Modern naval aircraft and weapons systems require state-of-the-art technology and instrumentation for test and evaluation (T&E). These assessments start years in advance of an aircraft’s delivery to the fleet and often require technological innovation.
The Atlantic Test Ranges (ATR) at NAS Patuxent River, Md., offer T&E capabilities and open-air range assets to provide decision-quality data for naval aircraft acquisition programs. ATR is one of three Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) open-air ranges — along with the Sea Range and the China Lake Ranges on the West Coast — which enable NAVAIR to deliver capable, affordable and sustainable warfighting capabilities to Sailors and Marines.
“Today’s flight testing monitors a wide range of parameters to gather accurate engineering data for flight test teams to make informed decisions,” said Rob Vargo, ATR director. “Not only are the aircraft we test today more sophisticated than those tested in the early days of naval flight testing, but the range assets used to test those systems have also evolved to meet the T&E needs of current Naval Aviation programs.”
While today’s aircraft and the tools for testing them have all undergone change over the years, the exceptional support that the NAS Patuxent River range professionals have provided to the Navy is unwavering.
In November 1942, Navy officials designated NAS Patuxent River as the site for testing experimental aircraft, equipment and material. The station would also become the East Coast base for the Naval Air Transport Service (NATS).
During the 1 April 1943 commissioning ceremony, Rear Adm. John S. McCain — then chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics — called Patuxent River “the most needed station in the Navy.”
From June through August 1943, flight test and development squadrons from NAS Anacostia, Washington, D.C., and the Aircraft Armament Unit from Norfolk, Va., transferred operations to Patuxent River. This consolidation initiated the station’s role as an aircraft test organization.
In July 1943, the Navy’s first air transport squadron, VQ-4, arrived at its new home at Patuxent River from Norfolk. Naval Air Transport Squadron (VR) 8 was established at NAS Patuxent River in October 1943. By June 1944, VR-9 was formed to function as the headquarters and maintenance squadron for NATS Atlantic. Radio, armament, catapult and arresting gear testing, as well as tactical equipment and service testing, were being conducted by this time.
On 16 June 1945, the Navy established the Naval Air Test Center (NATC) at Patuxent River. The NATC was responsible for the functional areas of flying qualities and performance, service suitability and electronics and armament testing. The center was split into five branches: Flight Test, Tactical Test, Armament Test, Electronic Test and Service Test. Flight testing duties fell under the Armament Test Division.
The development of jet aircraft and improvements to conventional weapons took place at NATC beginning in the 1950s. From the 1950s through the 1970s, a number of patrol squadrons including VP-8, VP-44, VP-49, VP-24, VP-30 and VP-68 operated from Patuxent River. By August 1955, Aviation Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VW) 11, the first of three such squadrons, was commissioned at NAS Patuxent River. VW-13 and VW-15 were commissioned by October 1955.
A 1967 reorganization combined elements from the Flight Test, Service Test and Weapons System Test branches to form the Technical Support Division: the genesis of the current ATR. The Magnetic Tape and Telemetry Branch was created as part of the NATC Technical Support Division to provide telemetry to Navy flight test customers. Telemetry, the invisible link between aircraft and ground station, transfers results from complex measuring instruments on test aircraft to a team of flight test engineers on the ground.
Prior to 1970, options were limited for flight test engineers to monitor aircraft during testing. Engineers could communicate with the pilot via ultra-high frequency radio while the range provided aircraft location information. Aircraft data could be transmitted to a ground station, but only the raw data could be displayed on a strip chart. An engineer would then manually convert the data to engineering units.
Technological advancements improved the collection and analysis of test data with the development of the Real-Time Telemetry Processing System (RTPS) in March 1973. Patuxent River, using RTPS, was the first DoD site that could support processed telemetry data from the test platform, which was sent to displays monitored by flight test engineers in project engineer stations on the ground. While these basic concepts are still used today, the system relies on newer and faster hardware and software.
Larry Hill, head of the ATR special projects office and a 40-year range employee, recalled how important the advent of computers was to developing today’s range infrastructure.
“The original computer system at ATR took up an entire room and contained a massive amount of computer equipment,” said Hill. “But now, with a significant change in technology, I carry around more computing power in my cellphone than that room ever held.”
NAVAIR established an assistant commander for test and evaluation March 1975. The position was assigned the management of T&E assets and facilities, which were subsequently divided into the Computer Sciences, Systems Engineering Test and Technical Support directorates. Range functions resided in the latter. Flight Test, Service Test and Weapons Systems Test divisions were disestablished and Strike Aircraft, Anti-submarine Aircraft and Rotary Wing Aircraft test directorates were formed to evaluate aircraft by type and mission.
By 1977, the demand for test data increased and the necessity for a more sophisticated flight test telemetry system became apparent. RTPS was upgraded to RTPS II, giving flight test engineers the ability to test four flights simultaneously. A major upgrade of test facilities in the late 1970s brought about some of the largest construction appropriations in the history of the air station.
In the early 1980s, the Patuxent River test area was extended to provide range and telemetry data from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., allowing for larger over-ocean test access with real-time coverage. The partnership continues today and provides the scheduling of assets between the two organizations and support of missions at Wallops.
The Technical Support Directorate’s Missile Programs Office was designated as the lead field activity for the Tomahawk missile’s East Coast operational test launch program in 1982. One of the early mobile range assets — a converted Convair 880 aircraft outfitted with telemetry equipment — flew alongside the missile to collect, process and provide data to the test team. The Chesapeake Test Range (CTR) supported more than 80 Tomahawk missile test flights at various ranges on the East Coast, Puerto Rico and Alaska until 30 June 1996.
Mark Swierczek, a NAVAIR flight test engineer, was part of the test team that evaluated cold weather Tomahawk engine operations in the late 1980s. To meet weather requirements, the project flew out of Elmendorf Air Force Base, in Anchorage, Alaska.
“The 880 was a unique asset that allowed us to complete testing in Alaska,” said Swierczek. “It had a full suite of test monitoring equipment, including strip charts, digital displays and radio communications so we could monitor the test flight in real-time.”
Swierczek added that the Convair 880 was not the only mobile range asset that test engineers had access to.
“RTPS outfitted everything from airplanes to school busses in order for us to complete tests that took place away from Patuxent River,” he said. “We also had strip charts in school busses that we drove up to [Naval Engineering Station Lakehurst] — another form of RTPS for offsite testing.”
By the 1980s, a high-bandwidth coaxial cable system linked all range data processing and simulation labs at Patuxent River. An instrumentation radar system was installed 20 miles south of Patuxent River at Point Lookout, Md., and was integrated with the CTR facility via a microwave link. The system obtains continuous and accurate position of items under test and provides time, space and position information for T&E events and fleet training exercises.
The Technical Support Directorate, which included the Magnetic Tape and Telemetry Branch, was renamed the Range Directorate in 1985. In 1988, RTPS was upgraded to RTPS III enabling up to 8.5 million operations per second. With six RTPS III project engineer station rooms, the test range could now handle six simultaneous flights.
After a military construction project added approximately 13,000 square feet to the CTR facility at Cedar Point, Md., the Telemetry Data Systems Branch moved from Building 1591 in 1989. As missions began occurring off the Atlantic coast, the range complex received its current designation as the Atlantic Test Ranges.
Two more reorganizations would occur: in 1997, when the Range Directorate became the Atlantic Ranges and Facilities (AR&F), and in 2004, when AR&F transitioned to the national NAVAIR Range Department.
In 2009, RTPS was upgraded a fourth time to accommodate the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. Project Engineer Station rooms were upgraded with the Interactive Analysis Display System and expanded to support up to 40 flight test engineers in preparation for JSF test teams. Each workstation provides real-time analysis, display and data recall capability so engineers can independently review data and perform inter-maneuver analysis.
The addition of a secure annex in 2010 allows for top-secret Project Engineer Station rooms and an electronic warfare (EW) workstation, which centrally controls ATR’s ground-based threat radar simulators that support EW test and training requirements for use by T&E and training programs.
In 2013, ATR began an update to the core video routing infrastructure and video display systems in the ATR control room and Kineto tracking mounts to support the new digital high-definition video and high resolution PC graphics formats. Driven by unmanned aircraft systems requirements and the F-35 program, optical coverage has evolved from just providing video of an aircraft or store in the airspace to providing real-time imagery of specific details on the aircraft or store, such as control surfaces, doors and hatches.
“Obviously, the technology has changed a lot from the days when we were in a room with just strip charts and primitive video displays,” said Swierczek. “Back then we thought the technology had significantly increased when we went from four strip chart machines, to eight, then to a dozen. Now, even the strip chart is becoming obsolete as everything has gone digital.”
ATR’s testing capabilities will continue to evolve as Naval Aviation continues to evaluate the next generation of aircraft and weapon systems.
“We will continue to turn to our most valuable resource, our employees, and use their intellectual capital and know-how to provide the remarkable technologies and facilities that will support future testing of aircraft systems that allow the warfighter to fight and win,” said Vargo.
Theresa Hopkins supports the Atlantic Test Ranges and the national NAVAIR Range Department on the Business Communications team.