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Unit finds fitting home for 'misfit toys'

  • Published
  • By Kirk E. Harwood
  • 452nd Flight Test Squadron
Perhaps you recall an old Christmas special about the Island of Misfit Toys. Each of the toys in some way is not standard, such as a train with square wheels.

The 452nd Flight Test Squadron could be called the "Combined Test Force for Misfit Planes;" each aircraft has some feature that makes it unusual. There is the Airborne Laser, which shoots a chemical laser out its nose, and three types of unmanned aircraft - each with their own peculiarities and capabilities.

The 452nd FLTS's job is to find these "misfit" airplanes a home in the Air Force.

To most of the world, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are still new and unproven. They are "misfit airplanes." They simply don't fit our way of thinking about aircraft.

The Predator and Global Hawk aircraft regularly fly missions in support of the Global War on Terror. The Global Hawk has demonstrated such success in its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role that the Air Combat Command, headquartered at Langley Air Force Base, Va., was willing to use the third concept demonstration vehicle manufactured in actual operations.

In reality, there is nothing really "misfit" about them. Those of us unfamiliar with them just haven't seen the value of the misfit toy, yet.

For the people working on the Global Hawk test team, their "misfit" is an interesting, challenging and rewarding airplane to work with. The team integrates various organizations into day-to-day test operations. The organization is split into three groups: operators, maintainers and engineers. The UAV is designed with three different focal points: the airplane, the ground segment and the payloads.

The airplane carries the payload, which is usually comprised of three sensors: electro-optical, infra-red and synthetic aperture radar. The ground segment controls the airplane and the sensors. If you think about this simply, by removing the "misfit" terms, the airplane's cockpit stays on the ground and the pilots on the ground send commands, through a set of communication links to both the airplane and the mission equipment.

The Global Hawk's mission is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Long-endurance and high-altitude cruising help maximize the Global Hawk's time over the targets, while minimizing exposure to threats. The airplane follows its mission plan as it snaps thousands of digital images of the enemy.

Quietly humming away, the Global Hawk's engine has a modest appetite. The plane has long glider wings. For the test team, this means full fuel loads resulting in remarkably long missions. It would take an incredible number of people and logistics to support such lengthy missions over long periods of time. To combat this, test teams often limit the amount of fuel on a UAV to lighten the load, allowing the UAV more test time at representative altitudes above 50,000 feet.

The normal result of rushing developmental systems into operation is trouble shooting these systems so they work in a suitable way.

The Global Hawk test team has quickened the pace of testing to get more UAVs out within the next year, and must now integrate requirements, align assets with opportunities, demonstrate capabilities, and hand over sets of airplanes, sensors and ground segments to Air Force warriors.

When the system being moved into operation is a "misfit," like the Global Hawk, the complexity increases about three-fold. On airplanes we're accustomed to, if something isn't right, the pilot can feel, see or hear it. When the radio of a normal airplane breaks, pilots can still communicate in a limited way, and people on the ground have some comfort knowing that a practiced, knowledgeable pilot is still in control of the plane. However, when the airplane is a "misfit," the pilot's situational awareness can be greatly restricted - there is no way to tell if there is a warning light accompanied by an odd noise or smoke.

Without a pilot directly in command of the airplane, operators and engineers need to make detailed plans for the many different situations that may occur. Consider the planning necessary to safely recover an airplane that does not have a video display, stick or throttle; is not communicating with the ground segment; and may have a critical system failure.

This takes careful, conscientious preparation, but rest assured it is work the Global Hawk test team is accustomed to doing every day.

So next time you see a Global Hawk flying overhead, remember that even "misfits" have a place in the developmental test world.