the field, Murphy said.

“The warfighter needs to know where they can and can’t go,” he said. “Essentially, we’ve proven the fact that they can get up into those (high) latitudes safely and effectively. That previously was a question mark.”

Ensuring that the B-2 maintains its legacy capabilities contributes to the greater Air Force mission, Farinella said.

“It’s a very good cross-check to ensure that we maintain global vigilance and can strike any target in the world at any time, providing overall global combat power.” Farinella said.

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