Various aircraft of the 85th TES based at Eglin AFB, FL
fly in formation over the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo: Jake Melampy
3/20/2009 - When operational test pilots of the 85th Test and
Evaluation Squadron break something in an airborne fighter jet,
it's a good day.
It means they found a deficiency in a new capability that will
be addressed before it goes to fighter pilots flying real-world
"We joke, 'Let's go out and break something today,'"
said Capt. Christopher Crotty, 85th TES weapons system officer
and operational test pilot. "That's our job - to go out
and break whatever we're testing to make sure it doesn't break
While the lines of developmental and operational testing are
blurred, for the most part, operational testing picks up where
developmental testing ends.
"We take over the test process from DT and have the final
say before new products get handed to the warfighter,"
said Lt. Col. Sam Shaneyfelt, recent commander of the 85th TES.
"We take the latest and greatest upgrades, go fight with
them in a simulated-combat environment and see if they actually
work. If they do, we develop the tactics that go with them and
then go teach the Combat Air Force how to use it."
Aligned under the 53rd Wing, the squadron tests and evaluates
all kinds of new technology for F-15s, F-16s and the pilots.
They test everything from new ear plugs and visors on the pilots'
helmets, to advanced air-to-air missiles, weapons upgrades,
sensors and new targeting pods for the fighter jets.
The squadron flies 13 specially instrumented F-15C Eagle, F-15E
Strike Eagle and F-16 Viper aircraft. All planes bear OT for
operational testing and a checkered stripe on the tail.
"The checkers on the tail and our patch signifies the
finish line," said Colonel Shaneyfelt, an F-16 pilot. "We
bring new capabilities through the finish line or we recommend
The colonel said they are currently engaged in testing about
a dozen programs and three major flight program upgrades to
the F-15C, F-15E and F-16.
"For instance, the 85th has the only advanced APG-63(v)3
radar for the F-15C," Colonel Shaneyfelt said. "This
radar is capable of seeing the smallest targets far enough out
to identify and destroy them. The F-15E is undergoing a major
upgrade to its flight program, which will vault its lethality
Often, the pilots fly simulated air-to-air or air-to-ground
"We may all be testing the same air-to-air missiles, but
they are integrated differently on F-15s and F-16s, so we are
doing things differently in how we test them," Captain
Crotty said. "Sometimes other jets will go up to support
one aircraft on a testing mission.
Sometimes we'll be up testing different things simultaneously.
Typically, we are each individually testing something in our
jet but we're doing it together in an exercise."
In January, squadron pilots worked with Air Force and Army
combat controllers in Mississippi flying close-air support missions
to test Sniper targeting pods. The pods on the jets provided
real-time aerial views of a staged urban setting to the combat
controllers on the ground.
With this new capability, for the first time, pilots were able
to transmit and receive videos - as opposed to images - in the
"We have a different perspective when we're airborne and
looking at a city," Captain Crotty said. "We're looking
at the entire city and we can use our targeting pod to find
the roof on a house. The ground controllers might be taking
cover behind another house. This video capability allows the
ground controllers to see exactly what we're looking at so we're
both on the same page instantly. They can say, 'yes that's our
target' right away and we can react."
Colonel Shaneyfelt said F-16s, F-15Es, B-1s, B-52s and A-10s
will get this capability. "So, the big picture impact is
that we'll get weapons on target much faster and we've nearly
eliminated the risk of killing friendlies," he said.
In this mission scenario, controllers on foot and in trucks
played good and bad guys moving between buildings while under
fire. They were getting the aerial videos and the pilots listened
in on the action below.
"It was like something out of a Tom Clancy movie,"
Colonel Shaneyfelt said. "You can hear the guy panting
while running, saying 'I'm coming around the corner, taking
fire.' It's about as real as you can get."
According to the colonel, the new Sniper pod is the number
one capability that combatant commanders want in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Just last year, the 337th and the 31st TES squadrons of the
53rd Wing completed operational tests of the pod for the B-1.
It is now being used by the bomber in the current war on terrorism.
In a more recent test mission, the 85th TES pilots used the
same pod to keep track of aircraft they couldn't see with their
radar. In an air-to-air test mission, three F-16s performed
a simulated dogfight against three F-15Cs in the squadron. They
gave all the jets similar capabilities against advanced threats.
The objective for each opposing team was to kill as many of
their "adversaries" as they could and hit their target.
"The radar has a limited field of view," Colonel
Shaneyfelt said. "This pod can track aircraft nearly 360
degrees around the aircraft. It can't kill anything yet, but
it's great to be able to keep track of guys when your radar
But operational test pilots' job doesn't end with flying a
test mission. When they return from a test, they look at all
the recorded data - video telemetry, voice telemetry, and other
data. Then the test pilots present the information to the test
engineers, who comb through the mountains of data.
"Teams look at the data we bring back from our missions
to get inputs and deficiencies reported so the test team can
continually improve the product," Captain Crotty said.
After all the data has been analyzed, the squadron makes their
recommendation whether the new capability should be fielded
"The bulk of the rest of what we do is fighter tactics
development," Colonel Shaneyfelt said. "That differentiates
us from the developmental test guys. We're responsible not only
for fielding all this great new stuff, but also teaching the
operational pilots and weapons systems officers how to best
The operational test pilots establish the tactical applications
for the new technology. Each aircraft has its own bible of tactics
and they populate the manual with the newest and latest information.
"We also go to operational units and give the pilots
academics on how to use the new technology," Captain Crotty
said. "We call them road shows. We deliver academics with
presentations, simulators and flights to educate the operational
units as to how to use the new capability."
Although the 85th TES pilots and Weapons Systems Officers (pronounced
wizzos) are test qualified, they generally do not go to test
pilot school like developmental test pilots. Operational test
pilots and WSOs are selected from operational or fighter squadrons
and return to those types of squadrons after their three-year
tour here is up.
Most are graduates of the elite U.S. Air Force Weapons School,
all have combat experience and are highly qualified instructor
pilots or WSOs, the highest tier in the pilot hierarchy.
"What they bring by coming straight out of an Air Combat
Command operational unit is the most recent combat experience"
Captain Crotty said. "They are operational and tactics
The rated officers in the 85th are hand-picked from among the
best the Air Force has to offer.
"We don't put out an open invitation. We pick the best
of the best with respect to fighter communities," Captain
Crotty said. "They have to be the right person for this
Training for the operational test pilots begin when arrive
on Eglin. They go through on-the-job training to learn where
they are in the development process of a new capability, what
it does and how to use it. Usually, the new pilot works with
a seasoned test pilot, but there is also a formal upgrade process
they must achieve called a test and evaluation upgrade.
"A person might come in as the best-of-the-best where
they are, but we need to bring them up to the next level and
show them how to conduct test operations here - how to successfully
complete a test brief, execution and debrief of a test mission,"
said Captain Crotty. "Although they are already experts
in their airframe, they will be given advanced systems with
new capabilities that they've never seen before and didn't know
But it's important that operational test pilots be fighter
pilots first since they are testing technology that they themselves
will likely use in future combat operations.
"I tell every new guy that I want fighter pilots who are
exceptional at test," Colonel Shaneyfelt said. "OT
bridges the gap between design concepts and true combat capability.
Some weapons look great on paper but are a total bust when you
have to actually fight with them. These we will try to fix,
and if we can't, we'll mark them 'return to sender.'"
While the squadron has the final say on the new capabilities
that go to the warfighter, they don't take all the credit.
"We have a unique synergy here at Eglin with the 53rd's
Weapons Evaluation Group, Electronic Warfare Group, Test Management
Group and the 46th Test Wing," Colonel Shaneyfelt said.
"We play off each other's strengths to get the best product
to the warfighter. We work hand-in-hand with development teams,
civilian contactors and corporations to develop products that
will gain a clear lethal advantage against our nation's enemies."
Source: USAF Press Release by Noel Getlin