A Topeka, Kan. Air National Guard KC-135R equipped with a Large Aircraft Countermeasures System (center of the aircraft) performs an aerial refueling test as part of the handling qualities and aerial refueling tests performed on the tanker to ensure the LAIRCM pod doesn’t affect the flying and refueling capabilities of the KC-135. / © US Air Force photo / Chris Neill
One of the most common threats in the war in Afghanistan is the Man-portable Air Defense System (MANPAD), usually in the form of shoulder-fired infrared missiles. Without any countermeasures, large, slow-moving aircraft were susceptible to attack by such means.
The Large Aircraft Countermeasures System was devised to protect planes by automatically detecting missile launches, determining if the launched missile is a threat and activating a high-intensity system of pulsed lasers to track and defeat the threat by confusing its guidance and send the missile astray.
However, with the pod being located on the back of airplane, before it can be used operationally on a tanker plane, the adverse effects of the pod's placement on refueling needed to be tested.
"The LAIRCM pod is an encased system of sensors software and a laser tracker that can identify infrared ground-based missile threats, sense them, track them, and then defeat them using a laser to spoof the missile off course," explained Maj. Prospero Uybarreta, 445th Flight Test Flight Squadron assistant director of operations.
The Topeka, Kan. Air National Guard volunteered to host the testing and have one of their KC-135s outfitted with the device. The Air Force Flight Test Center was tasked with assisting the Kansas guardsmen with the testing by performing the handling qualities and aerial refueling testing of the LAIRCM-modified KC-135R tanker.
"Edwards and the AFFTC are really a center for [flight testers] so the KC-135 program office knew that Edwards would be the best source of test pilots, test boom operators and flight test engineers to run the limited handling qualities and aerial refueling testing for the program."
Prior to the test flights, the AFFTC team was briefed on the ins and outs of the LAIRCM system and the changes it makes to the operation of the KC-135.
"Northrop Grumman gave us some initial academic training that lasted two or three hours and it was a basic introduction on how it was integrated onto the airplane in terms of switches and modifications made to the aircraft and also how the system performs when we turn on the airplane," said Major Uybarreta. "You have to do very little to operate the system, basically you just turn it on, and the system is fairly automatic from that point."
To ensure that the LAIRCM pod didn't affect the KC-135's primary mission of refueling, the AFFTC was tasked with planning, executing, and reporting on the handling qualities and aerial refueling testing of a LAIRCM-modified KC-135R tanker.
"The limited handling qualities testing we did showed no noticeable differences in the airplane," said Major Uybarreta. "More importantly, when we did aerial refueling, the pod did not interfere with the aerial refueling process in any way. In fact, the pod gave positive visual references for the pilot of the receiving aircraft."
Originally, the testing was slated for four separate missions, but the 445th FLTS accomplished all of the handling qualities tests in one mission by combining the refueling of a large and small aircraft into one flight. Testing was completed in just two missions.
"The team did a fantastic job in planning, which allowed us to reduce the number of missions from four to two during execution while addressing all of the customer's needs as well as desires," said Shweta Shrivastava, 445th FLTS flight test engineer. "We had a short and hard timeline and used every part of the AFFTC process for technical and safety planning and success was our reward."
"We did the testing very efficiently. We did all the single-ship handling qualities test maneuvers in one sortie. And we were able to test both air refueling test receivers on one separate mission as well," added Major Uybarreta.
Major Uybarreta said that not only did the pod not have a negative impact on the piloting of the KC-135, but from a aerial refueling standpoint, it actually helped by creating an additional visual to assist in air refueling.
"The other thing that was most memorable was how surprising the pod's visual references during air refueling were. Meaning the pod actually made aerial refueling somewhat easier."
Ms. Shrivastava said she was honored to be a part of such a successful team who showed the vast and varying capabilities of the AFFTC.
"It was amazing to be a part of such a success-driven, customer-focused, warfighter-centric team," said Ms. Shrivastava. "We really showed the success that comes from using the AFFTC for test, regardless of the size or scope of the program."
With the handling qualities and aerial refueling testing completed with no issues, the aircraft moved to the next phase of testing, at Eglin Air Force Base Fla., where the aircraft successfully completed its operational utility testing.
With all these results, Major Uybarreta said the success of all the testing warrants the further pursuit of a larger LAIRCM-modified KC-135 testing program.