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Arnold AFB test teams maintain mission focus through COVID-19 constraints

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks

Most teams at Arnold Engineering Development Complex tasked with carrying out work critical to national security, for a period of time, did not have a full complement of personnel on hand.

Precautions requiring adherence, such as team members maintaining a proper distance from one another and the use of personal protection equipment when this is not possible, were put in place.

But test groups across AEDC have continued to overcome the difficulties presented by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to accomplish one of AEDC Commander Col. Jeffrey Geraghty’s three priorities for those performing critical work – for Team AEDC to execute as much of the mission as possible.

Members of various test teams at Arnold Air Force Base, the headquarters of AEDC, both completed and planned for critical testing throughout the previously-implemented Operationally Urgent posture, during which access to the installation was limited to those employees required to complete critical test mission and support functions, and the current Return to Full Capacity, or RtFC. Phase 1 of the three-phase RtFC went into effect on June 1. Phase 2 went into effect June 15, allowing for unrestricted staffing of workplaces with continued use of personal protective equipment, or PPE, sanitization and social distancing.

Facilities at Arnold that maintained operations during the Operationally Urgent posture that was effective from April 6 through the current Phase 2 of the RtFC include the Arc-heated test facilities, the Aerodynamic and Propulsion Test Unit (APTU), the Propulsion Wind Tunnel (PWT) and the J-6 Large Rocket Motor Test Facility.

According to Lt. Col. Adam Quick, chief of the AEDC Space and Missile Test Branch, the Arcs team supported thermal protection system materials testing for hypersonic and reentry vehicles. The Rockets team worked to prepare both the J-6 test cell and rocket motors for upcoming hypersonic booster and Minute Man III testing. The Advanced Missile Signature Center continued signature model development for high-priority threat systems.

Quick said his staff has primarily supported the mission remotely, with limited on-base work as the mission has dictated.

“We’ve taken the AEDC screening process very seriously and controlled not just personnel allowed, but also when and where they are working,” Quick said.

The teams have followed the necessary precautions, including frequent sanitization, the wearing of appropriate PPE such as cloth or N95-equivalent masks, and limiting the number of people in control rooms and other areas, all the while maintaining proper physical distancing when possible.

“It’s been a more challenging communication environment, but the additional capabilities provided by the Air Force have eased that quite a bit since the beginning,” Quick said. “We’ve included more people in meetings to provide opportunities for personal contact and emphasize executing the mission while remaining vigilant and protecting the workforce.”

Lance Baxter, chief of the AEDC High Speed Systems Test Technology Branch (TSTH), said his team has been testing in APTU the Medium Scale Critical Component program in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory Aerospace Systems Directorate. This is a continuation of the hypersonic propulsion research that has been ongoing for the past few years, for which the team was recently recognized with the Aviation Week Laureate Award.

The AEDC Hypersonic Flight Test Team at Edwards Air Force Base, California, has also continued to support ground and flight test planning, execution, analysis for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and U.S. Air Force programs.

Baxter said it has been “immensely satisfying” for the staff to continue execution of the mission despite the challenges and changes brought on by the pandemic.

“To be able to represent AEDC and the Air Force Test Center in a way that demonstrated the agility, dedication and innovation that are the hallmarks of our organization has been a point of pride for the APTU and Hypersonic Flight Test teams,” he said. “Demonstrating that they can continue to execute testing with operational and technical excellence has helped to reinforce the teams’ understanding that APTU truly is one of the nation’s best and most important hypersonic test facilities and that there is no other flight test organization like the Hypersonic Flight Test Team.”

Baxter added the teams have demonstrated a high level of professionalism and dedication to the mission, as they have adhered to risk mitigations both while on base and off-duty.

“These folks continue to sacrifice, to avoid large gatherings, to voluntarily limit their personal travel and, in some cases, contact with loved ones who would increase their risk of bringing the infection into the team,” Baxter said. “These are the kinds of things that you can’t require people to do, but that they choose to do when they believe in what they are doing and the team that they are doing it with. This shows that they believe that this mission is vitally important to our nation, and they have committed personally to sacrifice in order to accomplish that mission.”

Kirk Butler, director of operations for the TSTH Ground Test Team, said APTU, one of two facilities at Arnold that did not halt operations during the COVID-19-related reduction in activities and personnel, has continued to meet the test mission requirements for the current test program and prepare for key U.S. hypersonic programs coming to AEDC in the near future.

Since the Operationally Urgent posture took effect, more than a dozen full operational test runs have been completed in APTU. The majority of the staff has worked onsite, but those who have not have been working remotely.

TSTH Ground Test Technical Advisor Sean Smith said the APTU team has remained flexible and has adapted well to the current operating constraints at Arnold. He said the combination of technology and the APTU test team’s detailed knowledge of the system under test has allowed both government personnel and contractors to very effectively support the mission remotely.

“The technology to support telework has improved significantly since the start of the Operationally Urgent state,” Smith said. “There are still areas where improvements would be valuable, like outfitting more conference rooms across base with better microphones or adding the capability for integrated telecom lines into the Air Force version of Microsoft Teams. However, it’s been more manageable than I would have expected.”

To bolster personnel safety among those on base, Butler said the APTU team quickly adopted a conservative posture from the start, going “above and beyond” the initial Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. Control room computers were rearranged to allow for greater social distancing, control room staff was reduced to the minimum required, AEDC personnel took over the roles of the program office and their prime contractor, the wearing of N95 masks was implemented for personnel working within 6 feet of one another, and cloth masks were required for all other personnel in the control room.

“There have been challenges, but the APTU team is experienced in working with unusual or difficult situations in running the facility coupled with testing that pushes hypersonic engines to new boundaries on what is possible,” Butler said. “Without buy-in from the APTU test team and crew, none of this would have been possible, and they should be commended for their hard work and determination.”

Sharon Rigney, APTU group manager, said the selflessness the APTU team has demonstrated since the outbreak of the pandemic has stood out to her. Some members of the team have been on base to work part-time as needed. While some wanted to take vacations, they instead opted to remain at work to ensure testing was completed or cover for someone unable to come to work.

“I have been thoroughly impressed with the way this team has continued to produce,” she said. “They show up for work every day. Masks, letters, hand soap, spray disinfectant are all taken in stride with little or no complaint. They have remained focused on the mission in spite of current obstacles because each one understands the importance of what we’re doing.”

Matthew Stiggins, group manager responsible for operations and maintenance of the Aeropropulsion Systems Test Facility C1 and C2 test cells, said his group has taken a phased approach to recalling personnel to support Operationally Urgent work for engine testing. The ASTF group has completed test article installation and instrumentation checkout in the ASTF C2 test cell. The facility has activated systems that were shut down in early April, including corrective repair work from before the stand down and performing system checkouts to support the C2 test program. The team is also doing test prep work in support of the next scheduled test program in the ASTF C1 test cell. 

Maintenance, installation and checkout activities were performed with the adequate levels of staff necessary while also complying with social distancing guidance and the wear of proper PPE, Stiggins said. Staffing for test operations was reduced by minimizing the number of personnel in control rooms to essential positions. Work stations in the control room were moved to create a 6 foot distance between each, cleaning supplies were put to use, and arrival and departure times for shift changes were adjusted.

“It is a much different working environment due to mitigations that have been implemented due to COVID-19,” Stiggins said. “It certainly has been a challenge. Adjusting to the ‘new normal’ has been a unique experience. Every day provides new challenges and opportunities to make improvements. The Aeropropulsion team has done an excellent job of embracing the challenge of working safely in a COVID-19 environment, watching out for one another and staying focused on accomplishing the AEDC mission.”

Derrick Talley, a J6 test operations engineer, said the team of which he has been a part has worked throughout the Operationally Urgent posture to prepare for a rocket test scheduled for this summer. Their work has included fabrication of instrumentation cables, test cell reconfiguration and motor build-up activities.

Talley said the team has complied with mitigation measures such as social distancing and the use of N95 masks, adding the team has been at full staff for the duration of the Operationally Urgent posture.

“Work-wise, it’s been business as usual,” he said. “However, navigating new safety requirements and bringing in employees for support that are on unemployment has required some additional planning.”

Mitch Turrentine, von Kármán Gas Dynamics Facility (VKF) group manager, said that VKF is the sole producer of high pressure air for Arnold AFB and, during the Operationally Urgent posture, the team there primarily worked to support testing in the APTU and Arcs areas.

After the Operationally Urgent posture went into effect, VKF began operating on a “barebones” crew, with only the personnel required for low flow high pressure air production on hand. This crew included one-third of the usual VKF craft personnel, supervision and no engineering staff.

Turrentine said the VKF team has maintained a focused effort on safely performing its mission. Alternative methods to accomplish tasks that prevented team members from coming within 6 feet of each other were explored and implemented. When this was not possible, protective masks were utilized. Along with the sanitization of surfaces between shifts and the use of disposable keyboard covers, the number of workers in control rooms was limited.

“We had daily meetings to discuss the area’s current COVID-19 situation countermeasures for preventing the spread of COVID-19, task priority, manning requirements, and COVID-19 spread prevention supplies inventory and usage rates,” Turrentine said. “The meetings were sometimes long and quite mentally taxing.”

PWT Group Manager Shannon Tibbals said the work of PWT personnel after the Operationally Urgent posture was announced was limited to providing Plenum Evacuation System support to the Arcs H2 facility to meet the test objectives there. As the list of Operationally Urgent tasks evolved, so did the workload for PWT personnel.

The PWT group recently completed a customer test in the 16-foot transonic wind tunnel, with another test slated to begin soon afterward. The team also performed work in the 4-foot transonic wind tunnel.

Like other teams, the PWT group has practiced social distancing, the wearing of face coverings in control rooms and public spaces, and limiting the number of personnel in meetings and control rooms. Initially, the PWT team had around two dozen members onsite, but as more Operationally Urgent tasks were added in the Flight area, personnel was gradually added to support those tasks. PWT was at about 85 percent of its normal staffing levels as of the first week of June.

“It’s been a challenge to plan test and maintenance activities and ensure we have the right amount of staff and PPE to support them,” Tibbals said. “It’s also taken some time to get used to wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart, but completing that first customer test in spite of the pandemic was a great feeling for everyone. It’s good to know we can get the job done regardless of the obstacles in our way.”