Testing times 75 years of ARDU

Nigel Pittaway provides an overview of Australias Aircraft Research and Development Unit


The Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) is the Royal Australian Air Force’s test and evaluation unit and it celebrated its 75th anniversary at the end of 2018. Today, ARDU is part of the recently formed Air Warfare Centre and is based at RAAF Base Edinburgh, north of Adelaide in South Australia, but its test and evaluation activities are carried out at locations around the country. The unit has until recently been involved in the introduction of every Royal Australian Air Force and Australian Army platform and weapons system acquired, but now has a single focus on Air Force testing activities. ARDU once had a fleet that included current combat jets such as the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet and General Dynamics F-111C and rotary-wing assets such as Army Sikorsky S-70A-9 Black Hawks and Airbus Helicopters Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters (ARH).

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the formation of the Aircraft Research and Development Unit, three aircraft with a historical link to the unit and still showcasing the unit’s tail-flash took to the skies over Nowra and the Shoalhaven coastline. The formation contained a PC-9/A aircraft currently used by the unit along with a Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18B Hornet and a Douglas Dakota, owned and maintained by the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society based at Albion Park. The ADRU plans, conducts and analyses the results of ground and flight tests of existing and new Air Force aircraft and consists of four flights located at RAAF Bases Edinburgh, Amberley, Richmond and Williamtown, staffed by qualified test pilots, flight test engineers and flight test system specialists. Cpl Craig Barrett/Royal Australian Air Force

Today, however, it has just three Pilatus PC-9/As on its books and these are due to be replaced by the newer PC-21 in the next year or so. The unit has around 45 personnel, comprised mainly of aircrew such as flight test pilots, flight test engineers and flight test systems specialists, and the current operating model requires them to be integrated with the parent operating unit of the aircraft or weapons system they are testing. Satellite test and evaluation flights are therefore stationed at Air Force’s main operating bases around Australia. One flight is at Amberley, southwest of Brisbane, for test and evaluation of Airbus KC-30A Multi- Role Tanker Transports, Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, C-17A Globemaster IIIs and, from the beginning of 2019, the Leonardo C-27J Spartan. A second flight is at RAAF Base Richmond, west of Sydney to support the Lockheed Martin C-130J-30. A third is based at Williamtown, north of Sydney, to oversee test and evaluation of the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail, Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II and, until retirement in 2023, the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A/B ‘Classic’ Hornet. Finally, the fourth flight is located at ARDU’s home base at Edinburgh to support work on the Boeing P-8A Poseidon, and in the near future it will also support Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton and GA-ASI MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, as well as the Gulfstream G550 Peregrine Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Electronic Warfare platform.

Testing heritage

Testing and evaluation by the Royal Australian Air Force actually pre-dates ARDU, with the formation of the Special Duties and Performance Flight within No.1 Aircraft Depot at Laverton in Victoria during 1941.

The flight was formed in recognition of the need for an indigenous research, development and testing capability during the early years of World War Two, not least to support Australia’s nascent aircraft manufacturing industry. However, as the scope of the work and the number of tasks grew, it was decided to form an independent test and evaluation unit, which would be known as No.1 Aircraft Performance Unit (1 APU). Also based at Laverton, 1 APU was formed on December 1, 1943, and it is this date considered to be the birth of today’s ARDU. According to the unit’s Record Book (RAAF Form A50), the functions of 1 APU would be to perform: “Type trials of aircraft modification from local production and overseas, flight trials of aircraft modification and auxiliary equipment, the evolution of tactical methods of employing aircraft and aircraft equipment, full-scale flight-testing as an ancillary to, or in conjunction with, laboratory research, cooperation with other government departments, manufacturers and scientific research organisations, and finally, such other matters as may be directed by the Air Board.” During the course of the war, 1 APU tested a large number of aircraft types, including captured Japanese fighters. The unit was at the forefront of performance evaluation and tactics development throughout the war in the Pacific theatre.

No.1 APU was renamed ARDU in September 1947 and its official crest includes an isosceles triangle, over which two gauntleted hands hold a graduated rule and it bears the motto ‘Prove to accomplish’. During the Mirage years, stylised unit markings that incorporated a delta shape, representing both the isosceles triangle on the official crest and the Mirage IIIO wing planform were added to the fleet. ARDU’s stylised initials were included within the triangle, flanked by stripes of green and gold. This style of unit marking persists to the current day and even the new Pilatus PC-21s have been noted at the manufacturer’s facility in Switzerland with them painted on the fin. Post-war, ARDU supported the Weapons Research Establishment at Woomera, including the British nuclear testing at Maralinga and on the Montebello Islands, and it was a pioneer of UAV testing, with its work on the GAF Jindivik programme. The unit moved to its present home at Edinburgh in 1977 and in 2005 it was reorganised into the Development and Test Wing, retaining responsibility for Army and Air Force developmental flight testing. A further organisational change occurred in January 2016, when ARDU was incorporated into the Air Warfare Centre, at which time it ceased to oversee Army Aviation developmental testing, which was moved into the Army’s chain of command.

A C-27J Spartan from 35 Squadron conducted a series of flight trials in conjunction with a PC-9A aircraft from the Aircraft Research and Development Unit in November 2018. The trials involved delivery of static-line parachutes, an important certification activity that prepared Spartans for final operational capability. Cpl David Gibbs/Royal Australian Air Force
F/A-18A Hornet A21-32 assigned to the Aircraft Research and Development Unit, transits over the Woomera Test Range after a test mission for the JDAM-ER. Cpl David Gibbs/Royal Australian Air Force.

Aircraft in service

Although the unit only has the three PC-9/ As on strength today, which are shortly to be replaced by a similar number of PC-21s, it has operated many of the Royal Australian Air Force and Army’s main combat platforms over the years. Most recently, this included a single-seat F/A-18A (A21-32) and twin-seat F/A-18B (A21-101) that were specially wired and instrumented for flight test duties. However, with the impending drawdown of the ‘Classic’ Hornet fleet in favour of the F-35A, capability development work has now ceased and the two aircraft were recently transferred to 81 Wing.

ARDU also had a single F-111C (A8-132) on its books for many years and, following the retirement of the type at the end of 2010, the aircraft was restored in its test markings and delivered to Edinburgh for display. Although currently still at Edinburgh, the aircraft will soon make the short journey by road to the South Australian Aviation Museum. The trio of PC-9/As (A23-007, 045 and 062) were repainted with special markings during 2018 to commemorate the unit’s 75th anniversary, comprising the ARDU markings described earlier, together with stylised lettering to commemorate the event. At least one of the trio (A23-062) is fitted with a non-standard partial glass cockpit, which was a modification developed in conjunction with Pilatus and carried out in 2006. The work was done as a risk-mitigation exercise in the event that the Australian Defence Force’s proposed fixed-wing Pilot Training System then being developed under Project Air 5428 would not deliver a replacement aircraft in time. In the event, the PC-21 was selected as the new trainer and ab initio courses started in January 2019.

Over the period February 27 to April 14, 2018 members from the Aircraft Research and Development Unit and 33 Squadron deployed to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, to undertake clearance testing between the KC-30A and the Poseidon P-8A aircraft. Testing was jointly planned and executed by ARDU and Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 20 (VX-20). Liz Wolter/Naval Air Systems Command
Sergeant Tanya Baldwin captures imagery of an F-111 assigned to the Aircraft Research and Development Unit during captive carriage testing of the AGM-142 missile. Sergeant Baldwin was the first female flight test photographer to work for the Aircraft Research and Development Unit whilst at 92 Wing, RAAF Base Edinbugh. Sgt Tanya Baldwin/Royal Australian Air Force

The PC-9/As are today used as training and chase aircraft, as Flight Lieutenant Dawson Schuck, a Flight Test Engineer currently with the unit, explained: “We use the PC-9/As a lot for continuation flying, for our aircrew to practise flying techniques, as well as general flying. Occasionally we’ll also use them for photographic chase, in support of our other test activities …The three PC-9/As are the only aircraft permanently allotted to ARDU, but back in our heyday our hangar here at Edinburgh was full of many different types. Our current model is one where we work with our customer wings and effectively ‘borrow’ an aircraft for test. We find a lot of efficiency in that model.”

ARDU today

The role of ARDU today involves development test and evaluation and operational test and evaluation, which spans the entire lifecycle of a platform or weapons system. ARDU test pilots, flight test engineers and flight test mission systems specialists complete their training at one of the major overseas test pilot schools, including the Empire Test Pilots’ School in the UK, the US Navy Test Pilot School (USNTPS) and US Air Force Test Pilot School in the United States, or the civilian-run National Test Pilot School in Mojave, California.

Flight Lieutenant Adam Rouessart, a flight test pilot currently at ARDU, explained: “Most of us go through what’s called long course training, which generally allows you to do experimental testing – the developmental side of things – and the flow on from that is, depending on the type of testing that you are doing, that flows directly into operational testing at the other end of the spectrum, which is more about mission capability outcomes …more so than experimental testing, which includes things like envelope expansion and providing new capability that hasn’t been tested before.” Speaking at the 75th anniversary celebrations at Edinburgh on November 30, 2018, Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal ‘Leo’ Davies provided an insight into the activities of ARDU in the 21st Century. AM Davies said: “Modern testing of our fleet has included the C-27J, our ‘Classic’ Hornets, KC-30As, P-8As, ARH and [Airbus Helicopters] MRH-90 Taipan helicopters and even the F-35 weapons bay. In developing that weapons bay, ARDU played a large part …ARDU’s mission statement reflects the Air Force expectation: effective, operationally focused and relevant test and evaluation. ARDU’s motto, ‘Prove to accomplish’, could not be more fitting.”

CO’s perspective

The Commanding Officer at ARDU at the time of the 75th anniversary celebrations was Wing Commander Daniel Rich and AIR International spoke with him to learn more about the value the unit brings to the Royal Australian Air Force and wider Australian Defence Force.

PC-9/A A23-007 over South Australia. Cpl David Gibbs/Royal Australian Air Force
Aircraft Research and Development Unit Mirage III A3-2 inverted over a hill near Woomera fitted with six 500lb Mk82 bombs. Royal Australian Air Force

Wing Commander Rich is a former Dassault Falcon 900 pilot with the Air Force’s Special Purpose Aircraft organisation, No.34 Squadron, and has also flown De Havilland Canada DHC-4A Caribou tactical transports. He then completed the long course with the USNTPS at NAS Patuxent River, before an initial posting to ARDU. Following the completion of his tour, he spent time at Air Force Headquarters in Canberra and then with the Air Mobility Group as the Deputy Director of the Alenia Aermacchi (now Leonardo) C-27J Transition Team, before returning to ARDU as the Commanding officer in 2016. WGCDR Rich said: “I think in general, what ARDU brings to the Air Force is a workforce of highly trained specialists that all have a current and relevant operational background. Everyone at ARDU is an experienced operator of their parent platforms, be it an Air Mobility pilot or a fighter pilot or be they highly experienced flight test engineers or flight test systems specialists, combined with some outstanding flight test training that we receive from military and civilian schools overseas …We get people that are both highly motivated and highly equipped to be able to look at things objectively and provide that test rigour that we need when we’re understanding a new ‘thing’ or property.”

Between June 1 and 13, 2015, the first aerial refuelling trials were conducted between a RAAF KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport and an E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft. During the trials, seven sorties were flown by each aircraft and included 118 dry contacts with the KC-30A’s refuelling boom, and six wet contacts involving the transfer of 20 tonnes of fuel. The trials were conducted under the direction of the Aircraft Research and Development Unit.
One of the Aircraft Research and Development Unit’s PC-9/ As, A23-045, with the 75th anniversary tail markings. Nigel Pittaway

One of the major programmes ARDU will focus on during 2019 is the support it will provide to verification and validation (V&V) testing of the Air Force’s first two Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs, which arrived in Australia in December 2018. The V&V itself is a two-year programme that will test the F-35 under local conditions and includes everything from compatibility with ground electrical power in the operational loading area shelters at airbases around the country, to the interface with the Australian Defence Force’s information and communications technology systems. WGCDR Rich said: “Right now, ARDU, the Air Warfare Centre and the F-35 Transition Team, which includes the Air Combat Transition Office, 81 Wing and 3 Squadron, are working to understand how Australia is going to best employ what is going to be an incredible asset in the F-35, and that includes the people that come with it of course. ARDU’s role is largely around providing the subject matter expertise in how we develop and plan those [V&V] activities and to assist the line units in making sure they’re prepared for the event, so they can understand where we are going to get the most benefit [and] how we can extract the most benefit from the F-35 itself.” ARDU was part of the team that designed the F-35 V&V programme from the outset, but WGCDR Rich emphasised that the work was a team effort, which included operators as well as the testers.

The current model makes it extremely unlikely that an F-35 will ever be on ARDU strength and wear the unit’s delta markings in the same manner as the F/A-18A/B Hornet, F-111C, Mirage IIIO(A) and others, but ARDU personnel will continue to be directly engaged with the Joint Strike Fighter and every other type in the RAAF inventory, both present and future. WGCDR Rich said: “Last week, for example, ARDU operated a C-27J, the week before we were supporting an [Boeing] E-7A Wedgetail and a month ago we were operating an Airbus KC-30A. They were ARDU operations, they weren’t 35 Squadron, 2 Squadron or 33 Squadron operations. The parent squadrons were involved in it – and they had to be – but they were ARDU operations and this is a far more effective and efficient way to do that business …Right now we’re heavily involved in the certification programme for the C-27J, we’re involved heavily in some upgrade work with 42 [Surveillance and Control] Wing and the E-7As and we’re in preparation planning for the F-35A, as well as a raft of other trials, such as weapons evaluations, that we have just recently concluded.” AI

Retired F-111C A8-132 at RAAF Base Edinburgh in Aircraft Research and Development Unit colours. Nigel Pittaway
A UH-1 Iroquois helicopter assigned to the Aircraft Research and Development Unit. Royal Australian Air Force