Science and Technology News

Thursday, January 22, 2015

96th Test Group brings 'R2D2' to life

by SrA Daniel Liddicoet
49th Wing Public Affairs

1/22/2015 - HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Remotely tucked away in the high desert of southern New Mexico, the 96th Test Group at Holloman AFB provides some of the most sophisticated military testing in the world. Often, their innovations and technological pursuits can conjure images seen in science fiction films or novels. The group's latest project, dubbed affectionately as 'R2D2', is no exception.

According to 2nd Lt. Troy Biersack, program manager with the 746th Test Squadron, explained that the project began from a need to design a platform that could serve to perform high-dynamic testing of new GPS technology inside the 56 year-old T-38 Talon.

The culmination of efforts across the 96th TG led to the creation of a rear cockpit mounted electronics package reminiscent of the beloved Star War's robot.

"The similarities between our RCP and R2D2 would be that it's in the rear seat and it's got this funny little cap on the top which functions as an antenna," Biersack described. "We started jokingly referring to it as R2D2 as the project developed, and it just stuck."

Building the RCP required careful coordination between the 746th Test Squadron, 846th Test Squadron and the 586th Flight Test Squadron.
The 746th Test Squadron performed program management, test management, integration of equipment and ground test data analysis. The 846th Test Squadron added by managing the mechanical design and fabrication. Finally, the 586th Flight Test Squadron led the flight certification process and coordinated the installation and removal of the RCP.

"It is a point of collective pride that the squadrons each possess such unique capabilities, yet they work so well together," said Biersack. "Our leadership is promoting innovation and cohesion. This dynamic exists across the squadrons, enabling us to quickly identify and leverage the correct talent."

Biersack served as the program manager for the RCP project, overseeing each phase of development between squadrons to ensure the process was seamless.

"My charge was to maintain program vector and momentum while standing clear of the experts. I was responsible for budget, for keeping it on track and holding people accountable to getting things done on time."

After the 746th Test Squadron developed the requirements to construct the RCP, the 846th Test Squadron began working on the mechanical design and fabrication of the rack.

As Biersack explained, one of the unique challenges of the project was designing a rack that could fit inside the aging T-38 without negatively affecting the pre-existing conditions of the aircraft.

"When the fabricated rack arrived from the 846th, for us it was one of the biggest moments of the entire project," beamed Biersack. "It was such a great feeling to see how far we'd come, and to bear the fruits of our labor in such a tangible way."

Once fabricated, the RCP then had to undergo a series of ground testing and safety reviews before it could become airborne.

According to 1st Lt. Jeffrey Son, test manager at the 746th Test Squadron, explained that one of the challenges of this phase was testing for the aggressive vibration profile necessary to ensure the RCP could undergo the rigors of high dynamic testing.

"As a test manager, it's very neat to be a part of test execution. I feel a lot of the time that I'm just along for the ride. The folks here at the squadron are experts at what they do and need very little guidance to make tests successful. It's been an honor to be a part of this team."

The 746th had to perform a safety review to guarantee that the RCP would bring no new hazards to the T-38.

Erin Morgenstern, unit test safety manager at the 746th Test Squadron, explained that their biggest priority was to ensure that installing the rack would not interfere with the aircraft's ejection system.

"The pilots had to change their ejection settings in order for the gas lines to cooperate with the RCP, we had to make sure there were no hazards to the aircrew upon ejection and that the equipment stayed with plane also so there could be no mid-air collisions."

Finally, once the equipment had been checked out, the RCP was sent to the 586th Flight Test Squadron so it could be flown in the T-38 for initial flight testing.

"The moment it all came to together, the big kumbaya," recalled Biersack, "was the eight sorties that were flown by the 586th went off without a hitch. Seeing the data from our analysts showing that this rack is just as good as the rack we're replacing it with."

As it all came together, the members of the RCP project could see their own little piece of science-fiction forming before their eyes.

"In order to accomplish something like this, you've got to chip away at it bit by bit, piece by piece," said Biersack. "And sometimes it's amazing to just look back, pick your head up from the grind and see everything that's been accomplished."

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