The U.S. Air Force (U.S.A.F.) is currently upgrading a modified version of its F-16 fighters, the NF-16D VISTA, to support autonomy testing for the Skyborg program.
The NF-16D Variable In-flight Simulator Aircraft (VISTA) was redesignated as the X-62A, effective June 14, 2021.
The VISTA, which is operated by the Air Force Test Pilot School with the support of Calspan and Lockheed Martin, first flew in 1992 and has been a staple of the TPS curriculum. It has provided TPS students the ability to experience various flying conditions including simulation of other aircrafts’ characteristics.
“For more than two decades VISTA has been a vital asset for the U.S.A.F. TPS and the embodiment of our goal to be part of the cutting edge of flight test and aerospace technology,” said William Gray, VISTA and TPS chief test pilot. “It has given almost a thousand students and staff members the opportunity to practice testing aircraft with dangerously poor flying qualities, and to execute risk-reduction flight test programs for advanced technologies.”
The VISTA is currently in the midst of an upgrade program which will fully replace the VISTA Simulation System (VSS). The upgrade program will also add a new system called the System for Autonomous Control of Simulation (SACS) to support autonomy testing for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Skyborg program, the Air Force said in a recent release.
“The redesignation reflects the research done on the aircraft over the past almost 30 years, as well as acknowledges the major upgrade program that is ongoing to support future U.S.A.F. autonomy testing,” said Dr. Chris Cotting, U.S.A.F. TPS director of research.
Skyborg is an autonomy-focused capability that will enable the Air Force to operate and sustain low-cost, teamed aircraft that can thwart adversaries with quick, decisive actions in contested environments. The program will enable airborne combat mass by building a transferable autonomy foundation for a family of layered, unmanned air vehicles. This foundation will deliver unmatched combat capability per dollar by lowering the barriers to entry for industry and allowing continuous hardware and software innovation in acquisition, fielding and sustainment of critical mission systems. During this effort, AFRL will prototype a suite of autonomy and unmanned system technologies equipped with capabilities that can support a range of Air Force missions.
Skyborg will not replace human pilots. Instead, it will provide them with key data to support rapid, informed decisions. In this manner, Skyborg will provide manned teammates with greater situational awareness and survivability during combat missions.
The VISTA started life as a Block 30 F-16D. Throughout its life, it has received numerous upgrades and modifications. VISTA was originally given the N prefix to denote its status as Special Test, Permanent. The N prefix indicates aircraft on a special test program whose configuration is so drastically changed that return to its original configuration or conversion to standard operational configuration is beyond practicable or economic limits.
“We have found ways to use VISTA that were not envisioned by the original designers, so we were running into frustrating limitations,” Gray said. “The modifications will address these limitations and profoundly improve our ability to quickly and safely test an almost unlimited variety of radical control law configurations. Even so, the X-62A will continue to serve as a curriculum aircraft, and will be an even brighter symbol of our aspirations.”
The X designation denotes aircraft that are designed for testing configurations of a radical nature. X aircraft are not normally intended for use as tactical aircraft. Following its redesignation to X-62A, VISTA now joins a storied family of aircraft such as the Bell X-1, the first airplane to break the sound barrier, and the hypersonic, rocket-powered North American X-15, which holds the record as the fastest manned aircraft.
“VISTA will serve as one of the main assets of the newly-created Research Division at USAF TPS,” Cotting said. “As part of the upgrade program, VISTA has been redesignated from the NF-16D VISTA to the X-62A VISTA, making USAF TPS the only test pilot school with an active X plane supporting its curriculum.”