See in-flight refueling as providing assist – speeding F-14 test-flight cycle

Plane mates. A pilot’s-eye view of refueling (R) suggests a basket or an opening flower-but it’s more of a clothesline, when seen from a near-by aircraft. Here, an A-6
used as a tanker is refueling an EA-68 during a test flight. This type of refueling effort may drastically compress flight-test time in the development of the F-14.

This article first appeared in the April 1970 Flight Test News.

In-flight refueling hardly rates as something that has just come down the aircraft pike. Old timers speak of a primitive refueling method, a pilot reaching up out of his cockpit to snare a swinging hose line lowered from a plane above, and putting it in his fuel tank so the tanker could supply the gasoline. That tricky and dangerous maneuver of barnstorming pilots lives in memory today; new, more reliable methods are in vogue-and the why of in-air refueling has changed, too.

To extend the in-flight time of a plane was and is the underlying rationale of mid-air refueling. Initially, the target was simply to break an existing flight-distance mark, say, flying coast to coast without intermediate landings. Then came the need of the military to flight-patrol over battle zones (or to fight or bomb), continuously, for critical time was lost when an aircraft touched down: not only would the plane be refueled but it would go through a time-consuming point-by-point inspection.

Now there is another need for in-flight refueling-to shave flight testing time so that a new aircraft can be on the line and ready for action a lot sooner than ever before.

That’s what’s planned in the F-14 program. Joe Burke, A-6A Project pilot, says that A-6s used as tankers are “airborne gas stations. Instead of having an F-14 take just a long, single afterburner run, there’ll be two A-6 tankers-one at each end of the high-speed flight corridor-that’ll service the F-14. So, one flight can do what it used to take three flights to accomplish.”

Time saver
This “shortcut” has been proved in a series of EA-6B flights using A-6 tankers. These flights show that in-flight refueling triples the time that a pilot can spend in the air on a single flight.

“The savings in both time and money are dramatic when you do flight testing this way,” says Frank Finnerty, assistant manager of Vehicle Flight Test. “You can do in one day what used to take a week.”

Another assist
It’s not only in-flight refueling, all by itself, that holds the key to getting the air superiority fighter F-14 in the fleet quickly. A lot of other things are essential, such as the $12 million telemetry station at Plant 7. “The station has a three-path capability,” explains Frank Edwards, director of Flight Acceptance Dept. “It can get data from three different planes or three different types of data from one aircraft. The data links cover both the plane in flight and the ground stations, and information is read out in real time.”

So each ground monitoring station and each pilot knows how the plane is doing every flight-step of the way. And looking at this, and tying it in with the time and cost savings of in-flight refueling, the question pops up: Why not cut even further by refueling more than twice?

The answer comes from Test Pilot Don King: “When you’re flight-testing an airplane, you do it in daylight. The pilot has to see and the chase plane has to see. They must have visual contact. In addition, there’s the question of pilot fatigue, of how long a pilot can perform all of the tests demanded of him when he’s got a new and very complex bird to handle. I don’t know what the fatigue limit is. I doubt that anyone knows . . . there are so many variables.”

At this point, the fatigue question may be academic. Getting planes flight tested in half the time it once required is the cardinal consideration.

You can add up what that means in a number of ways:

• One flight series can run for more than five and a half hours as compared with the single run average of 1.7 hours.

• About 300 flight tests of the F-14 will be eli inated because of the in-flight refueling plan.

• The Navy will have a plane to check out for flight readiness after 17 months from start instead of the 33 or 34 months it normally takes.

In other words, a pattern of two in-flight refuelings per day gets a plane on station faster than ever before.

This article first appeared in the April 1970 Flight Test News.

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