VIDEO: Discover the vital work of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 test pilots

Tony ‘Brick’ Wilson is Lockheed Martin’s Chief of Fighter Flight Operations, and also an F-35 test pilot. In the first of three videos he gives Key.Aero’s Dino Carrara an exclusive insight into the work of the company’s test pilots on the cutting-edge F-35 programme.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is ever-evolving with new system, sensor and weapon capabilities continually being added. At the forefront of this work are the manufacturer’s test pilots. Heading this team is Lockheed Martin’s Chief of Fighter Flight Operations, Tony ‘Brick’ Wilson, who detailed to the author what the work of a test pilot involves on the fifth-generation fighter.

He said: “Our job as test pilots is to provide the voice of the pilot, the end user, from the aircraft’s inception all the way to the end of the programme. As the programme matures, we’re providing input from the pilot’s perspective, how will they use a capability for example, so we work very closely with the engineering community to make sure we’re providing the optimised solution to the end user.”

More specifically, he added: “For developmental flight test we make sure that the aircraft is safe, so we do all of the flight science – testing the loads, the flutter, handling qualities, and then we also touch upon the mission systems and operational assessments. We use digital modelling and predictions to help reduce the number of flight tests. Once we’ve finished our work the aircraft goes for operational testing, where it will be operated as the end user is going to employ it.

“One of the interesting things about the F-35 programme is it adopted the idea of concurrency to help get the aircraft to the end user earlier. If you look at flight test from a historic perspective: the aircraft gets designed, the first couple of flights were undertaken by the company that produced it and then it went through developmental flight test with the manufacturer. After that an aircraft underwent operational flight test and then, after many years of both developmental and operational flight tests, it will make it out to the end user which will require more time to achieve initial operational capability [IOC].”

Using the concurrency system, different stages of flight test take place at the same time with air arms involved and giving their input in all these areas. Consequently, Wilson explained: “We were still in the middle of developmental flight test while operational flight test was going on and the end users, the US Air Force in particular, had already declared IOC. This helped accelerate the whole flight test programme, because now, instead of just having one set of eyes looking at each subsection, you had multiple sets of eyes which made the aircraft what it is today.”


Upgrade work

A significant amount of Wilson’s time and that of his F-35 test pilots, is taken up with upgrade work. “One of the strengths of the F-35 is its ability to be upgraded and most of these come in the form of software. In comparison to when I was flying 4th Generation fighters, when we received a new capability, it normally came in the form of hardware; a box had to be removed from the aircraft and a new one put in and then all the testing that came along with that. Those hardware upgrades came about every two years, along with the associated software.

“The F-35 is currently going through Technology Refresh 3 (TR-3) in preparation for Block 4. The aircraft has been flying in excess of ten years and this is only the third time we've had to replace or upgrade the hardware. We push out a new software upgrade about every six months and with that comes either increased performance of a current capability or the addition of a new one.”

The first aircraft to fly with TR-3 took to the sky on January 6 this year, flown by the US Air Force’s 461st Flight Test Squadron from Edwards AFB, California. Aircraft at Fort Worth are currently having TR-3 installed and Wilson’s team will start flying them in June or July. This latest refresh will enable the Block 4 improvements which “is going to be another generational leap in capability for the aircraft which will include non-kinetic electronic warfare capability and enhance capability across the spectrum”. He added: “The F-35s that fly in 2030, 2050 or 2070 are going to be a very different aircraft capability wise to what we’re flying today.”

Upgrades can come in many forms and one which Wilson says was brought forward was Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS). “We’re concerned with the pilot’s safety and survivability not just in a threat sector, but from the time that canopy goes down until it comes up. This is a system that’s working in the background all the time. It’s running a dynamic model and projects where the aircraft is going. When it predicts a collision with the ground it will warn the pilot. If the pilot doesn’t take any action within the timeframe of the warning, the aircraft will take control of itself and recover to a safe trajectory. This capability was first developed for the F-16 and has saved 13 lives to date.”

In addition to the two test flights flown on each new F-35A and F-35C, the F-35B undergoes an extra sortie for the STOVL systems to be checked. US government pilots perform the same number of test flights of every Lightning II at Fort Worth prior to delivery of its own aircraft, as well as foreign customers
In addition to the two test flights flown on each new F-35A and F-35C, the F-35B undergoes an extra sortie for the STOVL systems to be checked. US government pilots perform the same number of test flights of every Lightning II at Fort Worth prior to delivery of its own aircraft, as well as foreign customers Lockheed Martin/Todd McQueen

Weapon integration

New weapons are tested on the F-35 by the Integrated Test Force (ITF), which in the case of the US Air Force is at Edwards AFB and NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, for the US Navy and US Marine Corps. Some of Lockheed Martin’s test pilots are based at these locations to work alongside US military test pilots, as well as those of some other customers.

Wilson detailed to the author the process for clearing a new weapon: “We’ll start off with the environmental data where we’ll attach an instrumented weapon to the aircraft and measure phenomenon, such as air flow, acoustics, the aerodynamics of hanging weapons next to it and weapons bay cycling. All of that must be evaluated before we can move onto safe separation of the weapon from the aircraft.

“Next, we look at weapon performance, as well as software interaction with the weapon. As the work progresses the project moves from developmental test to operational test and finally out to the end user.”

In relation to current work on weapon integration, Wilson said: “Right now our focus is on TR-3 and getting that integrated, which will open the door for the next level of weapons. The test sites are working on the weapons development and integration.”

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has previously stated that 17 new weapons were planned to be added as part of Block 4, though Wilson wouldn’t be drawn on revealing the munitions involved.


Tony ‘Brick’ Wilson

Wilson spent 25 years in the US Navy flying every variant of the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet, much of the time from aircraft carriers. Latterly, he was a test pilot with the service, including being F-35C Lead Test Pilot/Director of Shipboard Operations. He explained: “I wanted to be a test pilot because I have a love of aviation and a very technical background in engineering. So, being a test pilot is the perfect combination of those two disciplines.”

In 2016, he retired from the US Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and joined Lockheed Martin as a test pilot at Fort Worth, Texas. Explaining why he decided to become a test pilot with Lockheed Martin after his military career, he said: “I felt I had more to give and still wanted to be a part of something bigger than just myself. Being a part of the F-35 programme afforded me the opportunity to achieve that. I get a sense of satisfaction helping the end users, who perhaps are going to take the aircraft into harm’s way, to be able to execute their mission and return home safely.”

Two years after joining the company he became Chief of Fighter Flight Operations, responsible for the F-35, F-22, and F-16. He still flies as an F-35 test pilot, along with another eight company pilots on the Lightning II programme. In total, he has 2,800 hours in fast jets and almost 1,000 in all three variants of the F-35.